The modest drinkers’ guide to growing back brain cells
For those like me who’ve wondered (worried) about how many innocent brain cells they’ve wiped out at the pub over the years, the most exciting news in ages is that, just maybe, our brains are smarter than we are.
How so? The evidence is growing that the brain isn’t a fixed collection of a few billion neurones, but a living laboratory that can make its own new cells. And while that is not an excuse to wipe them out with that fourth martini, it does open up a whole new way of understanding the human mind.
It’s all part of an evolving area of science which views our brains as plastic. And no, we’re not talking that hard coloured stuff they make Lego out of. The idea is that your brain is changeable. And one way to encourage it to do make the right changes is– and here we get radical – thinking in the right way.
“You’ve got to understand that everything you do changes your brain,” says Norman Doidge, a Canadian psychiatrist whose book The Brain that Changes Itself has been a runaway bestseller.
Doidge believes we’ve had the wrong idea about the brain for centuries. We’ve seen it as a machine, with circuits that are pre-determined in early life.
“And this machine-like metaphor meant if you were born with certain kinds of learning disability, you were necessarily - a key word - doomed to live with that,” Doidge says.
“And if you sustained brain damage in all cases, necessarily nothing could be done about it. And that if you were aging it made very little sense for a person to try to do exercises to try to preserve their brain - because machines do many glorious things but they don’t grow new parts and improve themselves as they go along.”
In fact, as Doidge says, neuroscientists now believe the brain actually works by changing itself. Every time we do something new, or challenging, we make connective changes. It makes us physically different people to what we were just a few minutes before.
The trouble is, we can’t see inside the brain to check what the changes actually are. You can’t just open up someone’s head, and even if you could, so much of what happens is at a level beyond our present understanding.
Two great examples are the cases of Terri Schiavo and Terry Wallis from the US. Schiavo suffered a heart attack and was diagnosed later to be in a vegetative state – but nobody knew what was going on in her head. Might she wake up? Should her feeding tube be kept or removed? After years of dispute and numerous court cases the tube was removed, and she died. Her brain was later found to have been damaged and half the weight it should have been, lending credit to the notion she could never have recovered.
But Wallis’s story is different. He was mute and unresponsive for 19 years after a car accident that left him with serious brain damage and also put him in a vegetative state. But then one day he sat up and told his mother she was beautiful. Researchers found his brain had grown new connections – which the rest of us don’t even have - after the accident.
The brain’s ability to work around problems is only now beginning to be recognised. Doidge’s book chronicles recent research pointing to the way the brain, when challenged in the right way, can make new connections and overcome injuries, pain and problems that not long ago would have been viewed as intractable.
For example, as I wrote in a long piece in The Advertiser’s SA Weekend on Saturday (Inside Bob’s Brain), Doidge found a researcher who taught monkeys to regain the use of limbs that had been paralysed by a stroke-like condition, by tricking the brain into rewiring itself.
In one experiment, a good arm was bound up so the monkey was forced to persist in trying to use the paralysed limb. Eventually, in many cases, it was able to do so. A second experiment involved binding up the paralysed limb for a period, preventing the brain from learning that it was damaged. After a period, the limb was released and the monkey was able to use it.
The brain has learned it can’t use a limb; the trick is to make it unlearn that. It works in humans too.
Another example is work by the Indian neurologist V. S. Ramachandran who used a box with mirrors to help people overcome the unpleasant experience of having a phantom limb after an amputation. Some patients were frustrated because the limb, even though it wasn’t there, felt stuck in one position, and painful. Using mirrors, Ramachandran fooled the brain into believing an existing limb on one side was in fact the missing one. Able to “see” the missing limb, the brain eventually “learned” how to move it.
Doidge says the brain can also be sharpened up to think more clearly. He has checked for himself some of the “brain trainer” programs and found that they can ward off some of the natural slowing in brain agility that comes with old age.
But he says there’s no evidence that we can yet do anything to build up brain cells that would ward off diseases – still barely understood – like Alzheimer’s. Australian researcher Michael Valenzuela, who has a new book called “It’s Never Too late to Change Your Mind” agrees but does hold out some hope.
Valenzuela’s book lists a maintaining healthy blood pressure as the biggest single thing you can do to protect against dementia. Otherwise he points to the value of eating oily fish two or three times a week, and introducing new and challenging activities to your life.
Examples would be learning a new language, learning to sail, learning to dance – social, but mentally challenging tasks.
And, keep yourself nice at the pub. There are conflicting surveys about the potential benefits of the regular but moderate consumption of red wine to keeping dementia at bay, but one thing is clear: Binge drinking is bad for your brain.
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