Focus is key when training aging brains

Games geared toward working out the brain can improve cognitive functioning from middle age on. Most of us now know that we can keep our gray matter in peak form and even help stave off diseases like Alzheimer’s through mental exercises.

But change doesn’t come easy. Whether we are working on our memory or trying to meditate, brain-training exercises require a high level of mental focus to pay off in the end.

“It’s not easy to drive the brain’s connectivity,” said Michael Merzenich, an emeritus professor at UC San Francisco and a leading researcher in neuroplasticity. “You have to be engaged. I go nowhere if I’m not really paying attention to what I’m doing.”

The concept of retraining the brain as we age revolves around neuroplasticity, the ability of our brains to grow and change by creating new neural connections. As we slowly master a new activity or exercise, the brain remembers each step, and neurotransmitters that carry that information through our brains forge new pathways. This ability is the basis for the idea that we can control whether our brains are on the up-slope or down-slope as we age.

While it’s often thought that age-related cognitive decline begins after we’ve hit middle age, researchers say it can start as early as 30. And the older we get, the more likely our brains are to succumb not just to the physical decline of age but also to the lack of external stimuli, since engaging in learning new information becomes less and less likely.

Researchers have looked closely at exactly what kind of mental games and exercises are necessary to combat the slow decline.

In a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in 2006, researchers focused on three major cognitive areas that are believed to do the most damage to “instrumental activities of daily living” once they start deteriorating — memory, reasoning and speed of processing.

The researchers provided 10 brain-training sessions, each 60 to 75 minutes long, to nearly 3,000 participants over the age of 65. The training included basic mnemonic strategies for remembering lists or written passages, finding patterns in groups of letters and dividing attention between several tasks at once. Over the next five years, they periodically provided follow-up training to randomly selected subgroups. The goal was to track what kind of long-term impact, if any, this kind of cognitive training would have.

In all three areas, the researchers found that participants showed improvement immediately after starting training. Over the course of five years, those who received supplemental training periodically fared better than those who did not. They concluded that this cognitive improvement could indeed translate into performing daily tasks like remembering grocery lists, preparing a meal and understanding information on medication labels more easily.

In addition to these hands-on training tools, many researchers have theorized that cognitive training can take place without ever looking at a computer screen or a book — in fact, it can be done using only the mind.

To test this theory, researcher Antoine Lutz observed the brain activity of eight Buddhist monks during a meditation in which they concentrated on the idea of loving-kindness and compassion. He found that before, during and after meditating, the monks had higher gamma activity than novice meditation practitioners. Gamma activity has been associated with better memory and increased ability to process information — all concerns associated with aging.

Lutz also discovered that the monks — all of whom had clocked at least 10,000 hours of meditation practice — had developed neural connections that spanned greater distances in the brain than is typical, meaning that regions of the brain that don’t usually connect were communicating. By focusing the mind in a deliberate way, Lutz concluded, the brain can physically change. The results of the study were published in 2004 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

For those of us who weren’t fortunate enough to participate in these studies, or to have devoted 10,000 hours to meditation, there is still hope. In fact, there are a number of competing software programs designed to replicate some of these exercises — as well as some from the JAMA study — at home.

At the forefront of making brain training accessible to the public is Posit Science, a company founded in 2005 by Merzenich. The company offers three different training packages to help with auditory and visual processing, as well as driving skills to reduce car accidents.

“The goal is to drive the brain in a variety of complicated ways, so that it’s operating more efficiently, rapidly and accurately,” Merzenich said.

In the book “Heal Your Mind, Rewire Your Brain,” author Patt Lind-Kyle builds off Lutz’s research by outlining ways to focus the mind in everyday activity. She advocates four main steps to harness the mind deliberately: intention, including focusing on goals to accomplish; attention, or conscientiously processing outside stimuli; receptivity, or letting your mind accept whatever it encounters; and awareness — simply being mindful of everyday moments.

Merzenich speculates that programs soon will be developed to maintain the effects of brain training and that once optimal cognitive functioning has been achieved, it will require only short periods of maintenance to sustain the effects.

Once that’s happened, and once these exercises find their way into the mainstream, he said, “There is a tremendous prospect for really helping older people.”

[via Jewish Journal]
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How to grow your brain

The brains of highly successful people function differently from those of the average Joe, according to the authors of the new book, The Winner’s Brain.

Fortunately, they say, you can actually rewire your brain, even physically change it.

Assistant neuroscience professor Mark Fenske of the University of Guelph and cognitive behavioural psychologist Jeff Brown of Harvard Medical School sought input from other brain experts and a variety of individuals they deemed “winners” – from blues guitarist B.B. King to Aaron Fechter, the inventor of popular carnival game Whac-a-Mole.

They identified eight “win factors,” including self-awareness, motivation, focus, emotional balance, memory, resilience, adaptability and brain care.

Here, Dr. Fenske explains that, with practice, it’s possible to boost these win factors and train your brain for success.

What are some of the physiological differences you see in a winner’s brain?

Well, they’re specific to the different areas that we find as being related to success. [For instance, London’s elite Black Cab taxi drivers] have to spend a couple of years gaining “The Knowledge,” which is essentially very detailed knowledge of the streets of London, the contingencies – if it’s 4:30, this road will be open, this one will be closed; if there’s construction at this point, what’s the best way around – all these things, so that they can pass this test to get a license.

The hippocampus, which is critical for spatial navigation and memory, is larger in these individuals than it is in people who don’t have this training and expertise in spatial navigation and remembering routes and things like this.

[A growing body of research shows that] what you do with your brain, how you engage your brain, can not only improve your ability to function at a given task, but can really change the physical landscape of the brain itself.

How does training your brain change it physically?

The idea is when you do a given task, you engage the parts of the brain that are involved in that task. The more you engage it, the more it seeks ways to be more efficient at what it’s doing, and so that encourages new synaptic connections between neurons.

Once you have new synapses being formed, that helps to recruit support cells. So you can have the neurons making the connections and doing the firing, but they need the blood, they need oxygen, they need fuel, and so these support cells come in and help out. The result is, in those areas that are receiving a lot of activity, they’re getting better blood supply … and it leads to a physical rewiring or change in the brain.

You can measure this in the thickness of the cortex, that outer wrinkled covering of the brain where most of the computational power is; that will get thicker. The cortex also gets more dense.

Is there a limit to how much you can improve your brain?

Well, there’s certainly a limit to how much you can physically change your brain…. Your skull doesn’t get any bigger, so it’s not like you can grow a whole new lobe, but there’s much more promise than what we had previously thought.

You recommend meditation as a technique for improving skills like memory and focus. What happens to your brain when you meditate?

From a scientist’s perspective, when you look at meditation, it essentially involves a bunch of practice where you’re shifting and controlling the focus of your attention. So in some forms of meditation, it’s about having a very broad focus of attention, or else really focusing on one thing, like focusing on your breath …

What Sara [Lazar, Harvard Medical School neuroscientist] found is that the key areas that are activated when people are meditating, areas like the insula, which is really important for self-awareness, and the cortex, got thicker versus people who didn’t meditate.

People who didn’t meditate showed the standard age-related thinning of the cortex.

You mention in the book there’s little evidence that brain teasers and memory games reverse brain aging. Are they a waste of money?

It’s not clear that you’re wasting your money. They certainly don’t hurt, and there is probably at least some small benefit from those things.

We talked to Art Kramer [professor of psychology at the University of Illinois]. What he’s seen so far is that those things are fine, and you tend to get better at least in [the games], but that physical exercise, overall, seems to have quite a broad improvement on brain function.

Exercise certainly seems to be one of those things that’s relatively easy to do that has really quite robust effects. Exercise releases what’s called neurotrophic factors, which you can kind of think of as fertilizer for the brain. They help to facilitate the sprouting of new synapses, new connections.

What lessons about a winner’s brain can we learn from the creator of Whac-a-Mole?

When we talk about the focus of attention, there’s some great [research] that has shown that sometimes we try too hard. Sometimes the best thing to do is not to really focus and really try to do our very best, but instead, just relax a bit and let the information come to us.

Whac-a-Mole inventor Aaron Fechter said to us, “I can still go into an arcade or into the carnival and there’ll be a Whac-a-Mole game, and I step up, and I can get perfect on the game. And kids will just look at me and say, ‘Wow, you must be the guy who invented the game or something.’ ”

Then he described his strategy. How do you get perfect at Whac-a-Mole? He said you don’t try. Trying is counter-productive. Instead, you sit back and let the moles come to you.

There’s certain parts of the brain and certain processes that we do that we’ve automated. We have enough experience, we have enough practice. When we apply the slower, controlled, cognitive effort, that can get in the way. So what we want to do is relinquish and turn down the cognitive control, and instead let these areas that are really specialized for this do their stuff.

Eight tips for winning brains

Self-awareness: Train yourself to interpret other people’s facial expressions and body language by watching scenes from a movie on mute. Then watch the scene again, this time with volume, and compare how well your interpretations matched up. You can improve this skill over time.

Motivation: If you have a problem with procrastination, make large tasks feel more manageable by breaking them down into parts.

Focus: Like playing Whac-a-Mole, sometimes you can actually perform better when you’re not concentrating too hard. If something’s not coming to you despite your best efforts, try relaxing and letting the brain work on autopilot.

Emotional balance: Practice managing your emotions by changing your perspective of a situation. Research shows that if you think of a highly emotional event as a challenge rather than a problem, you can stay calmer and retain a better memory for details.

Memory: “Edit your brain,” the authors say. Recognize and consciously purge useless information. Imagine sweeping it away, so you can concentrate on more useful data.

Resilience: When you’re in a tough spot, think of a “resilience role model,” a parent, teacher or mentor, and ask yourself what they would do in your situation. That way, you’ll have more than your own resources to draw upon.

Adaptability: Try a few minutes of meditation a day to calm your thoughts. Studies show “regular yoga and meditation can increase cortical thickness in as little as eight weeks.”

Brain care: Research suggests that 30 minutes of moderate physical activity, three times a week, can help strengthen your mind.

[via Globe and Mail]
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“This Is Getting Old,” by Susan Moon

This is getting old, by Susan MoonSusan Moon is one of Buddhism’s funniest writers. In this new book, Bodhipaksa finds, she’s also one of Buddhism’s most honest, moving, and beautiful writers.

Title: This is Getting Old
Author: Susan Moon
Publisher: Shambhala
ISBN: 978-1-59030-776-2
Available from: Shambhala and

My first encounter with Susan Moon’s writings was The Life and Letters of Tofu Roshi, which fondly parodied the language, idiom, and culture of the Zen tradition in which Moon practices. It’s the best Buddhist humor writing I’ve come across. That was in 1980, which is 30 years ago, now. That’s a long time. Realizing that makes me feel old, which is appropriate since Moon’s latest book is subtitled “Zen Thoughts of Aging With Humor and Dignity.”

This is a book about aging, but it’s not at all depressing. Susan Moon is a very funny lady. She has a chapter about her family’s history of retinal detachment that includes the following line about contact lenses: “They required at least as much daily care as a small pet–a canary or hamster–without providing any companionship.” I can imagine those words coming from the lips of David Sedaris. Even the title of the book is a lovely, playful double-entendre. This is aging. This is what getting old’s like. And it’s getting old. I especially loved the opening to the final chapter, “This Vast Life”:

“Every morning, I vow to be grateful for the precious gift of human birth. It’s a big gift, and it includes a lot of stuff I never particularly wanted for my birthday. Some of the things in the package I wish I could exchange for a different size or color.”

Moon herself would say she’s a very funny “old lady,” although I don’t tend to think of late-60s as being old these days. Still, she’s 30 years older than when she wrote Tofu Roshi, and she describes in meticulous detail the kinds of changes that have taken place in her body and mind since then — hair graying, bones thinning, memory failing — and that’s a lot to deal with. Moon has almost two decades on me, but I’m already starting to experience my body as aging. From that point of view, This Is Getting Old is a good reminder, to people who aren’t yet old, of what’s in store for them.

The Buddha said that in his youth he was “intoxicated with youth,” and don’t we all, in our younger days, see old age as something that will never happen to us — not because we plan to die young, but because we think of old age as a personality defect, or we think of elderly people as having always been that way. Perhaps Moon’s book will find itself mainly in the hands of “boomers,” but that would be a shame. Anyone interested in Buddhism, whose key teaching is impermanence, would appreciate this up-close portrait of what’s in store.

This Is Getting Old is a collection of essays on different topics more or less related to aging. Mostly the stories focus on Moon herself, but there’s a particularly moving chapter (“The Breathing Tube”) about her mother’s car accident, and her death after three undignified weeks in hospital. There’s a coda to that story in a a later chapter (“Talking to My Dead Mother”) in which we learn that Moon had just finished the final edits to a book her mother had written–only three weeks before the crash. Moon’s mother never got to see her own book in print. That’s painful to hear, but it reminds us that death is like that — it doesn’t wait until you’ve wrapped everything up before it takes you away.

There’s a chapter about depression called “I Wasn’t My Self,” which initially struck me as being rather tangential to the theme of aging. Depression, after all, can strike at any age, and Moon was far from elderly in the several years she dipped in and out of that experience. But in retrospect it’s an essential chapter. This Is Getting Old is pervaded by the theme not just of aging, but of loneliness. In fact, of the two, loneliness may be the more dominant, since much of the content is about what it’s like to no longer be desirable, to know that you may never have sex again (and, more importantly, not to have someone with whom you can have sex), what it’s like to end a relationship and have the thought “I’ll die alone” taunt you day after day. Moon’s depression seems to have been her strongest experience of the loneliness that still haunts her in her 60s.

This Is Getting Old is an aubiographical book. I say this just to be clear that it’s not a series of reflections on aging treated as an impersonal phenomenon. Moon shows us aging rather than tells us about it, and she shows us in a breathtakingly honest way. She’s very open about the pain she’s experienced at various times in her life. And she never seems nasty, even when she’s talking about people giving her a hard time, like her mother driving her mad with disparaging comments about her hair. And, as I mentioned, she’s very, very funny. I found that I liked her more and more as the book unfolded.

I’ve just finished a book on the six element practice, which teaches us about impermanence and not-self, and I wish I’d had the opportunity to read Moon’s beek earlier. She has some beautiful passages on the elements:

“There’s no empty space. The air is fluid, making room for us, so that each of us inhabits a nook that is exactly our size and shape. The air kindly moves with us when we move … We’re all connected, molecule to molecule. I’m held by everything that’s not me.”

You’ll notice that Moon writes beautifully.

This Is Getting Old is beautiful, funny, warm, honest, and existential — what’s not to love?

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Meditation improves cognition in those with memory loss

wildmind meditation news

The Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation has announced data demonstrating that a meditation performed daily for eight weeks increased brain activity in areas central to memory and actually improved cognition in patients suffering from memory problems. The results of the study, conducted at the University of Pennsylvania, will be published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease in April, 2010.

The risk of Alzheimer’s disease rises dramatically as people age and, as the ranks of our nation’s elderly swell, the number of people facing this dreadful disease will devastate our already overburdened healthcare system. Slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s by five or ten years would lessen this burden dramatically, but few options to slow, or perhaps even prevent, memory loss exist.

“While meditation is already practiced by millions, this is the first study to investigate its potential to reverse memory loss in patients with cognitive impairment,” said Dharma Singh Khalsa, M.D., the founding president and medical director of the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation, a meditation expert and study co-author. Kirtan Kriya (KK), the meditation evaluated in the study, is a 12-minute practice from the Kundalini yoga tradition. “These results confirm what we have long observed in clinical practice, that this brief, simple meditation can have a meaningful impact on memory and on the quality of people’s lives as they age.”

The frontal lobe of the brain, which became more active as a result of meditation in the study, aids in attention and concentration and has been shown to be affected in patients with dementia disorders. The frontal lobe and the parietal lobe, another part of the brain positively affected in the study, are both parts of the brain which are involved in retrieving memories.

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“It would be extremely useful to have a cost-effective, non-pharmacological approach to slowing memory loss that could bolster the effect of medications without fear of side effects or drug-drug interactions,” said Andrew Newberg, M.D., associate professor of radiology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, and study co-author. “While further study into the impact of Kirtan Kriya is required, the pilot study demonstrates that this meditation could be a very important tool in improving cognition in people with memory loss.”

About the Study

Fifteen subjects with memory problems, ranging in age from 52 to 77 years, were enrolled in this open-label pilot study. At the start of the study, cognitive tests, as well as images of the brain measuring cerebral blood flow (CBF), were taken for each subject using Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography (SPECT) scans. Subjects were taught meditation and instructed to practice it each day for eight weeks.

While this was an open-label study, a small comparison group (n=5) was also recruited in which the meditation was replaced with a music listening task. The “music group” was instructed to listen to two Mozart violin concertos each day for approximately 12 minutes. Subjects kept a daily log of their study activity and were contacted at four weeks with a reminder to continue the practice.

After eight weeks, cognitive tests and SPECT scans were repeated for both groups(ii) and researchers compared pre-program with post-program results. The study found that:

  • Cerebral blood flow was increased in the meditating group in the frontal lobe regions and the right superior parietal lobe
  • In contrast, a non-significant increase in cerebral blood flow was seen in the music group in the amygdala and precuneus areas of the brain
  • The mediation group had statistically significant improvements in a neuropsychological test which measures cognition by asking subjects to name as many animals as they can in one minute
  • Improvements were also seen in the group of meditators in three other cognitive tests that measured general memory, attention and cognition
  • There were no statistically significant improvements in cognition in the music group
  • Participants found the meditation to be enjoyable and beneficial and perceived their cognitive function to be improved

About the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation

The Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation (ARPF) is a non-profit organization dedicated to reducing the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease by conducting clinical research and providing educational outreach about the lifestyle changes that can help prevent Alzheimer’s disease. For more information, please visit the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation at

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Meditation may be the future of anti-aging (part II)

Scientific experts now believe we have in-built mechanisms that can fight and reverse the aging process. Innovative research into the reversal of aging is well underway and, while scientists debate the many different theories, research has revealed that meditation dramatically affects the production of three important hormones related to stress, longevity and aging.

Cortisol, DHEA and Melatonin.

Cortisol, the ‘stress hormone’, is naturally produced by the adrenal glands. Our bodies produce cortisol (and adrenaline) when we react to stress. Long term or chronic stress however means that the body is over exposed to these hormones, and this can lead to increased anxiety, depression, an inability to cope, and ultimately, physical illness.

David Zava, Ph.D., a biochemist and prominent researcher and speaker on the topic of hormones says, “Too much cortisol, caused by stressors, over a prolonged period of time, results in excessive breakdown of all structural tissues of the body including muscle, bone, skin and brain, causing accelerated aging.”

DHEA, known as the ‘youth’ hormone, is also produced by the adrenal glands and acts as a buffer against stress-related hormones (like cortisol). It is a key determinant of physiological age and dramatically decreases as we get older. When DHEA levels are low we are more susceptible to aging and disease. Anxiety and stress lower DHEA levels.

DHEA has extended rodent lifespans by up to…

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50%. The animals not only lived longer, but they also appeared younger. DHEA levels are directly related to mortality (the probability of dying) in humans. In a 12-year study of over 240 men aged 50 to 79 years, researchers found that DHEA levels were inversely correlated with mortality, both from heart disease and from all other causes.

Melatonin is a key determinant of restful sleep and is known to have a calming effect, improving our mood and feelings of contentment. Current research has also revealed melatonin to be a powerful antioxidant but as we age we create less and less melatonin.

Studies by immunologist Dr. Walter Pierpaoli of the Biancalana-Masera Foundation for the Aged in Ancona, Italy, and various colleagues have shown that melatonin treatments extended the lifespan of mice by as much as 25 percent. Moreover, mice that had been treated with melatonin not only lived longer, but they also appeared younger, healthier, more vigorous, and sexually rejuvenated.

Studies conducted by pioneering University of Texas melatonin researcher Dr. Russel Reiter show melatonin to be the most potent scavenger of free radicals – unstable molecules that promote cancer and heart disease by damaging DNA, cells, and tissue.

Dr. Vincent Giampapa, M.D., head of Longevity Institute International and Past-President of the American Board of Anti-Aging Medicine, plays a prominent role in some of the latest scientific research into aging. His study, using specific audio technology designed for deep meditation, revealed:

* Cortisol decreased by an average of 46.47%, with positive changes in 68% of the people
* Over 68% had increases in DHEA levels, with an average increase of 43.77%
* Melatonin levels increased an average of 97.77%, with positive changes happening in over 73% of the people

Regular meditation practice brings a whole range of health benefits but the most fascinating, at the forefront of modern medicine, is how it seems to activate the body’s natural anti-aging capabilities.

“Most people think that aging is irreversible and we know that there are mechanisms even in the human machinery that allow for the reversal of aging, through correction of diet, through anti-oxidants, removal of toxins from the body, through exercise, yoga and breathing techniques, and through meditation.” – Deepak Chopra

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Meditation may be the future of anti-aging (part I)

According to the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine, 90% of all adult illness is due to the degenerative processes of aging. Anti-aging medicine, aiming for longevity and optimal health, is most certainly the ‘specialty’ of the future and is based on the early detection, prevention and reversal of age-related disease. While science continues to search for answers, research has already revealed that meditation is a potent anti-aging practice that can take years off your physiological age.


Aging is most certainly a complex issue with many factors coming into play, but one thing that researchers do agree on is that stress (mental, emotional, and physical) causes us to age.

Eva Selhub, MD, Medical Director of the Mind/Body Medical Institute says, “If we can affect the stress response, we can affect the aging process.” She says “There`s a reason why experienced meditators live so long and look so young.”

In a recent interview with CNN, Dan Buettner, author of “The Blue Zones” and researcher into longevity hotspots around the world, suggests small lifestyle changes can add up to 10 years to most people`s lives. He says aging is 10% genetic and 90% lifestyle. Buettner stated that having mechanisms to shed stress, like prayer and meditation, was of high importance in…

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the longevity hotspots he studied and a major factor in long-term health and aging.

Dr. Robert Keith Wallace was one of the first scientists to study the effects of meditation on aging and he published his findings in the International Journal of Neuroscience (16: 53 58, 1982). His research was based on the practice of Transcendental Meditation.

Dr. Wallace found that subjects with an average chronological age of 50 years, who had been practicing Transcendental Meditation for over 5 years, had a biological age 12 years younger than their chronological age. That means a 55-year-old meditator had the physiology of a 43-year-old.

Several of the subjects in the study were found to have a biological age 27 years younger than their chronological age. This study has since been replicated several times. Other studies have also shown the beneficial effects of Transcendental Meditation on the aging process.

History reveals many examples of seemingly `ageless` saints, dedicated to the practice of meditation, whose lives have demonstrated the enormous capacity of the human body to live much longer than today`s average life span.

Yes, these `ageless` saints and yogis practically dedicated their whole lives to meditation but even we, as average householders, can potentially live much longer, healthier lives. Meditation has revealed itself to be one of the most beneficial practices to relieve some of the stress related to aging.

Bernard Siegel, M.D., Professor, Yale University School of Medicine, wrote in Love, Medicine and Miracles (New York: Harper and Row, 1986): “Other doctors` scientific research and my own day-to-day clinical experience have convinced me that the state of the mind changes the state of the body by working through the central nervous system, the endocrine system, and the immune system. Peace of mind sends the body a `live` message, while depression, fear and unresolved conflict give it a `die` message.”

“The physical benefits of meditation have recently been well documented by Western medical researchers,” says Dr. Siegel. “Meditation also raises the pain threshold and reduces one`s biological age… In short, it reduces wear and tear on both body and mind, helping people live longer and better.”

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