Scientists find way to map brain’s complexity

Scientists find way to map brain’s complexity

LONDON (Reuters) – Scientists say they have moved a step closer to developing a computer model of the brain after finding a way to map both the connections and functions of nerve cells in the brain together for the first time.

In a study in the journal Nature on Sunday, researchers from Britain’s University College London (UCL) described a technique developed in mice which enabled them to combine information about the function of neurons with details of their connections.

The study is part of an emerging area of neuroscience research known as ‘connectomics’. A little like genomics, which maps our genetic make-up, connectomics aims to map the brain’s connections, known as synapses.

By untangling and being able to map these connections — and deciphering how information flows through the brain’s circuits — scientists hope to understand how thoughts and perceptions are generated in the brain and how these functions go wrong in diseases such as Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia and stroke.

“We are beginning to untangle the complexity of the brain,” said Tom Mrsic-Flogel, who led the study.

“Once we understand the function and connectivity of nerve cells spanning different layers of the brain, we can begin to develop a computer simulation of how this remarkable organ works.”

But he said would take many years of work among scientists and huge computer processing power before that could be done.

In a report of his research, Mrsic-Flogel explained how mapping the brain’s connections is no small feat: There are an estimated one hundred billion nerve cells, or neurons, in the brain, each connected to thousands of other nerve cells, he said, making an estimated 150 trillion synapses.

“How do we figure out how the brain’s neural circuitry works? We first need to understand the function of each neuron and find out to which other brain cells it connects,” he said.

In this study, Mrsic-Flogel’s team focused on vision and looked into the visual cortex of the mouse brain, which contains thousands of neurons and millions of different connections.

Using high resolution imaging, they were able to detect which of these neurons responded to a particular stimulus.

Taking a slice of the same tissue, the scientists then applied small currents to subsets of neurons to see which other neurons responded and which of them were synaptically connected.

By repeating this technique many times, they were able to trace the function and connectivity of hundreds of nerve cells in visual cortex.

Using this method, the team hopes to begin generating a wiring diagram of a brain area with a particular function, such as the visual cortex. The technique should also help them map the wiring of regions that underpin touch, hearing and movement.

John Williams, head of neuroscience and mental health at the Wellcome Trust medical charity, which helped fund the study, said understanding the brain’s inner workings was one of science’s “ultimate goals.”

“This important study presents neuroscientists with one of the key tools that will help them begin to navigate and survey the landscape of the brain,” he said.

(Reporting by Kate Kelland; Editing by Sophie Hares)

Effective learning – explained by the neurologists

Brain Scientists Offer Medical Educators Tips On The Neurobiology Of Learning
Posted on: Thursday, 31 March 2011, 13:22 CDT.

Everyone would like MDs to have the best education – and to absorb what they are taught. The lead article in the April 4 issue of the journal Academic Medicine* connects research on how the brain learns to how to incorporate this understanding into real world education, particularly the education of doctors.

“Repetition, reward, and visualization are tried and true teaching strategies.
Now, knowing what is happening in the brain will enhance teaching and learning,” said Michael J. Friedlander, executive director of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute ( and professor of biological sciences and of biomedical engineering and science at Virginia Tech. He is the lead author on the article, “What can medical education learn from the neurobiology of learning?”
Friedlander collaborated on the article with Dr. Linda Andrews, senior associate dean for medical education, Baylor College of Medicine; Elizabeth G. Armstrong, director of Harvard Macy Institute, Harvard Medical School; Dr. Carol Aschenbrenner, executive vice president of the Association of American Medical Colleges; Dr. Joseph S. Kass, chief of neurology and director of the Stroke Center at Ben Taub Hospital and assistant professor of neurology, Center for Ethics and Health Policy, Baylor College of Medicine; Dr. Paul Ogden, associate dean for educational program development, Texas A&M Health Sciences Center and College of Medicine; Dr. Richard Schwartzstein, director of the Harvard Medical School Academy; and Dr. Tom Viggiano, the associate dean for faculty affairs, professor of medical education and medicine, and the Barbara Woodward Lips professor at Mayo Medical School.

The research
In the past 50 years, behavioural approaches combined with functional brain imaging and computational neuroscience have revealed strategies employed by mammals’ brains to acquire, store, and retrieve information. In addition to molecular and cellular approaches to describe the workings of the underlying hardware changes that occur in the brain during learning and the formation of memories, there has also been progress in higher-order, human-based studies of cognition, including learning and memory.
Scientists have used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of the living brain combined with computational modelling to elucidate the strategies employed and the underlying biological processes.
The research has shown how learning leads to functional and structural changes in the cellular networks including the chemical communication points or synapses between neurons at a variety of sites throughout the central nervous system. The functional changes in the effectiveness of communication between individual neurons and within networks of neurons are accompanied by substantial changes in the structural circuitry of the brain, once thought to be hard-wired in adults.
“One of the most exciting advances, as a result of optical imaging of the living brain, is the demonstration that there is growth, retraction, and modifying connectivity between neurons,” said Friedlander. “We have also seen that the mature brain can generate new neurons, although, this research is so new that the functional implications of these new neurons and their potential contribution to learning and memory formation remain to be determined,” he said.

The recommendations
The most effective delivery of the best possible care requires identifying and assigning levels of importance to the biological components of learning. Here are 10 key aspects of learning based on decades of research by many scientists that the article’s authors believe can be incorporated into effective teaching.
Repetition: Medical curricula often employ compressed coverage over limited time frames of a great amount of material. Learning theory and the neurobiology of learning and memory suggest that going deeper is more likely to result in better retention and depth of understanding. With repetition, many components of the neural processes become more efficient, requiring less energy and leaving higher-order pathways available for additional cognitive processing. However, repetitions must be appropriately spaced.
Reward and reinforcement: Reward is a key component of learning at all stages of life. “The brain’s intrinsic reward system – self-congratulations with the realization of success — plays a major role in reinforcement of learned behaviours,” Friedlander said. “An important factor is the realization that accomplishing an immediate goal and a successful step toward a future goal can be equally rewarding.”
In the case of medical students, there are considerable rewards ahead of them in addition to the more immediate rewards of the satisfaction of understanding medicine. The students who derive joy from learning as they proceed through their medical education may have a greater chance of using the brain’s capacity to provide reward signals on an ongoing basis, facilitating their learning process.
Visualization: Visualization and mental rehearsal are real biological processes with associated patterned activation of neural circuitry in sensory, motor, executive, and decision-making pathways in the brain. Internally generated activity in the brain from thoughts, visualization, memories, and emotions should be able to contribute to the learning process.
Active engagement: There is considerable neurobiological evidence that functional changes in neural circuitry that are associated with learning occur best when the learner is actively engaged.. Learners’ having multiple opportunities to assume the role of teacher also invoke neural motivation and reward pathways — and another major biological component of the learning process: stress.
Stress: Although the consequences of stress are generally considered undesirable, there is evidence that the molecular signals associated with stress can enhance synaptic activity involved in the formation of memory. However, particularly high levels of stress can have opposite effects. The small, interactive teaching format may be judiciously employed to moderately engage the stress system.
Fatigue: Patterns of neuronal activity during sleep reinforce the day’s events. Research suggests that it is important to have appropriate downtime between intense problem-solving sessions. Downtime permits consolidation away from the formal teaching process.
Multitasking: Multitasking is a distraction from learning, unless all of the tasks are relevant to the material being taught. The challenge is to integrate information from multiple sources, such as a lecture and a hand-held device.
Individual learning styles: Neural responses of different individuals vary, which is the rationale for embracing multiple learning styles to provide opportunities for all learners to be most effectively reached.
Active involvement: Doing is learning. And success at doing and learning builds confidence.
Revisiting information and concepts using multimedia: Addressing the same information using different sensory processes, such as seeing and hearing, enhances the learning process, potentially bringing more neural hardware to bear to process and store information.

The researchers recommend that medical students be taught the underlying neurobiological principles that shape their learning experiences. “By appealing not only to students’ capacity to derive pleasure from learning about medicine but also to their intellectual capacity for understanding the rationale for the educational process selected … real motivation can be engendered. … They become more effective communicators and enhance their patients’ success at learning the information they need for managing their own health and treatments as well.”

Brain Boost – Learning english

Braining Training

Braining Training is the key theme from “The Tomorrows’ Series” of books.

At its heart is the assertion or assumption that our brains are a thousand times more effective than we currently think they are. Our brains adjust themselves to the task in hand, given enough practice. So here our job is to help you to get that practice.

Brains grow and adapt to your needs, during your whole life. (We will have to wait for the ‘facts’ to catch up with us, so we will just take it that it’s the case.) The more work you give yout brain, the more work it is capable of handling.

Specifically in this website we try to give you information or examples that are directly useful. Otherwise we provide hyperlinks to other areas of relevance or of special interest.

We start with “Learning english” and we are adding other braining training as time develops.

Learning english

Learning english by reading is our starting point because of three key reasons.

Faster by reading. You can learn seven times faster by reading than you can by listening, which means that you use your time more effectively. You can use the time saved to learn more!

More information in english. There is more information published in english than in any other language. Information is published in more books, more newspapers, more films, more songs, more plays, more TV broadcasts, even more Google searches.

Easier to learn more. The more words of english you know then the easier it is to learn more, and that means about any subject you care to name.

In the website ‘category’ – “Learning english” we have set out to enable and help you to learn english by using simple words describing photographs we have taken. We include the most popular words. It is all based on everyday scenes, colours, numbers (both from pictures and rhymes) and then we start into more fun with numbers. These are in the main content articles headed “Learning english.”

Separately under the main headers at the top of the screen we have created “Games” and “Games 2”.

“Games” is a straight-forward picture book with all the letters of the alphabet. Each letter is illustrated by pictures and with a two word title. Using two words for each picture we can show both the upper case (capitals) and the lower case versions of each letter. The parallel idea is that another person may be helping the learning by reading out loud. They can also use them to make up stories to go which each picture.

“Games 2” is again a picture book with all the letters of the alphabet though now with a longer title. On many occasions there is a longer underscore. Where another person is helping with the learning, it is another opportunity to tell even longer stories.

In Britain the bulk of people probably use about two thousand words in their normal day speech. In many instances they can understand many more.

Sometimes however their understanding may only be partial rather than complete understanding. Here our objective is to offer a basic two thousand word vocabulary that is useful to everyone. We expect that you may need to refer to a dictionary occasionally. Even in this introduction we use over four hundred and fifty different words.

It is rumoured that one daily newspaper limits its reporters to a ‘company’ vocabulary of just seven hundred words. On the other hand we reckon a QC, a Queen’s Counsel in a court of law, will nonchalantly speak and write any of twenty thousand words in their work.

One way, which we recommend, used by many people to help them learn words,  is to keep your own dictionary. It is a place where you list every word you know and then try to add one new word to it every day. In twenty years that’s over seven thousand new words. When you hear or read a new word, make a note of it. You can then look it up in a dictionary later and proudly add it to your list.

It is our intention that just through this website you will meet all the two thousand popular words you will need.

Learning english Numbers

Part of learning english includes the use of numbers. That’s handy because using numbers easily and fluently has a dramatic impact on the power of your brain. It is particularly useful for increasing its speed of working.

We have included the starting pages of our work on numbers. It’s deliberately set to stretch your brain, for example we hope it will be straight-forward to work up to knowing the square of the numbers upto ten, so we go on upto the square of fifteen.

Wherever we get a chance with the pictures we have tried to include simple arithmetic and the start of mental arithmetic. We quite likespeed maths site, what do you think of it?

Please let us have your comments, then we can improve what we do. We certainly plan to add audio files for each of the words. Though this will take some time.

Future topics for words will include developing our five (or is it six) senses, see, hear, smell, taste, touch. Mind you we’re not sure how to photograph ‘fear’ or ‘confidence’ both of them being read by using your ‘sixth’ sense.

We take in information via all the senses simultaneously. For example information spoken enthusiastically will be remembered better as you can sense a smile and sense the confidence.

Also if you combine a memory with more than one sense for example the sound of a particular melody or tune combining with a smell combining with a sight whether it be a person or a view, it will be recalled to mind when you hear the same tune, and vice versa across all the senses.

As we are all unique individuals then we will recognise that each person will respond differently depending on the ‘sense’ used as not all or senses are one hundred per cent perfect all of the time. They vary.

Our brains manage to index our memories by linking innumerable elements. Who was involved. Where it was. What happened. How it happened. What sounds were there. Was there a particular smell. What movement was there. What was or were the cause(s). When precisely did it happen. What else is it linked to or who else. How hot or cold was it? Did we feel fear? And so on.

This means that when we sense any one element in a similar situation then we automatically get a link back to the original memory.

By the way when speaking, remember it’s the communicatee (the person you are speaking to) rather than the communicator (you) who controls the conversation. This will happen when you are speaking a language the communicatee doesn’t know for example using new or unusual words or they may have switched off their hearing aid, or dozed off (gone to sleep)! It may also be because you have triggered a vivid memory, which the listener immediately starts thinking about, thus blotting out whatever you are saying. The listener always controls the conversation.

For the more adventurous amongst us I can also recommend “Quantum Jumping” “” It’s similar to and a big jump forward from NLP Neuro-Linguistic Programming, which has proven very effective in many, many instances. Do you need to spend your money? That’s your decision.

Free weekend training courses in NLP are offered by for those who become really interested in studying another element of Braining Training.

So now back to our starting point “Learning english.” Enjoy the journey.

Updated 1402011

Rhymes for numbers: nick, nack etc.

Nick, nack, paddy wack.

This old man, he played one,
He played  on my drum
With a knick-knack, paddy whack,
Give a dog a bone,
This old man came rolling home.

This old man, he played two,
He played knick-knack on my shoe.

This old man, he played three,
He played knick-knack on my knee

This old man, he played four,
He played knick-knack on the floor)

This old man, he played five,
He played knick-knack in the drive,

This old man, he played six,
He played knick-knack with some sticks.

This old man, he played seven,
He played knick-knack up in heaven.

This old man, he played eight,
He played knick-knack on my gate.

One, two buckle my shoe

Three fiour, knock at the door,

Five  six pick up sticks,

seven eight, knock at the gate,

Nine ten, start again.

One potato

One potato. Two potato, three potato, four

Five potato, six potato, seven potato, More.

Start the song when every has put out both arms with clenched fists, thumbs upwards. The leader then sings the chant, hitting each upturned fist in turn. When the leader gets to MORE, whoever’s fist is tapped has to remove their fist from the game by tucking that arm behind them.

The winner is the person with the last upturned fist.


Green grow the rushes Oh!

I’ll sing you one Oh!

Green grow the rushes Oh!

What is your one oh?

One is one and all alone and ever more shall be so.

Green grow the rushes Oh!

I’ll sing you two oh!

Green grow the rushes Oh!

What is your two oH?

Two, two the lily-white boys

Clothed all over in green hiho,

One is one and all alone and ever more shall be so.

Green grow the rushes oh!

I’ll sing you three, oh!

Green grow the rushes Oh!

What is your three,oh?

Green grow the rushes Oh!

Three, three, the rivals

Two, two the lily-white boys

Clothed all in green hiho,

One is one and all alone and ever more shall be so.

Green grow the rushes oh!

Three, three, the rivals

Two, two the lily-white boys

Clothed all in green hiho,

One is one and all alone and ever more shall be so.

Green grow the rushes oh!

I’ll sing you four, oh!

Green grow the rushes, oh!

What is your four, oh!

Green grow the rushes, oh!

Four for the gospel makers,

Three, three, the rivals

Two, two the lily-white boys

Clothed all in green hiho,

One is one and all alone and ever more shall be so.

Green grow the rushes oh!

I’ll sing you five, Oh!

Green grow the rushes, Oh!

What is your five, oh?

Green grow the rushes, oh!

Five for the symbols at your door and

four for the gospel makers

Three three the rivals,

two two the lily-white boys, clothed all in green hiho,

One is one and all alone and ever more shall be so.

I’ll sing you six,Oh!

Green grow the rushes, oh!

What is you six, Oh?

Green grow the rushes, oh!

six for the six brown walkers.

Five for the symbols at your door and

four for the gospel makers

Three three the rivals,

two two the lily-white boys, clothed all in green hiho,

One is one and all alone and ever more shall be so.


Twelve for the twelve apostles,

Eleven for the eleven that went to heaven,

Ten for the ten commandments,

nine for the nine bright shiners,

Eight for the April rainers,

Seven for the seven stars in the sky, and

Six for the six brown walkers.

Five for the symbols at your door and

Four for the gospel makers

Three three the rivals,

two two the lily-white boys, clothed all in green hiho,

One is one and all alone and ever more shall be so.


The Twelve Days of Christmas

Start with the first day of Christmas and then extend it up to twelve based on

On the first day of Christmas, my true sent to me

A partridge in a pear tree,

On the second day of Christmas, my true love sent to me

Two turtle doves and

A partridge in a pear tree.

On third day of Christmas my true love sent to me

Three french Hens

Two turtle Doves, and

A partridge in a pear tree.

Etc., upto twelve.

On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Twelve lords leaping
Eleven ladies dancing
Ten pipers piping
Nine drummers drumming
Eight maids a-milking
Seven swans a-swimming
Six geese a-laying
Five gold rings
Four calling birds
Three French hens
Two turtle doves and
A partridge in a pear tree.


Ten Green Bottles

There were ten green bottles hanging on the wall

ten green bottles hanging on the wall

and if one green bottle should accidentally fall

There’d be nine green bottls hanging on the wall.

There were nine green bottles hanging on the wall

Nine green bottles hanging on the wall,

And if one green bottle should accidentally fall

There’ be eight green bottles hanging on the wall

There were eight green bottles hanging on the wall

Eight …….. etc.

Then seven then six, then five, then four, then three, then two, then one


There’d be no green bottles hanging on the wall.


One, two three, four, five

One, two three, four, five

Once I caught a fish alive,

Six, seven, eight, nine, ten,

Then I let him go again.

Learning english – the alphabet

Updated 19th January 2011. I’ve now added a story line to each picture, which an adult can use for inspiration, if they want to, when showing them to another learner. The full pictures are shown at “Games” and “Games 2,” in sequence through the alphabet. If you have better ideas for the story line, please make a note and send it through on the “Contact” form or make a ‘comment.’ Many thanks.

Learning english – the alphabet: A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S, T, U, V, W, X, Y, Z, a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, k, l, m, n, o, p, q, r, s, t, u, v, w, x, y, z. Now also look at “Games” and “Games 2” on the header bar.

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Learning english – the colours

Learning english – the colours. Theses are not definitive colours particularly as people’s eyesight varies. Just giving you a picture that has it as the main colour.

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Neuroscience exposes pernicious effects of poverty

Neuroscience exposes pernicious effects of poverty. By Helen Neville

Extract repeated verbatim from “Science News.”

“People…need to know the importance of the brain….They need to know it’s changed by experience. They need to know that genes are not destiny.”Brain Development Lab/Univ. of Oregon

At the 2010 Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego, a group of scientists held a session on how poverty changes the brain. Neuroscientist Helen Neville of the University of Oregon in Eugene joined the discussion and described some of her group’s studies on the brains of 3- to 5-year-old children who grow up poor. She met with Science News neuroscience writer Laura Sanders after the November 14 session to discuss some of the Oregon group’s findings about what a low socioeconomic status does to the brain, and how intervention can help counter those effects.

How does poverty affect the brain?

Children growing up in poverty, for various reasons, have much poorer brain development and cognitive development than children growing up in not-poor environments. This has been shown by many people around the world for many decades. We now have animal models showing some key characteristics of an impoverished environment, for example, parental neglect. Rats that neglect their offspring create differences in brains and learning that are very parallel to those in humans.

What is different in the brains of kids brought up in lower socioeconomic environments?

Executive function and self-control is lower, language skills are lower, IQ is lower, attention — the ability to focus on one thing and ignore distracting information — is poorer and working memory is poorer. Those cognitive skills are different.

When we look at electrophysiological and MRI studies of their brains we can see differences between higher and lower SES [socioeconomic status] children. We’ve also observed, it’s important to note, these same differences in adults. Most people focus just on kids. But … in our lab we’ve gone beyond the university community to look at adults from lower socioeconomic status backgrounds, and their brains and cognition look really different too. So these effects are long-lasting.

What can be done?

After several training studies targeting different processes, we observed that the two most effective [interventions] we could do is to train attention in kids — low SES kids, Head Start kids — so we’ve developed little games and puzzles for kids to do that they enjoy doing, to target self-control and attention. And the other training we’re doing at the same time is with the parents of those children, who we talk to about parent skills, the importance of talking to your child and using consistent discipline, giving choices and the importance of attention and self-regulation. So it’s a two-pronged program.

How well is this approach working?

With over 100 kids now with this particular program, we see that the parents’ behavior changes with their children, their stress levels go down, the children’s problem behaviors diminish and their social skills improve, as rated by their teachers. In terms of language and IQ and preliteracy, all those tests show marked improvements. Their brain function improves, so they look like high SES kids.

How long do you follow these kids?

After the end of the intervention, we’ve been following them for about two years. And they’re hanging on to their gains. And we’re not doing any more; we’re not boosting them. We think it’s working…. We have one more year to go before we have all the data we’re hoping to get.

What’s next?

All the kids we’ve been working with are monolingual, typically developing, mostly white kids. Because we know bilingual brains look different in a way, the next step is to adapt this for Latino families, because Latino families make up 40 percent of the Head Start population in Oregon. In California, it’s more like 80. The Latino population is the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population. And they’re at high risk. They’re failing school at enormously high rates.

We’re doing structural imaging of white matter and gray matter in 4-year-olds and 3-year-olds…. We’re getting structural and functional imaging and we’ll continue to analyze it. We’re looking at gene-environment interaction effects. That’s very important and we’re looking at more data there.

Your group runs an educational website ( and made a DVD about how the brain changes. Why?

I want people to have evidence about the importance of the brain. Most people don’t even know it does everything. They need to know the importance of the brain; they need to know that it develops over 25, 30 years. They need to know it’s changed by experience. They need to know that genes are not destiny. They need to know what’s going on.

Learning english:- the numbers

Learning English:- The numbers:

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Test text

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Test text
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How can we best use Kindles in children’s education?

How can we best use Kindles in children’s education in the UK or even just in Adur?

They cost £111 each, inc Vat. They are monochrome and have no images, just text – loads and loads of text.

Let’s say we (a school) bought twenty of them, who would we give them to or lend them to and how would they use them? If you damage one, presumably then that child would miss out for say three months.

Or children could download the Free Kindle reader software to any PC (possibly not portable) so that those users can download what they want, provided that it’s free (500,000 books.) Could the education broadband facility cope with this, both speed and permissions.

Range of books is from Winnie the Pooh to the complete works of Shakespeare. But they can also be used for ‘white noise’ for very young children.

With six devices per Kindle unit account a group of six six-formers could be allowed a subscription to the Economist, say. They could also download possibly all their academic study books. Amazon are trialling a library service in America, where a book can be lent (electronically) to someone else for two weeks, not available in the UK yet. Then again we could give the six-former groups a budget for them to spend as they will.

What do schools and colleges spend on books each year?

Are there any charitable trusts who could help us?

Does it need to be part fo an overall strategy or is it just a tactic we should just get on with.

Some schools have already started.

As always the full question has to be sub-divided into Who, What, Why, When, Where and How and for each sub-group at the various stages in school.

Boost your brain – use your brawn, Daily Telegraph 040407

Boost your brain – use your brawn, Daily Telegraph 040407
by Cliff on Wed 04 Apr 2007 10:15 AM BST  |

Boost your brain… use your brawn

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‘If you’re sporty, you must be thick’ is a misguided cliché. In fact, a new study says exercise actually increases memory and learning potential. Victoria Lambert reports

Were you one of those forever leaping about on the tennis court at school or were you more likely to be found huddled around the Bunsen burner? Sporty or swotty, the two tribes have, by tradition, rarely crossed – save for the odd all rounder, who managed to be captain of games while studying advanced maths. Now, new research from America is confounding the old stereotypes, with the finding that exercise actually makes your brain bigger and more capable of learning.

‘We have to keep people active through mid-life – maybe these new findings will provide the right carrot for them,’ says Prof Bruce Lynn from University College London.

The study, carried out at the Columbia University Medical Centre in New York, has shown that working out the muscles could simultaneously be pumping up the brain – and specifically the memory.

Exercise appears to directly affect a region of the hippocampus, the area of the brain concerned with memory and learning, called the dentate gyrus, one of the few areas of the brain where neurogenesis – the creation of nerve cells – takes place. Building up the number of nerve cells (neurons) and the connections between them in the dentate gyrus is vital to the prevention of memory decline that typically begins at around the age of 30. So does this mean that aerobic exercise can help anyone increase their learning potential?

Cell production is a complex affair relying on a ready supply of proteins and hormones, particularly a hormone called Insulin-like Growth Factor 1 (IGF-1). IGF-1 is known to be crucial in child growth and the development of every cell in the body. It is released into the bloodstream every time you contract and relax a muscle and so levels rise when you exercise.
When IGF-1 reaches the brain, it acts on the cells that release neurotransmitters, the chemicals responsible for communication.

It triggers an increase in production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor or BDNF, which promotes the growth of new nerve cells and which Harvard psychiatrist, John Ratey, has nicknamed “Miracle-Gro for the brain”.
As new brain cells are created, they form pathways and links, as we learn new facts and skills. The greater level of BDNF you have, the more new nerve cells you can produce and the greater the number of building blocks available to you to extend your learning capacity. But if levels fall, it can work in reverse. Those born with a faulty variant of the gene responsible for the production of BDNF have trouble with recall and creating new memories.

Using an MRI scanner, the Columbia researchers led by Professor Scott Small examined a living brain before and after exercise and, for the first time, were able to see neurogenesis effectively in action.
Those most likely to benefit from the finding are victims of degenerative brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s, and the next step will be to use this information to create an exercise regime specifically tailored to preventing age-related memory loss.

Professor Bruce Lynn, from University College London, welcomes the new findings. He recalls similar findings being presented in the 1960s – and then ignored by the scientific community. Even five years ago, he says, there were only half a dozen papers on the topic; yet now it has become a very active area for research, as it has become abundantly clear that those who remain physically active stay cognitively fit, too.
“The big question however,” says Prof Lynn, “is what is the link? It is not obvious why exercise has this effect on the brain. Growth factors are important but blood flow to the brain is not relevant. Some people suggest increased oxygen is crucial but our blood is always saturated with oxygen unless we’re in the Himalayas – or, ironically, exercising.
“What type of exercise you choose seems to matter: aerobics works, but you don’t get the same results from strength training. However, when you are strength training – using weights – you see big increases in the production of IGF-1.”

At the University of Birmingham, Professor Asker Jeukendrup, a specialist in exercise metabolism, confirms there is a lot of evidence that physical activity helps brain development. He thinks there is some truth to the theory that suggests improving blood supply and therefore fuel to the brain is important.

“You don’t need to do much to get an effect,” he says. “Studies have already shown that just 20 minutes walking – not even particularly briskly – will reduce degeneration of the brain and improve learning ability. Yet many people are still below that threshold. And, of course, other studies show that the more you do, the better it gets.”

He believes it is important this message gets across to the older generation. “If you can keep the elderly active, their quality of life improves so much.”

Prof Lynn agrees that promoting exercise for the over-sixties is important. “It just has so many benefits, particularly for the mind. A lot of effort is put into preventing falls – but they are not just due to weakening muscles but also problems with balance, which occur in the brain.”

What he finds particularly encouraging about the latest study is that it confirms it is never too late to revitalise your mind.
“This is a great thing to promote. After all, we all want a beautiful body, but staying in sound mind as we age is even better. Improving mental health is very important to the quality of life in an ageing population.”
While he is also confident that the message about exercise is getting through to children via schools programmes, and increasingly to the elderly, he worries about the 20-60 age group.

“We have to keep people active through mid-life – maybe these new findings will provide the right carrot for them.”

Another study due to be published later this year by Charles Hillman, a hockey-playing neuroscientist at the University of Illinois, and previewed in the current edition of Newsweek magazine, will show that in a group of 259 students, allowing for socio-economic factors, those who had the fittest bodies also had the fittest minds, measured via a maths and reading test.

When Prof Lynn considers prospective students for his university course, grades being equal, he will favour those who play sport to a high level.
“It’s true that you can’t study as hard as you or I might wish if you are an elite athlete, but you are used to performing at that level. The potential and the competitive spirit are there.

“At UCL, we have a bright bunch of students and a high proportion of them are physically active.
“This image – that if you are sporty, you must be thick – is more about wanting to put people down. The polymath is not that unusual. Think of the Nobel-prize winner Prof Vivian Hill who was also an Olympic athlete.”
A word of warning: if your training programme includes a congratulatory drink after the work-out, then you’ll undo all your good work, according to Prof Lynn, as “alcohol depresses neurogenesis.”

So by all means take up golf – just steer clear of the 19th hole.

The Alzheimer’s connection

Matching names to faces is one of the first skills to go as our memory starts to deteriorate. The area of the brain where this happens is the dentate gyrus – the area that the Columbia university researchers noticed was seeing cell regeneration after exercise. A separate study at Illinois University has seen improvement in the frontal lobes after exercise: this area is connected to what is known as the Executive Function – which covers decision-making, forward planning and multi-tasking.

It’s no wonder Professor Simon Lovestone, a specialist in old age psychiatry at King’s College London, finds the evidence very interesting and with definite implications for the study of Alzheimer’s.

‘An increasing amount of evidence shows that activity is beneficial – both in people and in mice – although we’re not sure of the mechanism,’ he says. Scientists have already discovered that ageing mice – which were made to exercise more by running on wheels – fared better in memory tests. Carl Cotman, a neuroscientist at the University of California, found that those mice which are susceptible to a similar disease to Alzheimer’s, characterised by levels of plaque in the brain, had lower levels of plaque when he put them to the treadmill.

He concluded that it might inhibit the development of the plaque or stimulate cells to clear it away. Prof Lovestone explains this is significant. ‘People who routinely exercise are quite different to those who don’t in terms of diet, affluence, class and general lifestyle. Yet mice don’t have class or affluence differences – so while the jury is out on how this works, exercise clearly has a direct effect on the brain.’

Keywords: walks, diet, healthy, GI, activity
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