Researchers delve into brain function

Not so long ago, experts on the brain thought little could be done to keep it in top form during retirement. People were stuck with gray matter that aged right along with the rest of the body, went the assumption.

A decade-plus of research and a wave of new technology are dispelling that notion.

Armed with brain-imaging technology and heretofore unfathomable computing power—plus the benefit of some long-term studies—researchers are slowly unlocking secrets to keeping the brain more agile.

Brains are “fixable,” said Daniel O. Clark, a scientist at the Indiana University Center for Aging Research at IUPUI. “They’re ‘plastic,’ they like to say.”

Most brain research has dwelled on younger people and what might be done to increase intelligence—research that remains largely inconclusive.

The new technology and the progression of baby boomers into their retirement years have prompted researchers to reconsider aging brains. Little is known for certain because the research is in early stages, but another decade or two of work is expected to dramatically increase the base of knowledge, researchers say.

Few people escape the effects of aging brains. Knowledge accrues throughout a lifetime, at least until the mid- to late-70s, said Frederick W. Unverzagt, an IU psychiatry researcher who focuses on Alzheimer’s and other age-related diseases, but memory peaks in the mid-20s and then gradually declines. On average, 60–year-olds have lost at least half their memory.

One of the most harrowing causes of memory loss, Alzheimer’s, still has no known prevention or cure, according to the National Institutes of Health. But it isn’t for lack of trying. Drug companies including Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly and Co. have developed dozens of compounds.

However, this much about maintaining and improving the brain’s agility is coming into focus: Exercise and certain types of mental training help ward off normal decline.

In the case of exercise, what works is fairly straightforward: aerobic workouts, for about an hour three times a week. The vigorous exercise has improved problem-solving and, to a lesser degree, memory in older adults, Unverzagt said.

Some of the most promising evidence for training has emerged in a long-term national study involving Unverzagt and some Indianapolis-area residents.

People who were trained to memorize, solve problems and think quickly were better able to handle such daily tasks as preparing meals, bathing, shopping, traveling and tracking personal finances even 10 years after their first session.

The Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, is considered the first long-term, randomized trial showing that training works in the long term.

Published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society in January, the study followed people who averaged 74 years of age at its start and were not living in nursing homes or other institutions.

Their memory training involved instruction and practice. To improve their ability to solve problems, they were trained to perceive repeated patterns. To help them think faster, they were asked to look for and process increasingly complex information in shorter time periods.

The participants underwent 10 sessions over five to six weeks, then received booster training of four sessions about a year later and again three years following the original sessions.

Those receiving the training were better able to navigate daily life than the control group at one, two, three, five and 10 years after the study began.

Unverzagt said he’s encouraged.

“This suggests very long-term benefit from the training,” he said.

Both Unverzagt and Clark said a great deal of additional research is needed to refine the results. Clark added that if he were to do anything to improve his own mind, he would play the simple mental-exercise game Dual N-Back. Available online and as a mobile app, Dual N-Back seems to improve short-term memory, he said.

The next step for researchers is to determine how much, how often and what kind of exercise and training to recommend. And then the best mixes of exercise and training.

Clark takes virtually all studies of aging with a grain of salt because they tend to enroll people who hadn’t been exercising or training.

“It isn’t known how much training is needed and it isn’t known in whom training will have an effect,” he said. “Science will continue to get more specific about individuals and the training they will need.”

Complicating the training research is the inability of many participants to start and stick with a regimen, he added.

As researchers learn what helps the brain, they’re also learning what doesn’t work.

Forget about nutritional supplements, puzzles and most games, they say. If the strategies make people feel better about themselves, there’s no harm in doing them; just don’t expect results.

And the rules of overall health apply to brains as well as the overall body. Sit and watch TV and otherwise let one’s body go to waste, and the brain likely will, too, Clark said.

Stress, anxiety and depression—also enemies of the body—likely deteriorate the brain, he added. People can’t always control the factors, he said, but they’re known to cause inflammation.•

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