Monday, September 24, 2012

Music & Aging Brains

Strangely it seems that playing trombone as a student (and not very well I must add) may be helping my cognitive skills. HealthDay reporter Barbara Bronson Gray wrote about this in an article entitled Musicians' Brains Might Have an Edge on Aging.

I have a vague memory of reading a number of articles about the positive cognitive impact of music – listening and playing – on the brain. I'll try to dig them out and post them in the future.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Eating right for brain health

I just read a well-balanced article from Carol Butler in The Washington Post entitled Brain foods for back-to-school- and the rest or your life:
While the article initially starts off with advice for parents about children’s diets, she moves beyond that to make comments that are important for everybody interested in brain health.  She quotes neurologist Majid Fotuhi, chairman of the Neurology Institute for Brain Health and Fitness in Baltimore who said thatt “Food can affect the brain in minutes. You don’t need scientific evidence to know that if you have a doughnut, after a while — it could be minutes or an hour — you feel tired and drained because of the spike in blood sugar, and of course you know that when you’re hungry, you’re grumpy and you usually can’t make good decisions.”

I don't know about you, but ask my wife and she'll tell you that hungry and grumpiness go hand in hand for me (or is it "hand to mouth?").
Here’s another insight she got from Fotuhi that is consistent with everything else I’ve read, “While the short-term consequences of food consumption on the brain are well appreciated, many people don’t realize that nutrition has a huge impact on brain function over years and over decades. What you eat now — both the quantity and quality of food — can significantly impact long-term cognitive function and the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease later in life.” He noted that a poor diet has been linked directly to known “brain killers” such as heart attack and stroke, as well as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and inflammation, all of which can have a negative impact on brain function and performance.

Like fad-busters?  I do.  Butler smartly notes that experts caution people not to get caught up in claims surrounding one trendy fruit or grain over another. “You can get brainwashed into thinking that if you eat a lot of blueberries, you’ll automatically be smarter and have a higher IQ, and that’s just not true,” says endocrinologist Thomas Sherman of Georgetown University School of Medicine. “A lot of these ‘brain foods’ are just healthy for you in general. They contain a series of vitamins and nutrients that most people don’t get enough of, and together they would make pretty decent meal. But that doesn’t mean you should go home and eat a pound of blueberries or goji berries.”

All this made a lot of sense to me…and also made me hungry.  So I’m going to the kitchen to have some organic blueberries.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Monkey See Monkey Do? Or is it Monkey Brain Implant Makes Monkey Do?

“Brain implant improves decision-making in monkey” is the headline of a story in last Friday’s L. A. Times by Jon Bardin. The article notes that scientists “…created a novel brain implant that improves cognitive performance and decision-making in a monkey.” The Bardin goes on to report that “The device, developed in part by researchers at USC, manipulates ongoing brain activity to guide the animal away from mistakes and toward a correct decision.”

Does this sound a bit like mind control? Yes, and at least part of me is suspicious/worried/concerned.

Yet, knowing what I do about brain damage, I can appreciate their impetus for the research, i.e. “The study, published this week in the Journal of Neural Engineering, marks an important step toward implantable devices that could one day help people with brain injuries better perform basic tasks.”

Bardin goes on to note that, “The field of ‘brain prosthetics’ has been dominated by efforts to restore physical abilities, like devices that use brain activity to move a robotic arm or a cursor across a screen. But the new study records an attempt to actually improve the thinking ability of a monkey, a tall task given that even the most simple cognitive tasks requires the coordination of millions of brain cells.”

Does this mean that, someday, we’ll be able to install a cognitive brain upgrade similar to going from Windows XP to Windows 7? If so, I just want to make sure that I get Windows 7 and not Vista.

And here’s a link to an abstract of the research in Journal of Neural Engineerin:

And here’s a link to my favorite monkey “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” picture from the original, centuries-old carving at the Tosho-gu shrine in Nikko, Japan:

Monday, September 17, 2012

Swedish Covenant Hospital – Free Memory Games Class

I just got a note from Leigh Cohen (M.S. CCC-SLP, Speech Language Pathologist, Swedish Covenant Hospital Day Rehab) which said:  

Hey John, I am leading a special class about Memory Games next week for Swedish Covenant Hospital’s Wise Woman week and I’d love for you and your friends to join me!

I’ve met Leigh and she’s one of those rare folks who not only knows the science of rehab exercises inside and out but, just as importantly, understands the importance of turning rehab into fun and games…which is why the title “Memory Games” got my attention.

The class will be held at Marbles: The Brain Store on 4745 North Lincoln Avenue, Chicago, Illinois (USA) on Thursday, September 20th from 6:30 to 7:30 PM.

I’ve audited a Marbles presentation to Cohen’s stroke group and found the presentation fun and informative – two words that don’t always go together. Marbles has all sorts of rehab activities craftily disguised as games which is important for easily-bored folks like me who’ve had a cognitive set-back or two. I just love to wonder around the store and browse the perversely intriguing games they have (which I never see anywhere else). There’s always a couple of games left out on a table or two for you to fool around with, which makes everything seem much friendlier than most places. (Here's a link to my original blog posting on Marbles -

You can call and make a reservation for this (free!) event at +1-773-878-6888 or register online at  


PS – As an added bonus, this Lincoln Square store is just a few steps away from a number of tasty restaurants that’d be great for dinner, or something cold and refreshing, afterwards.

Friday, September 14, 2012

AARP Brain Boosting Advice

This engaging article by P. Murali Doraiswamy, M.D. starts with the case history of an accomplished mathematician who, in his 70s, had a terrific memory and IQ in spite of a brain scan which indicated that he had “all the markings of full-blown Alzheimer's disease."

The article goes on to address the core issue that this raises “How does the brain continue to function—sometimes quite efficiently—despite changes that should cause severe disability? An answer, many scientists believe, is "cognitive reserve": the combination of a person's innate abilities and the additional brainpower that comes from challenging the mind. Studies show that diverse, mentally stimulating tasks result in more brain cells, more robust connections among those cells, and a greater ability to bypass age- or disease-related trouble spots in the brain. The more you work your mind, the greater your cognitive reserve. And the greater your reserve, the greater your ability to withstand the inevitable challenges of aging.”

I found this bit about “cognitive reserve” and how to increase it, the most valuable part of the article.

And while the article is slanted to the 50+ crowd, I’m sure that many brain tumor victims under 50 feel like their brain has had more than 50 years’ worth of wear and tear on it given their illnesses.

He also talks about degrading memories among the AARP crowd and what folks can do to address those issues in his thoughts about growing new brain cells. This is a topic that many authors are jumping on including Gretchen Reynolds in her book The First 20 Minutes and Barbara Strauch in The Secret Life of the GROWN-UP Brain (you can find my reviews of both of these books is you search my site).

All-in-all, it’s a nice compilation article which also includes advice on brain-boosting activities and “healthy habits.”

Here’s a link: