AIC2017LA: Our growing perspective about managing brain health

brain-2235831_1920Historically, the predominant belief in medicine was that plasticity was limited to the first years of life was ascendant in medical neurology, psychiatry, and education. Nothing could be further from the truth, said Michael Merzenich, PhD, Thursday at the Institute for Functional Medicine’s 2017 Annual International Conference in Los Angeles, California.

"The brain is growing and changing across the span of our life," he said. "Brain plasticity is the basis of the brain’s creation of your own special internal version of our world, and of the control of your operations within it. It's a lifelong resource."

Through brain change, you have acquired and refined all of the special skills and abilities that defines the unique person that is you, said Merzenich. However, like your physical body, your brain needs exercise to sustain high function and organic health. "We have very extensively studied the neurological bases of that cognitive reserve, asking the key scientific question, what forms of brain exercise are most useful for growing your brain power, and for keeping you safer and more resilient?"

This question led Merzenich to BrainHQ. The BrainHQ program is an online brain-training system with more than two dozen brain-training exercises organized into six categories:

  • Attention
  • Brain speed
  • Memory
  • People skills
  • Intelligence
  • Navigation

Using a special algorithm, each exercise adapts in difficulty as the user works, so they always train at the optimum level, where they are most likely to make cognitive improvements. Each level takes about five minutes to complete.

To develop the program, Merzenich conducted a series of studies looking at the reversible nature of the brain. They first compared older and younger brains of both rats and humans. Then, the older individuals were engaged in simple forms of brain-health-relevant training. As a result, with simple forms of training, all negative’changes  attributable to aging that Merzenich and his team recorded were reversed, including myelination, response power, and response coordination. In addition, all 25 indices of brain health were restored to a youthful status by training. "We have repeatedly shown that specific forms of brain exercise grow brainpower and restore neurological integrity, in normal and struggling adult brains," said Merzenich.

How do you turn an old or impaired brain into a physically and functionally more capable "‘younger" one? You train it, says Merzenich. But neurological rejuvenation will only be achieved with particular forms of training, which BrainHQ is designed to do.

Our reversible plasticity assures that we sustain overall neurobehavioral control. It’s all about “getting the answer right," said Merzenich. Getting that answer right is a key to hisotric human survival. If we’re consistently “correct”, our machinery advances its powers. If we begin to fail, our machinery adjusts to take longer, as it looks ‘more carefully’, to be more certain that it’s not making a mistake. Older individuals sustain basic control of their operations, even while their brain  is usually slowly losing its youthful high‐speed, high‐accuracy prowess. "Again, we have the power over whether a brain shall advance, or retreat," said Merzenich.

We can throw the “plasticity switch” in a “blastic” or “clastic” direction, at will. Blastic leads to coordinated positive, performance enhancing, organic brain health strengthening changes. However, clastic leads to coordinated negative, performance degrading, organic brain health compromising changes.

There are now more than 100 other random‐assigned controlled outcomes studies demonstrating the benefits of using BrainHQ programs to increase “brain power” in normal and in struggling & variously‐damaged individuals of any age—and demonstrating greater neurological resilience. All of these studies document important benefits of training. Many studies directly document positive rejuvenative physical

brain changes. Most studies have documented “far transfer” benefits byrecording gains from training that extend to practical everyday skills, and to qualities of life. "These studies now clearly point the way, for every individual, to take on the responsibility for managing their brain health," said Merzenich.

Not only can the brain training strategies be applied to delaying loss of independence or onset

dementia in aging, they can delay the onset of Parkinsons disease, treat depression, ameliorate the expressions of autism and other inherited disorders, among other targets.

We are entering a new era of brain‐health medicine. Integrated assessment is a key aspect of the implementation of this new treatment model. Simple, inexpensive, multi‐level ’biomarkers’—akin to those used to continuously monitor cardiovascular and general health—are deployed to define risks of upcoming ’disorders’, to track the growth of resilience or recovery across a treatment epoch, and to monitor post‐treatment status to assure enduring recovery and protection. Treatment will be guided by these assessments, using a holistic approach.

For practitioners and patients, take time to calibrate the brain using training exercises. Encourage patients to challenge themselves by improving performance on mastered skills, and fill their schedules with new learning and skill development. Adopt a charitable and social view of the world. Active social engagement and a positive charitable outlook are very important for sustaining a brain‐healthy and happy life.

Organize your diet and if necessary, supplement it, with your brain health in mind. Physical exercise is another key to brain health. But make sure that you exercise in ways that sustain—and that continue to elaborate—your brain’s control of your physical actions.

Take time to smell the roses and re‐calibrate yourself every so often, to confirm that you are achieving your brain health goals, said Merzenich.

"You have the power to change your life for the better," he said. "You can be a stronger, better person. Why would you let your brain continue to decline? Throw that switch up. Your brain will thank you."

Editor’s note: Integrative Practitioner is reporting live from the Institute for Functional Medicine’s annual conference. For live updates and complete show coverage, click here