Neuroplasticity: You can teach an old brain new tricks
Brain imaging studies show that every time we learn a new task, we're changing our brain by expanding our neural network.
What's the Big Idea?
Your brain is more flexible than we've ever thought before. It changes because it is constantly optimizing itself, reorganizing itself by transferring cognitive abilities from one lobe to the other, particularly as you age. After a stroke, for instance, your brain can reorganize itself to move functions to undamaged areas.
And yet, due to the lifestyles we lead we tend to not make full use of our brains.
Dr. Dennis Charney, dean of the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, has studied how the brain responds to dramatic changes in peoples' environments. In the video below, Charney describes how prisoners of war who were placed in solitary confinement developed unusual cognitive capacities because the only activity they were allowed to do was think. The POWs were essentially exercising their brains. What can we learn from this?
Charney is using this research to conduct psychological therapies that can improve learning and memory, and solve problems with anxiety and depression.
Watch the video here:
What's the Significance?
Consider two examples of groups of people scientists have studied.
The Sea Gypsies, or Moken, are a seafaring people who spend a great deal of their time in boats off the coast of Myanmar and Thailand, have unusual underwater vision -- twice as good as Europeans. This has enabled Mokens to gather shellfish at great depths without the aid of scuba gear. How do the Moken do this? They constrict their pupils by 22 percent. How do they learn to do this? Is it genetic? Neuroscientists argue that anyone can learn this trick. Simply put, the brain orders the body to adapt to suite its needs.
Another example of neuroplasticity has been found in London taxi drivers. A cab driver's hippocampus -- the part of the brain that holds spatial representation capacity -- is measurably larger than that of a bus driver. By driving the same route every day, the bus drivers don't need to exercise this part of the brain as much. The cabbies, on the other hand, rely on it constantly for navigation.
If you were to restrict certain senses -- like vision, for instance -- your brain would make a similar adaptation. This great survival machine will rewire itself, opening neuro pathways to heighten the power of other senses to keep you from falling off a cliff or get eaten by a tiger.
In a more practical sense, we know that physical exercise is good for the brain because it helps create new neurons. Similarly, when we teach an old brain new tricks we know that it will help slow age-related mental decline. So exercise your body and exercise your mind! Now that doesn't sound like brain science.
Dr. Charney's most recent book is Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life's Great Challenges.
Follow Daniel Honan on Twitter @Daniel Honan
What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.
- Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
- Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
- Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
The controversial herbicide is everywhere, apparently.
- U.S. PIRG tested 20 beers and wines, including organics, and found Roundup's active ingredient in almost all of them.
- A jury on August 2018 awarded a non-Hodgkin's lymphoma victim $289 million in Roundup damages.
- Bayer/Monsanto says Roundup is totally safe. Others disagree.
Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.
- New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
- Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
- The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.
Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".
Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.
The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.
The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.
Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.
"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."
University of Colorado Boulder
This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.
Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.
The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.
Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.
What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.
"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."
Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by The Big Think, Inc. All rights reserved.