Regenerating the Brain

Do you ever wish you had those brain cells back that you had at university? Do you worry that as you get older, your brain health keeps declining? Well, the latest research is suggesting that we can still improve our brain health, and that anyone can start repairing it today.

It was always thought that once your brain was developed, that was it and that it was a matter of slow degradation over time as we get older. Well, the good news is that it is possible to improve your brain health and repair your brain cells, keeping your brain super sharp and elastic by following a few simple steps.

Rethinking Brain Health

The MRI machine reveals the fibres that carry the brain’s thought processes (BBC)

Cognitive neuroscience has only been around for about a hundred years, so it’s natural that we are constantly learning new and exciting things about how our brain wiring affects brain function.

For the past century, it was a commonly held belief that the brain could not recover or regenerate from damage. If you lost brain cells through injury or trauma – you weren’t going to get them back. This fostered the thinking that the brain is always in a state of decline.

There was some evidence presented in the 1960’s that challenged this thinking, but as Max Planck said, “Science advances one funeral at a time” and it wasn’t until the 1980’s when Nottebohm definitively proved that neurogenesis (production of new brain cells) occurs in the adult vertebrate brain. The next big advance in understanding the human brain would come thirty years later, but right now in the field of neuroscience, our understanding of how the brain is wired is increasing exponentially.

Brain plasticity

In 1992, Scientists isolated neural stem cells from mice in a Petri dish to show the growth of neurons in adult, mammalian cells. Many studies then replicated these findings thousands of times over the next twenty five years.

It’s now well accepted that the adult brain can grow new neurons and glial cells – something that was believed impossible by the medical establishment. We now know that the brain is resilient, pliable – plastic. Capable of regeneration. This is called neuroplasticity, and relates to the brain being able to ‘rewire’ itself through practice of a desired skill. The combination of new learning and new cells contributes to neuroplasticity. Nerve cells make new connections when they get stimulated by specific learning exercises – brain training. These new connections contribute to your learning and development of the new skill.

When you exercise – your body feels good. The same goes for your brain – with the right nourishment and exercise or ‘brain training’, your brain will stay healthy and keep regenerating throughout your life.

Here are the top five tips to look after your brain health, stimulate new brain growth and heal your brain:

1. Do lots of physical exercise

When you exercise your body, you don’t think you’re exercising your brain as well. Well, you are. Our brain uses a lot of oxygen and glucose, but it doesn’t store it for later use so it needs a constant supply to keep functioning optimally. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain and delivers fresh glucose to the brain cells. Even thirty minutes of moderate cardio has been shown to be enough to increase cognitive function in adult brains. In addition to this, exercise is thought to stimulate neurogenesis in the hippocampus – the area of the brain associated with long-term memory and emotions. We need healthy cell growth in this area for our ageing brains, so exercise could help to prevent cognitive decline associated with Alzheimer’s and dementia.

2. Manage your stress

I mentioned stress management in my first blog ‘Five Simple Tips for Better Mental Health’ – our stress hormones can cause damage to our brains as well as our bodies. Stress has been associated with age-related cognitive decline, so having time to play and unwind will also contribute to better brain health. For managing stress, it’s better to do things that you are interested in. Passive activities like watching TV don’t count! A study published in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry in 2011 suggested that activities such as puzzles, crafts and problem-solving reduced rates of cognitive impairment by nearly 50% (I recommend Lumosity – see Resources below). Art is also up there in the list of activities that stimulate the brain, with those who produce art showing increased activity between the frontal and parietal areas of the brain. This means that those who produce art showed better psychological resilience than those who just observed art. Playing or listening to music has also been shown to stimulate neurogenesis, while meditation can also lower blood pressure, reduce inflammation and help build resilience in the face of stress and anxiety. Meditation isn’t for everyone – that’s why it can be helpful to build a simple practice of contemplation and being ‘in the moment’ in to your every day life. I recommend Rick Hanson’s ‘Just One Thing’ newsletter for weekly contemplative practices delivered straight to your inbox! (See Resources)

 3. Using herbal medicine

Turmeric

I could write a whole article about the health benefits of turmeric. Well, I probably will. But suffice is to say that the evidence is supporting its use for reducing inflammation in the body and lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease. Turmeric has been described as a remyelinating compound, which means it can help nerves to regenerate. Remyelination compounds work to repair the myelin sheath – the protective layer around the nerve bundles. These areas are often those damaged in certain autoimmune and vaccine-induced disorders.

Myelin sheath that wraps around axons (on the left and right) brainfacts.org

In the model of pharmaceutical medicine, as soon as a plant has shown potential therapeutic effects, much effort and money is spent to isolate the exact constituent responsible for its effect. This doesn’t take in to account the other thousands of compounds in the plant which are all probably acting together to deliver its medicinal properties. An example of this is an active constituent of turmeric, curcumin, which has been synthesised and is now widely available as a supplement. A more recent study in the Journal of Stem Cell Research and Therapy has found another compound called Ar-tumerone, which may also support regeneration in neurological disease. In this study, when brain cells were exposed to Ar-tumerone, the nerve stem cells increased in number and complexity.

This could mean that Ar-tumerone might be available as a supplement one day. Imagine taking two separate supplements to reap some of the benefits of one plant. I suggest it’s better to obtain a standardised tincture of turmeric from your Medical Herbalist that has been tested for its safety and efficacy.

Green Tea

The health-promoting benefits of green tea have been known for thousands of years. More recently, a 2014 study confirmed that the catechins in green tea (which are the antioxidant compounds) are also neuroprotective because they stimulate the brain to produce more neurons. This has massive implications for supposedly incurable neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and Huntingdon’s disease. Researchers have confirmed that green tea catechins are a “highly useful complementary approach” in the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases.

Ginkgo biloba

Ginkgo is a very powerful herb in the Medical Herbalist’s pharmacopoeia. It has demonstrated over 50 different health benefits, and is documented in the treatment of more than 100 diseases. Many studies show that Ginkgo stimulates BDNF – brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which is a protein involved in repairing damaged regions of the brain. It is also important for regulation, growth and survival of brain cells, so plays an important part in long-term memory. A 2006 paper published in the European Journal of Neurology found Gingko to be as effective as Donepezil – a drug used in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

A recent article in Cell and Molecular Neurobiology showed that Gingko actually modulates neural stem cells in to the type that’s needed in a specific part of the brain where BDNF proteins are active. Neural Stem Cells are multipotent cells – they can grow in to the many different types of cells that make up the brain. Gingko therefore stimulates the growth of the correct cell phenotype needed for the affected area of the brain. Pretty incredible!

4. Eat brassicas

Brassicas, as well as containing health-promoting vitamins, iron and flavonoids, also contain a compound called sulforaphane which has been shown to stimulate nerve growth in the brain. Sulforaphane is also a potent antioxidant and has anti-inflammatory effects. Research have observed that this compound also shows a beneficial effect on neural stem cells differentiating in to other useful neurons, supporting the idea that sulforaphanes may stimulate brain repair.

Sulforaphane containing brassicas include broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, turnips, radishes, horseradish and watercress. For therapeutic benefits, it’s best to try and eat 3 cups a day, raw or slightly steamed.

5. Never stop learning

Research shows that keeping up our critical thinking skills can help us keep a sharp and lucid brain. The 2011 study I mentioned earlier showed that working with computers, reading books and doing activities related to patterns and problem-solving contributed to a significant decrease in the chances of developing mild cognitive impairment. Passive activities didn’t show any statistical effect which emphasises the importance of feeling challenged and engaged in the activities we pursue.

Another study that followed almost 3,000 volunteers over more than ten years looked at the long-term benefits of cognitive training in older adults. Those who participated in the study showed better brain processing speed and reasoning skills for up to ten years after the training was completed. That’s not all – the participants also had enhanced abilities when completing everyday tasks such as personal finances, preparing meals and personal care. The more engaging and stimulating our environments, the more the brain increases in its complexity as a response.

So, with that in mind, what could you change in your life right now to start looking after your brain?

Resources

Lumosity – brain training

Rick Hanson’s ‘Just One Thing’

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