Professor Ramón Cajal was the most famous and the most highly respected neurologist in the world and when in 1906 he published his definitive tract on the human brain it was taken as gospel. He was justifiably renowned because he developed ways of studying the brain that were both new and beautiful and the artistry of his depiction of brain cells had a great impact on people. He was absolutely clear. Unlike all the other tissues in the body the number of brain cells that you had at birth was all that you were going to get. Unlike all the other tissues in which cells would divide and grow, sometimes spontaneously, sometimes in response to injury, throughout life the brain cells had only one fate – death. Every year there would be fewer and fewer brain cells.
This doctrine was believed and taught not only in 1906 but through to 1966 and beyond. The brain was different from everything else, it was taught, and because there was a sort of reverence for the brain compared with humdrum organs such as the spleen or even the heart his doctrine was accepted.
However in the last ten years new evidence has appeared that Cajal was wrong. A number of neurologists and neuroscientists have have described how the function of the brain can increase and improve throughout life, partly by new connections taking place between existing brain cells, what is sometimes called neuroplasticity, sometimes actually by creating new cells, what is called neurogenesis. One of the leading scholars in this field is Professor Merzhenich and there are now a number of books available both for scientists and the public describing the plasticity of the brain and the scope for recovery. These books relate not only to the challenge of living longer they also focus on recovery from brain injury of various sorts and they reframe problems such as autism and depression as problems with the thinking with the thinking being determined by nerves and the connection between them.
Increase your Brainability, and reduce your risk of dementia
There is too much emphasis on disability and disease which perpetuate the wrong beliefs and create and sustain pessimistic attitudes and there is a move now to focus on the positive and this is the focus on Brainability, the theme of our book with this title that will be published in 2020. it describes not only the potential for increasing the ability of your brain and its reserves but also the three step programme to reduce your risk of dementia
- Protect your brain cells
- Keep your brain supplied with oxygen rich blood to prevent vascular dementia
- Get even more engaged
What Michael Merzhenich emphasises is that from the age of approximately twenty on, even going to university, we can coast, we are not required to learn at the rate we were learning as children except when we go to a new job and even then the learning is usually over in a couple of months. What is clear now is that we need to keep learning throughout life. Any sort of learning is helpful. Crosswords are good for you, learning a new language better and learning a new musical instrument better than that because it involves motor skills rather than only cognitive skills but the focus in recent years has been on games. Unfortunately games for the brain received a bad press when a game called Luminosity was over hyped and oversold. What is clear now is that there are a number of training programmes that have been evaluated carefully and can be recommended for consideration .
Another discourse has focused on the concept of cognitive fitness
The Harvard guide to cognitive fitness
The Harvard Medical School has developed its own programme and a brief description of it is given on the linked page. It has six steps
STEP 1: Focuses on foods linked to better brainpower — including the specific fruits and veggies most likely to protect against dementia
STEP 2: Explains the importance of regular exercise and how it may even help clear away plaques that contribute to Alzheimer's disease
STEP 3: Reveals the importance of sleep — and the sleep stage that's most important for memory
STEP 4: Helps you manage stress and explains why comfort foods are "comforting"
STEP 5: Shows you the importance of staying socially active — it may help delay dementia
SEP 6: Challenges your brain with everything from puzzles and board games to music and travel
The last step is based on the principle that you can train your brain to work better at any age. This is the same principle underpinning Michael Merzhenich’s programme Brainhq. This programme has been scientifically evaluated and has a strong reputation. On the evidence that is available we can say that
- It slows down and can actually reverse trends commonly associated with, and blamed on ageing, namely slow decision making,
- It has a part to play in reducing the risk of dementia
- It can improve reactive skills such as the skills required in driving and therefore reduce the risk of accidents and some people have advocated that training such as this is essential for everyone who wants to keep their driving licence
Try these books which ghave been written for the general public and not for neurologists
- Michael Merzenich’ - Soft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life,
- Norman Doidge - The Brain That Changes Itself : Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science
- Moheb Costandi - Neuroplasticity