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Retrain your brain

It's possible to stave off aging process

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DETROIT -- Go ahead -- do it: Grab a pencil. Right now. Write your name backward. And upside down.

Awkward, right? But if researchers and neurologists are correct, doing exercises such as these just might buy you a bit more time with a healthy brain.

Brain boosters

  • Refocus senses: Turn off the TV volume and follow the action by the visuals only, or keep the volume on and close your eyes to imagine what's going on.
  • Fine-tuning senses: As a passenger in a car on a familiar route, close your eyes and follow the route in your mind. Open your eyes periodically to see if you are right.
  • Trash talk: Avoid the word "the" for a two-minute conversation challenge. Partners keep count of each other's "thes" while trying not to say any of their own.

Some research suggests certain types of mental exercises -- whether they are memory games on your mobile device or jotting down letters backward -- might help our grey matter maintain concentration, memory and visual and spatial skills over the years.

"There is some evidence of a use-it-or-lose-it phenomenon," says Dr. Michael Maddens, chief of medicine at Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak, Mich.

Makers of computer brain games are tapping into a market of consumers who have turned to home treadmills and gym memberships to maintain their bodies and now worry aging might take its toll on their mental muscle as well.

But tweaking everyday routines can help.

Such as brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand. Or crossing your arms the opposite way you're used to, says Cheryl Deep, who leads "brain neurobics" sessions on behalf of the Wayne State Institute of Gerontology.

At a recent session in Novi, Mich., Deep encouraged several dozen senior citizens to flip the pictures in their homes upside-down. It might baffle houseguests, but the exercise crowbars the brain out of familiar grooves cut deep by years of mindless habit.

"Every time you walk past and look, your brain has to rotate that image," Deep says. "Brain neurobics is about getting us out of those ruts."

The idea of mental workouts marks a dramatic shift in how we understand the brain these days.

"We want to stretch and flex and push" the brain, says Moriah Thomason, assistant professor in Wayne State University School of Medicine's pediatrics department.

Thomason also is a scientific adviser to www.Lumosity.com, one of the fastest-growing brain-game websites.

"We used to think that what you're born with is what you have through life. But now we understand that the brain is a lot more plastic and flexible than we ever appreciated."

Still, like the rest of your body, aging takes its toll, she says.

The protective covering of the neural cells -- white matter -- begins to shrink first. Neural and glial cells, often called the grey matter, begin to shrink as well, but more slowly. Neurotransmitters, or chemical messengers, decrease.

But challenging the brain stimulates neural pathways -- those tentacles that look like tree branches in a cluster of brain cells. It boosts the brain's chemistry and connectivity, refuelling the entire engine.

"Certain activities will lay more neural pathways that can be more readily re-engaged," Thomason says. "The hope is that there are ways to train and strengthen these pathways."

 

-- Detroit Free Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 23, 2012 A19

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