Your Changeable Brain, Part II

I’ve said it before… The human body is much more resilient than most folks realize.

From fighting off viruses to helping you react calmly in a crisis, our bodies put in a lot of work.

But there are some things that still surprise medical science.

Take the case of six-year-old U.D., who had a slow-growing tumor in their brain causing seizures.

In 2015, U.D. underwent major brain surgery to remove the tumor, which included removing their right occipital lobe and a rear portion of their right temporal lobe.

Neurological researchers from Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh observed the child over the course of three years – beginning 13 months after U.D.’s surgery. The researchers performed five different brain scans and explored the changes they saw in the landscape of U.D.’s brain using visual perception tests.

The removal of U.D.’s brain lobes should have theoretically left the child unable to recognize faces, perceive the form of objects, or recognize the representations of words (like matching the words house and apple with corresponding images).

But it turned out that U.D.’s brain reorganized itself to compensate for the loss.

Over the three years of observation, U.D.’s age-related neurodevelopment maintained a normal trajectory, despite a significant loss of brain matter. And while U.D. did not regain sight in their left eye, their IQ score (a common measure of intelligence) actually increased after surgery by two points – going from 116 to 118.

Our goal with stimulating our own beneficial neuroplasticity is to improve our brain’s regulation, learning, and selection activities. This will help us to develop healthy (and automatic) thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, and even stave off cognitive decline.

As you may recall from Tuesday’s issue, neuroplastic change relies on five factors:

  1. Challenge and novelty
  2. Intention
  3. Specific attention
  4. Repetition and intensity
  5. Time

Keep these factors in mind as you engage in activities to foster your own beneficial neuroplasticity.

Here are seven activities you can do to utilize regulation, learning, and selection to improve the quality of your neuroplasticity and, as a result, your wellbeing…

No. 1: Expand Your Vocabulary or Learn a New Language

Learning languages increases the amount of gray matter in your brain and helps prevent age-related cognitive decline, like dementia. Even if you never become an expert in the language, your gray matter will still increase.

Gray matter is associated with memory, emotion, and our ability to control movement. When developing your vocabulary or learning a new language, you engage the visual, auditory, comprehending, and speaking areas of your brain.

A 2012 study published in ScienceDirect looked at 10 English-speaking students – aged 16 to 18 – who spent five months learning to speak German. The researchers found that the students experienced an increase in gray-matter volume in the areas of their brain associated with language skills, and that this volume was positively correlated with their proficiency.

Learning a new language also strengthens the white matter in your brain, which helps the different regions of your brain to better communicate with each other.

One of my researchers has an app on her phone called Duolingo that she can use to learn a new language (she has been dabbling with French) or brush up on a language she already knows (Spanish, in her case). Rosetta Stone is another popular way to learn a new language.

Or you could sign up for a class… It’s generally better to practice speaking with other people than trying to learn on your own. You could even check out the HelloTalk app that allows you to communicate with native speakers.

No. 2: Travel

Travel requires you to use planning, cognitive flexibility, depth of thought, and creativity. And the way you travel makes a difference, too. Someone who really engages with a new culture is going to benefit much more than someone who doesn’t.

Engagement, immersion, and adaptation are the skills needed to get your brain rewired. Research shows that people who engage in more cognitively stimulating leisure activities are less likely to experience cognitive decline as they age.

And the more often you travel, the more your brain gets to experience its associated benefits. So start thinking about where you might like to go. Chances are you can still find some good deals on travel as we begin to bounce back from the COVID-19 pandemic. I personally just spent some lovely time with family in Canada.

No. 3: Exercise

Science has long demonstrated that physical activity improves our brains’ ability to learn and perform. The same is of course true for the brain’s neuroplasticity, because learning and enhanced performance is, by definition, neuroplasticity at its finest.

A 2010 study in Iceland analyzed the exercise habits of 4,945 adults born between 1907 to 1935. They found that the groups who participated in physical activity while in midlife had faster cognitive processing speeds, better memory, better executive function, and were less likely to have dementia later in life when compared with the group who did not.

Do what I do and make walking or biking for 30 minutes every day a priority. Even if you just walk around the block, it counts, and you can check it off your to-do list. Walking with a friend can be fun too and can help keep you accountable.

No. 4: Intermittent Fasting

When we intermittently fast, we train our brains and bodies to derive energy from fatty acids and ketones in addition to carbohydrates and glucose – our two typical energy sources. This is called metabolic switching and it happens in two phases – glucose to ketones (G-to-K) and ketones to glucose (K-to-G).

Turns out, metabolic switching also impacts the signaling pathways in your brain – i.e., neuroplasticity. Essentially, the signaling pathways that are used when the G-to-K switch happens strengthen our cell resistance to stressors (like infection or toxins) and prepare our cells for the structural and functional change that occurs during a K-to-G switch.

This directly impacts the areas of our brain where cognition, mood regulation, and motor control take place. For this reason, people with epilepsy (a seizure disorder) are often prescribed a ketogenic diet.

I’ve found that the most effective method of intermittent fasting follows Dr. Michael Mosley’s method. Mosley maintains that five days a week, we eat our normal calorie intake – which varies depending on your size and gender. On the other two days, however, we should eat just 25% of our typical daily calorie allotment. He calls this the 5:2 ratio, and his two chosen fasting days are nonconsecutive.

No. 5: Give Yourself Downtime

Downtime means engaging in activities that allow you to relax and destress. This encourages neuroplasticity in a positive way by engaging your parasympathetic nervous system – which sends out hormone signals telling your mind and body to chill out because you’re “safe.”

Two of my favorite ways to do this is by napping and meditating. When you get in the habit of creating and operating in these “safe spaces,” your brain eventually becomes better able to achieve a relaxed state faster and with less effort. Downtime is an important way for your brain to practice regulation.

Block out chunks of time in your day to relax… That’s my prescription for you.

No. 6: Read Fiction

Reading fiction fosters perspective-taking, a deeper understanding of language (called embodied semantics), and imagination. This type of learning triggers neuroplasticity.

A 2011 study out of Emory University tested 19 participants to see if they experienced any changes to their brain’s resting-state functional connectivity during and after reading a novel. The researchers found out that reading a novel creates both short-term and long-term brain changes.

We all have different tastes, so my favorite novels may not suit you (I like Patterson, Child, Kinsey, Philbrick, and Levine). I would suggest, however, asking friends for recommendations or checking out the fiction book lists offered by The New Yorker or NPR.

No. 7: Do Some Brain Exercises

And finally, at the end of this list, is neurobics (brain exercises). These activities include doing things like:

  1. Changing the smell you associate with your mornings from coffee to vanilla
  2. Changing the texture of your steering wheel
  3. Shopping at an ethnic food market

Neurobics satisfy your brain’s thirst for novelty – the unexpected. Novelty entangles synaptic connections, links different areas of your brain together to form new patterns, and produces neurotrophins which stimulate your brain tissue to grow.

Do what I do and walk backwards (do it carefully the first several times) from time to time. Brush your teeth with your nondominant hand. And try getting dressed with your eyes closed. You’ll find that it’s actually a lot of fun to challenge yourself in these ways.

We’ve given you a lot to think about this week regarding taking an active role in shaping your brain. Don’t let this new information fall to the wayside, and start having fun with these activities today.

What We’re Reading…

Here’s to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
July 29, 2021