Old Brain New Tricks: What Does Neuroscience Say?
Old Brain New Tricks: They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but does the same go for your brain?
There is an ever-growing fear of aging. The gray hairs, thicker glasses, stiff joints, and cognitive decline are all sources of the anxiety we feel related to aging. The good news, however, is that you can take control of your cognitive aging and keep your brain younger for longer. Wondering how you can learn to teach your old brain new tricks? Keep reading below.
Change Your Old Brain
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to form and reorganize synaptic connections. This reorganization is influenced through exposure to your environment and behavior. If you change your environment and alter some of your behaviors, your brain will follow suit.
One instance where the wonders of neuroplasticity are apparent are in patients who have suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI). A stroke patient can be used as a common model. If an individual has a stroke and sees everyday functions affected, such as mobility and communication, intense therapy will allow the brain to reassign those functions to different areas. Since mobility and communication are both used in everyday life, the environment outside of therapy will reinforce these changes as well.
However, there are limitations to the brains’ ability to change. Our brains are beautifully and elegantly plastic, but not infinitely so. In other words, our brains have this extraordinary ability to change cognitively, functionally, and anatomically, but this occurs within boundaries.
Old brain new tricks: Keep Your Brain Young
There is no anti-aging serum on the market yet, but by taking advantage of your brain’s ability to reorganize you can still perform cognitive functions more aligned with the younger folk. Actively trying to slow down the decline of cognitive functions can also be tied to reduced likelihood of various neurological diseases related to age, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Part of keeping your brain young and reducing cognitive decline is maintaining its size and mass. At around age 30, your brain begins to lose mass, most significantly in the hippocampus, which is the area that governs memory. If you think about this, it actually makes sense. The most commonly talked about size effect of aging is memory loss and forgetfulness, which isn’t a surprise if you think about the hippocampus decreases over time.
The prefrontal cortex is another brain area that shrinks with age. The prefrontal cortex governs executive functioning, which encompasses planning, learning, memory, thought discretion, and other high-level mental activities. The symptomatic decline of these skills is also noted with age. So, how can someone slow these changes, or perhaps regain some of these skills later in life? Also, how is this related to the brain’s plasticity?
Old brain new tricks: 3 Tips for the Aging Brain
Teaching an old brain new tricks is dependent upon taking advantage of your brain’s neuroplasticity. While targeting specific brain regions by learning new skills, or doing memory tasks can be beneficial, it is more advantageous to alter your environment and practices to keep your wits sharp.
1. Exercise: Move Your Body to Fatten Your Brain
The new year is well underway, so it’s possible many of your New Year’s Resolutions may have been left by the wayside, but heading back to the gym could greatly improve your brain functioning.
The first few weeks of regimented physical activity tend to not produce too many abrupt physical changes, however much we may desire them, but it does have an impact on neurological changes. These changes in your brain can have long lasting effects. Raising your heart rate through exercising increases oxygen flow to the brain. Increased oxygen levels allow for the brain to nourish neurons and other cells that are important in many different bodily functions. It also provides an optimal environment for stimulating new cell growth, which is important in growing new synaptic connections. These new neural connections are your brain enacting in neural plastic functions.
These new connections have been found to have a prominent concentration in the hippocampus, which is the section of the brain mentioned earlier as the first to decrease in size. By exercising regularly, your hippocampus could regain previously lost mass, as well as giving a heightened scenario for working on improvements in memory.
An added bonus to these changes is what is known as a “runner’s high”. Although in a drug induced high, the same types of neurotransmitters are involved. Dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine are all produced and released in high concentrations during exercise. These good feelings carry on after exercise and individual who regularly exercise are less likely to develop depressive and anxiety related disorders.
2. Learn: Explore a New Hobby
Your new gym rat status has allowed you to set up your brain as a heightened environment for improving cognitive function, but how exactly do you take advantage of that?
Learning a new skill is a great way to strengthen and make new neural connections. Hobbies that require intricate motor mobility are especially advantageous to improving cognition. Learning to juggle, for example, has been shown to greatly increase white matter in the brain. White matter is made up of bundles of myelinated neuron axons. The myelin acts as a way for nerve impulses to be quickly sped up and in turn quicken brain activity.
Juggling is both a complex and a rewarding skill, and it engages various parts of the brain. Through increased exposure and practice, individuals strengthen motor neurons that influence hand and arm movement, sensory neurons that respond the presence and absence of ball in your hand, and sensory neurons that observe and relay the pattern the balls make in the air to your occipital lobe.
Other skills such as gardening, knitting, and building models also engage motor enhancement and are beneficial to both improving your brain’s ability to absorb and learn, as well as use the skills.
3. Sleep: Consolidate the New Tricks for Your Old Brain
Sleep is important to everyone, it is important in order to consolidate learning and memory.
Sleep allows us to strengthen and correlate new skills and memories and store them effectively to be revisited later. More energy is available when you are asleep in order for your brain to shuffle around, repair neurons, and reassign synapses. This is vital if you really want to reap the benefits of your new endeavor to keep your brain young.
Think you can’t teach your old brain new tricks? Think again
By following the above tips, and being familiar with how your brain can change, you can work towards improving your cognition. The brain is made to learn, and your brain will thank your dedication to being more engaged. Changes in behavior and environment are key to reinforce qualities important in stimulation plastic qualities of your brain.
Jacquelyn is currently an undergraduate student at the University of Pittsburgh. She is studying both Neuroscience and Psychology, and earning a minor in Chemistry. Jacquelyn is particularly interested in neuromuscular research and neurobiological diseases related to aging, and hopes to apply her passions to future functional neuroscience research.