Your Brain: Use It or Lose It

Continuing to learn as we age has just gotten another endorsement. The benefits of learning new skills at any age has always been a cause I have championed because it sets good examples for the people in our lives, benefits society as we use our expertise and it keeps us invigorated. Now scientists have discovered that continued learning also repairs damage and creates new neural connections that stave off dementia. How is this possible? The answer is that our brains are not machines that wear out with time but are actually neuroplastic with circuits that constantly change and grow as we increase our mental and physical activity.

Dating back to the 19th century the prevailing thought was that a brain once damaged was unrepairable. As this analogy evolved the brain was seen more like computer hardware, which would become obsolete and wear out over time. This also meant that doctors viewed efforts to “exercise” the brain as a waste of time. These views have changed dramatically over the past few years and now clinical research substantiates the idea of use it or lose it. Why and how does mental and physical exercise help the health of our brains?

Learning new skills, forming memories and thinking create new neural connections that can form and reform as our usage progresses. Scientists have also discovered that damage to the brain can be healed as new neurons take over old tasks and form new connections. By the same token your brain can stop creating new connections and cease to repair damage when learned nonuse occurs. This most often happens in cases of stroke victims or serious illnesses that limit physical activity. Dr. Taub of Birmingham, Alabama is using this information in therapeutic settings. What he has done is limit the use of a healthy limb, which has caused neurons adjacent to the damaged ones to take over functions and create new connections, thus sparking healing in the affected body part.

The brain of an individual with dementia is losing overall plasticity and this causes it to shrink and lose connections. What scientists have discovered is that physical exercise is as important as continued mental exercise to lower the risk of dementia. While the advantages of increased mental exercise to this end seem apparent, what is the connection found to physical exercise? Regular vigorous physical exercise especially in middle age creates significant hippocampal enlargement. This is the region of the brain which turns short-term memories into long-term memories. Physical exercise also increases the gray and white matter in the frontal lobes; the areas responsible for planning and goal-directed activity. In short exercise acts as fertilizer for the brain encouraging the growth of new neural connections. Interestingly, one of the reasons associated with this is our sense of survival. Scientists surmise that long walks trigger the brain to think of our ancestral past where hunting and gathering played large roles in survival and learning new skills helped to insure future life.

Luckily, research is proving how resilient our brains are and that we have the capacity to grow them at any point in our lives. What is also encouraging to know is the strides scientific research has made in learning how to use the power of our brains to heal. These benefits have increased from stroke victims to people suffering from Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, autism, traumatic brain injuries and learning disabilities. Hats off to our body’s command center; use it or lose it.

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