Alzheimer’s disease

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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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 www.alzheimersprevention.org.

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“Jake Fades” by David Guy

"Jake Fades" by David Guy

As Buddhist ideas become more commonly known in the west, they increasingly pervade art and literature. Reviewer Hazel Colditz, herself a Buddhist and artist, was impressed by David Guy’s new novel of impermanence, Jake Fades. Author David Guy is a teacher and writing instructor residing in North Carolina. A graduate of Duke and author of several books, he reviews books for newspapers and is a contributing editor to Tricycle: The Buddhist Review.

Jake Fades is a novel of impermanence. It is a simple yet enriching read based on the day-to-day lives of two main characters: Jake, an aging teacher of life, and Hank, his sidekick and student. Jake’s mission in life is to teach that everything will die, including himself.

Title: Jake Fades: A Novel of Impermanence.
Author: David Guy.
Publisher: Shambhala.
ISBN: 978-1-59030-566-9
Available from: Shambhala and Amazon.com.

Jake starts out as a young man passionate about art and intent on making his mark. Most of Jake’s training in Zen is described to Hank in flashbacks throughout the novel. He travels to the east, meets a humble landscape painter in Japan, and soon becomes his student and servant. He is taught to focus on observing life: “Learning to observe and appreciate the landscape before you [do] something so presumptuous as painting it.” With Jake’s youthful passion and energy it is hard for him to be told to sit and observe. He resists for months but eventually gives in and grows to love it, and twelve years later he is ordained as a Zen priest.

Jake always holds to the early teachings he imbibed in the monastery: “Buddha nature, true self,” he says at one point. “This practice isn’t about sitting. It’s about compassion which can’t be taught … where you naturally feel for the person, reach out to help.” Jake teaches and embodies these aphorisms.

In Zen we say the answer to death is to die now. That’s our answer to the problem of impermanence…

Hank first encounters Jake while in Maine on a vacation with his son, Josh. Josh is a typical teenager, and he and Hank are having one of those father/son vacations-from-hell experiences. While in Maine they rent bikes from Jake, who repairs bikes for a living. When Josh returns his bike he throws it on the ground in front of Jake, frustrated not just with a difficult ride, but with his parents’ divorce and the problems this brings. Jake is unperturbed by Josh’s anger or the damage he causes to the bike, and Hank is struck with Jake’s compassion towards his son. This marks the beginning of their relationship.

The following year they return and thus begins Hank’s introduction into a life as a student of Zen. Jake has a way to make people feel safer and saner by just being around him and Hank wants more. Hank, who struggles with issues of sexual craving, love, and fear of commitment, tells Jake he wants to just stop all his constant craving. Jake tells him “This is your conditioning. This is your karma. You have to see this, the nature of desire.”

I particularly enjoyed David Guy’s storytelling and how he presents Jake as a rounded human being, a profound and humble teacher, but also imperfect. Jake is not a vegetarian, he likes to kick back with a few beers, and he has a passion for desserts.

Just beginning in Buddhism myself I have always had great difficulty in trying too hard, almost forcing my perception or understanding of what a “perfect” practice might be. Am I doing the prostrations correctly? Why won’t my mind just stop wandering during seated meditation? Why can’t I be like everyone else in the room, damn it! There’s reassurance in seeing the imperfections that can exist alongside an inspiring practice.

I recognized myself in the character of Jess, a young woman working in the town bar and who struggles to find herself, and in Madeleine, who can sit in perfect posture with grace and physical ease, but who after years of training cannot sit through an entire retreat because of overwhelming fear. She is the one whom Jake feels deep compassion for, a woman whose wealth made it easier for her to escape herself. She loves Jake, although Jake always knows it was not truly him that the woman fell in love with, but the Dharma, the teachings of Buddha.

David Guy writes about impermanence in and through his characters’ lives and their dialog…

David Guy writes about impermanence in and through his characters’ lives and their dialog, not just through the obvious fact of Jake’s death through Alzheimer’s disease. “In Zen we say the answer to death is to die now. That’s our answer to the problem of impermanence,” Jake says, introducing a talk that Hank is to give. Hank’s response to Jake’s words on impermanence comes out in a teaching: “Our past is what we think of as our life, that whole life of thought and memory that we carry around all the time, but nothing actually repeats itself. Every moment is new, and you can’t live this moment until you die to the past one.” This is the magic of David Guy’s writing; he infuses his knowledge or understanding of Buddhism in his dialog between the characters.

Jake teaches Hank that living in the moment is about being fully present. Jake is fully present even if his mind, because of his Alzheimer’s, isn’t. Even in his “moments of forgetting” Jake is in touch with what Hank calls “the unconscious rhythm of the universe.”

Jake connects his Alzheimer’s with his Zen practice. “Sesshin [intensive meditation] is like death,” he says. “When you can’t talk, can’t write, can’t read, give up everything that makes you you, who are you?” In an analogy Jake describes how once in his youth he is in a car accident and incurs amnesia: “The strangest sensation. I came to on a hospital table and was clearly awake, looking around, but I had no idea who I was.” Where does the memory go, when it isn’t there? Jake was scared living with his illness but was not unhappy because he had found acceptance.

“I wanted to discover wisdom that manifested as compassion.” These are Hank’s words as he describes why he became Jake’s student. He fell into the lap of Buddha so to speak. Isn’t that what we are all looking for? A life fulfilled, as portrayed in Jake Fades.

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