The healthier the brain is, the better it can face injury, illness and ageing. We now know that genetics plays a key role in brain health. Geneticist John Harvey, of the Institute of Neurology in London, has identified numerous genes associated with neurological conditions like dementia or diseases like Parkinson. As he himself says, “Genetic and epidemiological studies with thousands of people are expensive and boring, but they yield incredible results.”
Beyond genetics, scientists have shown that there are many ways to maintain a healthy nervous system. “It’s as easy as it sounds,” says Arthur Kramer, director of the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (USA). “Exercise is one of the best ways to achieve physical and mental health.”
This researcher has shown the molecular mechanisms behind the beneficial effects of physical activity. “Exercise has incredible effects on the brain: it improves memory, increases the number of synapses, boosts production of neurotransmitters, angiogenesis and the expression of genes associated with plasticity and decreases that of others associated with oxidative stress…” he lists. The evidence is so overwhelming that Kramer can't help showing his surprise at how difficult it sometimes is to get people to act in their own best interest. “We’re becoming a sedentary, obese society. Even children!”
Exercise has an overall effect on the brain, but there are also ways to improve specific cognitive functions. This is the aim of computer programs like the one developed in Catalonia by Institut Guttmann and its clinical and technology partners: Guttmann, NeuroPersonalTrainer®. It is also the goal of the Brain Fit Club initiative, from Boston Medical School, which aims to emulate a conventional gym but for cognitive capacities. “We want to transfer advances in neuroscience research to clinical programs,” says Bonnie Wong, neurophysiologist and head of the project.
Another strategy to optimize specific brain functions can already be found in most households and causes a surprising amount of concern in society: action video games. Daphne Bavelier, neuroscientist at the University of Rochester (USA), has been using these games as a tool to better understand brain plasticity and how we learn for years now. “When your 15-year-old is spending hours in front of a screen killing zombies, the first thing that comes to mind isn't that he’s boosting his executive functions, but he is,” she says.
Bavelier’s research shows that people who play action video games (like the popular Call of Duty orMedal of Honor sagas) react faster and more decisively than those who play more social video games (like The SIMS or Restaurant Empire). The molecular explanation behind these effects lies in the fact that action videogames “seem to directly stimulate the neuronal network that controls attention,” says the expert.
These results are backed up by numerous studies with surgeons that have demonstrated that action videogames help them improve their surgical practice. In any case, it is vox populi that young people who spend many hours playing videogames do poorly in school, which led Bavelier to conclude her talk stressing that we don’t know whether video games stimulate certain abilities to the detriment of others, like for example long-term memory. “There is still much to learn,” concluded the researcher.
In addition to exercise and videogames, positive social relations, meditation, mentally stimulating jobs, sleeping well and a healthy diet also have an impact on brain health. Regarding eating habits, Emilio Ros, a researcher at Hospital Clinic Barcelona presented the results of the PREDIMED (Prevention with Mediterranean Diet) study at B·Debate. This study shows that a Mediterranean diet, with extra virgin olive oil and walnuts, decreases the risk of cardiovascular events. Plus, according to Ros, “Foods rich in polyphenols typically found in this type of diet may curb age-related cognitive deterioration.”
Just as good habits and exercise affect brain health and increase cognitive reserve (the brain’s ability to deal with illness), it has been shown that conditions like type-2 diabetes accelerate brain deterioration. “We now know that both the adage mens sana in corpore sano and it’s mirror image are true, because the brain also has an impact on body health,” says Álvaro Pascual-Leone.
In a society with an ever-increasing lifespan, the aim so far has been to cure neurodegenerative diseases. However, according to Pascual-Leone, this strategy is wrong because when we start to see symptoms, the illness has already been in motion for years. “The only solution is to encourage prevention on a personal level. Working to keep the brain healthy throughout life,” explains the expert. “And this paradigm shift affects not only the foundation of neuroscience but also public health and healthcare policy.”