Although bookstore shelves are crammed with popular works about the brain, few of them relate new research ﬁndings to our everyday lives. Two recent books successfully rise to this challenge.
LEARNING WHAT THE BRAIN HAS IN MIND
The Science Times Book of the Brain is a compendium of brain pieces written over the past ﬁve years for the weekly Science Times section of the New York Times. The book includes articles on the brain’s role in sensation, mood and emotions, memories, language, brain development, sleep, sex and gender, and dreams and consciousness. All of the articles are informative, entertaining, and, for the most part, accurate and timely.
- In “Seeing and Imagining Clues to the Working of the Mind’s Eye” we learn of the existence of a “what” system in the temporal lobe that identiﬁes speciﬁc shapes and colors and a “where” system in the parietal lobe that attends to location, a distinction made poignant by description of a patient with selective damage to his “what” system. This unfortunate man could not mentally envision the color of the inside of a watermelon but could accurately form and scan a mental map of the United States.
- “New Kind of Memory Found to Preserve Moments of Emotion” provides the scientiﬁc underpinning for the common observation by both students and teachers that a mild case of preexamination jitters can serve as a memory aid. Too much anxiety, though, disrupts concentration and worsens performance.
- “Trafﬁc Jams in Brain Networks May Result in Verbal Stumbles” explains the tip-of-the-tongue experience: that momentary difﬁculty in coming up with the word that describes something known perfectly well. But, as most of us have experienced, the word will come to us if we wait for a few minutes. According to the research reported here, the wait serves as time for the brain to “reboot” its lexical concepts. Additional research casts doubt on Freud’s claim that slips of the tongue represent unconscious conﬂicts. Instead, they occur when we are thinking of several topics at once but talking about only one. As a result, a word relating to one of the unrelated topics slips into the conversation, surprising and confounding both speaker and listener.
- “How Brain May Weigh the World with Simple Dopamine System” might help to lessen your chances of losing at the casino. The dopamine system forms the basis for the brain’s reward system and, according to the article, tends to go “berserk” when rewards remain elusive. Responding to a string of losses at blackjack or the “slots,” the dopamine system can set off panic in the gambler that culminates in self-defeating strategy switches.
Most of the pieces are similarly intriguing and instructional. But since neuroscience is changing rapidly, the book would have beneﬁted from some revisions and updates on developments since the pieces were originally published. We now know, for example, that nerve cell multiplication takes place in hippocampal and not just olfactory neurons. Other research reported in the book has not held up under careful scrutiny (e.g., the purported connection between dopamine and novelty-seeking behavior).
Unfortunately, this book also contains some confusing and sometimes incorrect statements. In his introduction, Nicholas Wade attributes to the eye processes that in fact take place in the brain: “The eye immediately breaks down what it sees into elements of color, movement and shape.” But seeing, of course, is a product of brain and eye working together; and the appreciation of color does not take place in the eye; it results from the integration of visual input within the brain. As Jane E. Brody, the contributing author of “Brain Yields Clues to Its Visual Maps,” correctly states in the article to which Wade is referring, “…different brain areas [my emphasis] are sensitive to different kinds of visual input: color, various aspects of motion like direction and speed, size, depth and shape.”
Nor is it true, as Sandra Blakeslee writes, that after surgical separation of the two cerebral hemispheres “Each half brain is conscious but does not know what the other half sees or does.” While it is true that each hemisphere remains aware of different aspects of the cognitive ﬁeld, consciousness, as it is usually understood and as is demonstrated in split-brain patients, depends principally on the language-mediating left hemisphere. According to even more recent research, consciousness is not an exclusive property of either hemisphere but exists as a distributed function involving many brain areas.
Imprecisions such as these, in fact, underscore the point made by contributor Philip J. Hilts: “There is a lot of work to be done…and ideas are likely to change rapidly as scientists learn what the brain has in mind.”
FROM PONDEROUS TO QUOTABLE
While the pieces in The Science Times Book of the Brain are easy to read, even attention-grabbing, they are also formulaic in composition and style. Although nine different writers contributed to the book, you could not be blamed if you concluded that only one writer had done it all. Perhaps the articles seem so much alike because they all result from the application of a common formula. Typically, the writers select a recent report from a scientiﬁc journal or a talk at a recent professional meeting, sprinkle in a bit of historical background, and then interview the scientists involved in the research.
These scientists—even those who customarily write in cumbersome, jargon-ridden prose comprehensible only to other scientists—elocutionize in pithy, colorful, eminently quotable remarks: “Just like the physics of water does not tell you about hurricanes, the property of a single neuron does not shed light on consciousness.” One wonders how much of this kind of quote actually originated with the scientist and how the journalist got the subject to be, well, more quotable and journalistic?
Whatever the explanation for such marvelous transformations from the ponderous and didactic to the clever and even cutesy, the scientists interviewed in this collection explain their work and philosophize about its implications with verve and vivacity. If you add to this the contributors’ skills at presenting difﬁcult scientiﬁc concepts in understandable, jargon-free prose, you have a worthwhile addition to anyone’s collection of books devoted to the brain.
SEEKING OPTIMAL BRAIN PERFORMANCE
Brain Fitness: Anti-Aging Strategies for Achieving Super Mind Power sets out to apply new research on the brain—like that described in The Science Times Book of the Brain—in order to enhance the brain’s performance. The author, Robert Goldman, is assisted by Ronald Klatz—they are cofounders of the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine—and professional writer Lisa Berger.
According to Brain Fitness, we can achieve “super” mind power by improving our memory, sharpening our concentration, reducing stress, learning to sleep better, and improving our diet. As an example of what we should be aiming for, Goldman points to research of K. Warner Schaie, who in 1956 launched the Seattle Longitudinal Study. Schaie discovered that older people who are mentally sharp share these qualities:
- Regularly engaged in reading, traveling, attending cultural events, joining professional associations, and furthering their education.
- Open to new ideas and quick to grasp new information.
- Flexible and willing to change.
- Married to an intelligent spouse.
- Above-average in education and income.
- Free of chronic diseases.
- Satisﬁed with professional and personal accomplishments.
To achieve optimal brain performance throughout our lives, Goldman suggests mental exercises that include lots of reading, vocabulary enhancement, mental arithmetic, word games, memorizing poems, spatial skill training (with Rubik’s Cube or sketching), and learning to play a musical instrument. Since these activities call on the skills of both the right and the left hemispheres of the brain, they have the potential, if combined and put into regular practice, to greatly improve mental performance.
But, as Goldman reminds us, mental activities should not be considered in isolation from a sound physical exercise program. Rather than recommending a single exercise, Goldman wisely provides a menu of different activities that incorporate both aerobic (walking, running, bicycling, and swimming) and anaerobic (weight-lifting) activities.
SUBDUING THE BRAIN BEAST
Exercise is only one weapon in the battle against stress. In the chapter “Battling The Brain Beasts,” Goldman suggests that “Learning to tame stress is a lifetime occupation. This is not a onetime skill like learning to play bridge, but a continuing education that we perfect as we grow older.” Goldman’s point that “we need to constantly battle the stress that eats at us for weeks and months, ﬂooding our brains with high levels of corrosive chemicals” corresponds to the conclusion David Mahoney and I reached last year in our book The Longevity Strategy. Stress is a killer that can shorten our lives and rob us of life’s pleasures. But how to subdue the “brain beast”?
Goldman suggests several weapons: diet and nutritional supplements, vitamins and herbs, social support, and what he calls “whole-body activities”: meditation, breathing exercises, muscle relaxation, martial arts, and cognitive exercises. Rather than picking and choosing from this list, Goldman suggests a “full-court press” involving all of them.
In learning how to use relaxation to combat stress, it helps to remember that relaxation is an end and that a number of roads will take you there.… Scientists who have compared the relative benefits found that a single technique is not as effective as under-taking two or three methods within a single stress-reduction program.
In addition to these physical approaches, Goldman recommends cognitive strategies (“a catch-all term for changing the way you automatically think in stressful situations... replacing the emotions of stress-anxiety, frustration, anger, passivity, and self-doubt with positive thinking and conﬁdence”) coupled with imaging exercises (“concentrating your attention on mental images that are momentarily pleasant, inspiring, sensuous or captivating”).
Such approaches offer our best chance of combating that formidable foe of peace and equanimity: depression. As Goldman points out in a memorable sentence, mild to moderate depression “lets a person get through the day but takes the excitement out of new ideas and the satisfaction out of small victories.”
While Goldman concurs with research conclusions that mild depression—indeed temperament in general—is determined by our genetic makeup, and that each of us has a “happiness set point” or predetermined genetic disposition, this is only half the equation. “The other half comes from small pleasures and joys.” Goldman advises us to ﬁnd a way to live at the top of our happiness set point. Instead of building our lives around the prospect of monumental events, we should “seize the small delights that brighten our day.”
Moderate to severe depression may also yield to stress-reduction and exercise programs. We need to learn more about how exercise reverses the signs of depression. Goldman discusses a study of 40 depressed women carried out at the University of Rochester Sports Center. The women improved dramatically on tests for depression while they were exercising three times per week; their sedentary depressed peers registered no improvement in their mental health. Based on this study, psychiatrists should be cheerleading for increased exercise by their depressed patients, yet in an informal survey I took among psychiatrists, I failed to ﬁnd even one who discussed exercise and physical activity levels with patients.
If exercise is so wonderful, why isn’t everybody doing it? Goldman makes a perceptive observation: “exercise avoiders” appear to be particularly sensitive to the physical and psychological effects of hyperventilation.
If exercise is so wonderful, why isn’t everybody doing it? Goldman makes a perceptive observation: “exercise avoiders” appear to be particularly sensitive to the physical and psychological effects of hyperventilation. In such individuals “...rapid shallow breathing feeds on itself, gets worse, and can produce light-headedness and strong feelings of fear.” Breathing through the mouth and pulling air from the top of the lungs also activate stress hormones, and in the exercise-shy “panting— shallow breathing—is deﬁnitely unpleasant. This is why many people do not like to exercise.”
In addition to rapid breathing, exercise is accompanied by an increased heart rate and sweating—two additional components of the “ﬁght or ﬂight” response. To overcome their exercise avoidance, affected individuals—and I speak from personal experience here—may require a reconditioning program that will train their brains not to launch a full-ﬂedged “ﬁght or ﬂight” response whenever the heart or breathing rate increases.
While on the whole Goldman’s suggestions about nutritional supplements are sensible, few doctors would agree with prescribing Deprenyl, a dopamine-boosting drug with a panoply of side effects, for people not suffering from Parkinson’s disease. He also does not emphasize adequately that some health supplements now on the market are downright dangerous. For example, the Food and Drug Administration reported in January that the “health” supplement gamma butyrolactone had killed one person and precipitated a coma in nineteen users of products containing the chemical. Manic and delusional disorders have resulted from the use of herbal supplements containing Ma-huang, the main plant source of ephedrine, which is a known precipitator of serious psychiatric reactions. Nor should men attempt to boost their sex drive via the vasopressin-containing nasal spray Diapid since, as Goldman points out, “the long-term consequences of taking regular doses of vasopressin are unknown and potentially hazardous.”
In regard to human growth hormone (hGH), it is good to see that Goldman and his coauthor Klatz have softened their stance. In 1997 Klatz authored Grow Young with HGH, which lauded this prescription-only drug given by injection and costing up to $20,000 annually. In addition to the obstacles of the needles and the hefty price, scientists are not certain how supplemental hGH works in the body. But they do know that it can produce signiﬁcant side effects like diabetes, hypertension, nausea, and carpel tunnel syndrome for starters.
Unfortunately, Brain Fitness also contains some bloopers. For instance, as physicians, both Goldman and Klatz should be able to distinguish the symptoms of hyperthyroidism (high levels) from hypothyroidism (low levels) of thyroid hormone. Yet the description on page 68 of a hypothyroid state is mistakenly designated “hyperthyroidism.” And Ritalin is not an amphetamine. Nor does the brain use the neurotransmitter GABA “to manufacture neurotransmitters which are needed for nerve cell function.” In addition, Goldman’s reasoning might have beneﬁted in some instances from a logic course. The existence of neurological impairments that result from deﬁciencies of the B vitamins does not imply “the converse of vitamin deﬁciency—that higher stronger RDA levels of B vitamins can actually strengthen your mental health.” While a lack of gasoline will surely shut down a car’s engine, enhanced performance will not result from ﬂooding the carburetor with excess fuel.
Notwithstanding these small criticisms, Brain Fitness provides an enjoyable and not overly taxing introduction to ways we can push our brains closer to the limit of their capabilities.
Together, these books make a nice pair: The Science Times Book of the Brain provides an intelligent and easily understood overview of brain research, while Brain Fitness suggests practical and helpful ways of applying some of this knowledge.
From The Science Times Book of the Brain. © 1998 The New York Times. Used with permission.
Flies With Photographic Memories
“CREB is the clearest example of a molecule involved in long-term memory” to come out of behavioral studies, said Dr. Larry R. Squire, a neuroscientist at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in San Diego.
Dr. Howard B. Eichenbaum, a neuroscientist at Boston University, said: “I’m very excited. It’s amazing that CREB is so specific to memory.
“The CREB story is growing stronger as new evidence” provides powerful links between the protein and various memory processes, he said.
The discovery of CREB’s role in fruit flies and mice has far-reaching implications. It could answer such questions as why cramming for a test does not work in the long run or why certain emotional events become instantly etched in the mind. Medically, the findings could possibly lead to drug treatments for memory loss, dementia and posttraumatic stress disorder.
When the CREB switch in a cell is turned on, researchers believe, it sets off the synthesis of other proteins that cement lasting memories by supporting the growth of new connections between nerve cells. When it is turned off, CREB halts the production of those cementing proteins, thus preventing unnecessary memories from forming.
Studies done in Dr. [Eric] Kandel’s laboratory on sea slug cells supplied the first hint of a role for CREB in memory. But the recent fruit fly work provides the most striking behavioral demonstration that CREB works as a memory switch.
In fruit flies, as in other species, CREB is a so-called transcription factor, a protein in the cell nucleus that binds to DNA and causes nearby genes to be spun into protein. Researchers have discovered how the nerve cell flips the CREB switch on and off. A protein called CREB activator turns it on, and CREB repressor turns it off.
The gene sequence used to make CREB activator and CREB repressor proteins have also been identified, and a few years ago Dr. Jerry Yin, a biologist now at Cold Spring Harbor, endowed fruit flies with extra genes so that one group acquired an extra CREB activator and the other gained a CREB repressor. To test their memory, he teamed up with Dr. Timothy Tully, a geneticist at Cold Spring Harbor.
Dr. Tully developed a test that measures how fast the flies learn to associate an odor with an electric shock in a way that produced a lasting memory. Normal flies need 10 training sessions to form a persistent recollection of the test. Flies with an extra dose of CREB repressor could not form lasting memories at all. “That showed beyond reasonable doubt that CREB repressor blocks long-term memory,” Dr. Tully said.
But most surprising of all, the insects fortified with an extra CREB activator gene needed just a single training session. “This implies these flies have a photographic memory,” Dr. Tully said. He said they are just like students “who could read a chapter of a book once, see it in their mind and tell you that the answer is in paragraph 3 of page 274.”
From Brain Fitness: Anti-Aging Strategies for Achieving Super Mind Power. © 1999 Robert M. Goldman, Ronald Klatz, Lisa Berger. Reprinted by permission of Doubleday.
It's not enough to practice and stimulate your memory, you also have to guard against assaults from harmful foods and the environment. Every day, people consume chemicals and are exposed to things like saturated fats that can poison memory. By guarding against the following poisons, you can slow or even prevent some memory loss.
Stress not only hurts your physical health, it also erodes your powers of recall. While short bursts of stress can rev up your mental engine, the constant bombardment of stress hormones eventually damages brain cells. Scientists have found that stress disrupts the chemical communication that is essential to the long-term potentiation (a chemical and electrical action) that triggers learning. Stress also stimulates the flow of cortisol, a hormone that helps process carbohydrates but that in excess can damage brain cells. Glucocorticoids inhibit the brain’s ability to absorb glucose, its main source of energy, and rob it of its ability to moderate other chemical signals. Consequently, brain cells become overexcited and are either damaged or killed. It is no wonder that people who live and work with constant stress say they have trouble learning and remembering.
I ease stress that has become a regular part of my life by setting aside a time in the early morning, between my workday and nighttime reading, for what I call constructive visualization. In a quiet room, with the phone turned off and the lighting dimmed, I close my eyes and imagine an upcoming meeting, task, conversation, or phone call. I visualize the setting and the people involved and see myself going through it. I shape the ideas and sentences I am going to communicate and practice my actions and body movements. This mental rehearsal helps me not only to anticipate and control an event but also to moderate any stress associated with it. By reducing the unpredictability of my own reactions, I lower the stress factor. As a stress buster, constructive visualization is similar to meditation and aerobic exercise.
Painkillers: Scientists have found that nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (what they call NSAIDs and what you know as ibuprofen) can chip away at your memory. While about 40 percent of all NSAIDs are prescribed for people over sixty-five years of age, mostly for arthritis, they have also become the drug of choice for sports enthusiasts beset by aches and pains of physical activity. In a survey of elderly rural residents by the University of Iowa College of Medicine, people taking high doses of NSAIDs (more than 1,800 milligrams a day) were found to be at high risk for long-term memory decline. While other studies have suggested that antiinflammatories may protect the brain from dementia, it is possible that very large doses of these drugs are harmful. Few of us can consume that much medication for any length of time and not suffer kidney damage. Nevertheless, the University of Iowa study contains a warning that we all should heed: Excessive medications can do unseen damage.
Alcohol: Regular, high consumption of alcohol definitely impairs memory and thinking. When you drink too much, the ethanol is broken down into various products, particularly fatty acid ethyl esters, which in turn reduce calcium concentrations in the brain. Calcium is essential for brain cells to communicate, and so your mind begins to slow down and forget. However, there is no unequivocal scientific evidence that moderate alcohol consumption ruins recall. Some researchers have studied the effects of “medium” doses of alcohol—0.05 milligrams per kilogram of body weight—on learning and verbal recall and found that the immediate result was minimal, or memory actually improved. Some studies have shown, however, that even moderate alcohol can hurt information processing tasks.
Tap water: Tap water can be another memory poison, especially when it comes from antiquated, poorly maintained systems that contain numerous toxins. It is not unusual for tap water to contain toxic chemicals, lead, and even fecal bacteria. A much better alternative is steamed distilled water, which is also called purified, demineralized, deionized, or reverse osmosis water. Through distillation, the water is largely purified of dissolved solids, chlorine, and toxic material. Minerals have also been removed from the water. Other types of “natural” water, such as bottled water or mineral water, are not as pure as distilled water.