Tag Archives: dementia

Archery and the brain

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Native American archers. Source: Wikimedia

I wonder if the same is true for jugglers?

Stronger activation and deactivation in archery experts for differential cognitive strategy in visuospatial working memory processing

It is well known that elite athletes have higher performance in perception, planning, and execution in sports activities relative to novices. It remains controversial, however, whether any differences in basic cognitive functions between experts and novices exist. Furthermore, few studies have directly used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate neural activation and deactivation differences between experts and novices while performing visuospatial working memory (WM) tasks. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to examine possible differences in neural activation and deactivation associated with working memory components in processing visuospatial information between archery experts and novices. To this end, we employed a judgment of line orientation (JLO) task, which has a strong WM component. With regard to brain activation, archery experts displayed higher activation in cortical areas associated with visuospatial attention and working memory, including the middle frontal cortex, supplemental motor area, and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex than that of the novices during the performance of the JLO task. With regard to brain deactivation, archery experts exhibited stronger task-related deactivation in cortical areas, such as the paracentral cortex/precuneus and the anterior and posterior cingulate cortex related to the default network, than that of the novices. These results suggest that the archery experts have a strategy that demands greater use of neural correlates associated with visuospatial working memory and attention in addition to greater use of DMN in visuospatial working memory task not directly tied to their domain of expertise.

These results are impressive due to the results suggesting a general benefit from mastering a specific skill, but it is preliminary. It is already well established that “brain training” via learning a particular skill causes brain adaptations that make you better at the skill and very closely related skills, but whether or not this training makes you “smarter” in general remains an open question. Usually it doesn’t, except maybe when it comes to learning to play a musical instrument from an early age(and even then, maybe it just teaches a child discipline, rather than making them more intelligent). Research into activities that can help prevent cognitive decline as we age is a separate though related issue.

The search for activities that can bring about general cognitive benefits or can make you “smarter” in a more general sense continues. In the mean time I will continue to juggle.

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Be keen on choline

Choline is a necessary nutrient for proper human functioning, but it tends to get little attention. This is unfortunate, because a lot of people, in particular pregnant women and vegetarians, may be deficient in choline.

A neuron. Choline is necessary for nerve-signaling, synthesizing cell membranes, and is a precursor of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Image source: Wikipedia

A neuron. Choline is necessary for nerve-signaling, synthesizing cell membranes, and is a precursor of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Image source: Wikipedia

Choline is usually considered part of the B vitamin club. Or maybe it is more like a “fellow traveler”. Whatever the case, choline is a quaternary ammonium salt that is used to synthesize cell membranes, for energy production, and also for nerve signaling. It appears to be particularly important for proper brain, and liver functioning.

Choline is also a precursor molecule for making acetylcholine, an important neurotransmitter in the brain that is important for memory and muscle control. Fatty organ meat is the best source of choline, and eggs(the yolk) to a lesser extent, though it can also be found in plant foods like nuts, whole grains and green vegetables, but in smaller amounts. Lecithin, which is used as an emulsifier in food production and as a supplement also has a lot of choline. A healthy person can make their own choline from the amino acid methionine, but many people don’t produce enough.

Unlike most nutrients, choline doesn’t have an RDA(recommended daily allowance). It does, however have an AI(adequate intake, which is 550 milligrams per day for men and 425 for women which was set in 1998), which means experts can’t agree on an RDA since the science is less clear for choline than for nutrients with RDAs, like vitamin C, calcium, vitamin A, and iron, among others. Not getting the RDA for vitamin C can lead to a deficiency disease called scurvy, which is characterized by bleeding gums, weakness, and bone pain.

Lack of choline, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily lead to any chronic, debilitating deficiency disease, except for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, in many, but not all people who get inadequate choline. According to –  Choline
Dietary Requirements and Role in Brain Development
Lisa M. Sanders, PhD, RD and Steven H. Zeisel, MD, PhD:

When placed on a low-choline diet, only 68% of individuals developed signs of organ dysfunction characteristic of choline deficiency. This suggests that genetic variability among individuals may influence susceptibility to choline deficiency.

So your genes can determine whether or not you show symptoms of choline deficiency. This is one very complex nutrient which is involved with so many metabolic pathways. Most pregnant women do not get adequate choline(in theory, they require more), however, supplementing with choline didn’t appear to help enhance infant cognitive function, according to: Am J Clin Nutr. 2012 Dec;96(6):1465-72. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.112.037184. Epub 2012 Nov 7:

RESULTS:

The women studied ate diets that delivered ∼360 mg choline/d in foods (∼80% of the recommended intake for pregnant women, 65% of the recommended intake for lactating women). The phosphatidylcholine supplements were well tolerated. Groups did not differ significantly in global development, language development, short-term visuospatial memory, or long-term episodic memory.
CONCLUSIONS:

Phosphatidylcholine supplementation of pregnant women eating diets containing moderate amounts of choline did not enhance their infants’ brain function. It is possible that a longer follow-up period would reveal late-emerging effects. Moreover, future studies should determine whether supplementing mothers eating diets much lower in choline content, such as those consumed in several low-income countries, would enhance infant brain development.

What about choline’s effect on dementia, since choline is a precursor for acetylcholine, which is important for brain health and memory production? According to – Clin Ther. 2003 Jan;25(1):178-93:

RESULTS: A total of 261 patients (132 in the CA group, 129 in the placebo group) were enrolled in the study. The mean (SD) age in the CA group was 72.2(7.5) years (range, 60-80 years), and in the placebo group it was 71.7 (7.4) years(range, 60-80 years). The CA group comprised 105 women and 27 men; the placebo group, 94 women and 35 men. The mean decrease in ADAS-Cog score in patients treated with CA was 2.42 points after 90 days of treatment and 3.20 points at the end of the study (day 180) (P < 0.001 vs baseline for both), whereas in patients receiving placebo the mean increase in ADAS-Cog score was 0.36 point <1 after 90 days of treatment and 2.90 points after 180 days of treatment(P < 0.001 vs baseline). In the CA group, all other assessed parameters (MMSE,GDS, ADAS-Behav, ADAS-Total, and CGI) consistently improved after 90 and 180 days versus baseline, whereas in the placebo group they remained unchanged or worsened. Statistically significant differences were observed between treatments after 90 and 180 days in ADAS-Cog, MMSE, GDS, ADAS-Total, and CGI scores and after 180 days of treatment in ADAS-Behav and GIS scores.CONCLUSION: The results of this study suggest the clinical usefulness and tolerability of CA in the treatment of the cognitive symptoms of dementia disorders of the Alzheimer type. (Emphasis mine)

So choline shows some promise when it comes to symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer’s, but more research needs to be done. Some good sources of choline:

Food Serving Total Choline (mg)
Beef liver, pan fried 3 ounces* 355
Wheat germ, toasted 1 cup 172
Egg 1 large 126
Atlantic cod, cooked 3 ounces 71
Beef, trim cut, cooked 3 ounces 67
Brussel sprouts, cooked 1 cup 63
Broccoli, cooked 1 cup, chopped 62
Shrimp, canned 3 ounces 60
Salmon 3 ounces 56
Milk, skim 8 fl oz. 38
Peanut butter, smooth 2 tablespoons 20
Milk chocolate 1.5-ounce bar 20

Source: Linus Pauling Institute of Oregon State University

None of this should be considered a recommendation to take choline supplements(or to eat a lot of meat), though if you look at the chart above it becomes obvious that vegetarians are more likely to become deficient than meat-eaters. Be on the look out for news about choline, and it may be worth talking about choline with your doctor if you show any deficiency symptoms. In the future, maybe there will be a simple liver test to see if we need more choline in our diet.

Are you cognitively fit?

When we think of fitness, we usually think of speed, strength, flexibility, or coordination. We don’t normally think about cognitive or brain fitness. There seems to be a dualism at work when it comes to how we approach fitness, with the mind being thought of as separate from the rest of the body, and treated as such.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. I believe brain training is just as important as strength-training, and cardio. Solving puzzles, playing chess, or playing a musical instrument are all great ways to keep your mind sharp, but the body is generally not very active while doing this. These are all great ways to improve your cognitive fitness, but a more efficient use of time would combine cardio with a brain workout.

This is where juggling comes in, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be juggling. Any physical activity that raises your heart rate and involves novel, precise body movement will suffice. Martial arts, dancing, and rock climbing all give your brain a boost while also providing cardio benefits. You could even use martial arts to take down some very powerful criminals, which would require a lot of thought as you plot how to sneak into their hideout, and dodge bullets from their henchmen and henchwomen, but alas, this only happens in the movies.

I think the benefits of these activities would be similar to juggling, if juggling isn’t for you. The good thing about juggling though is the very immediate feedback you get when you don’t do it right – you keep dropping balls.

What does it mean to be cognitively fit? According to – Goizueta Business School of Emory University, Department of Psychiatry, Atlanta, USA

Cognitive fitness will help you be more open to new ideas and alternative perspectives. It will give you the capacity to change your behavior and realize your goals. You can delay senescence for years and even enjoy a second career. Drawing from the rapidly expanding body of neuroscience research as well as from well-established research in psychology and other mental health fields, the authors have identified four steps you can take to become cognitively fit: understand how experience makes the brain grow, work hard at play, search for patterns, and seek novelty and innovation. Together these steps capture some of the key opportunities for maintaining an engaged, creative brain.

In other words, the brain is like a muscle: Use it or lose it. Just as un-exercised muscle atrophies, so does the brain, making it less sharp, and increasing the risk for developing dementia. While almost any form of exercise can increase blood flow to the brain, this isn’t the same thing as giving your brain a workout.

A regular cognitive workout is a positive feedback loop: the more cognitively fit you are, the more likely you are to try new things, which in turn can improve your cognitive fitness even further, which allows you to try even more new things, etc.

So if you are bored with your current fitness routine, consider doing activities that also give your mind a workout. Cognitive fitness is just as important as body fitness.

Parkinson’s Disease and physical activity

Parkinson’s disease is a disorder of the central nervous system that slowly leads to almost total loss of motor function. At later stages, it can lead to dementia. The ultimate cause of this disease is not known, though genetics and exposure to toxins appears to play an important role. The proximate cause appears to be an accumulation of proteins in certain neurons, and lack of dopamine in the parts of the brain responsible for movement. “The discovery of dopamine deficiency in the parkinsonian brain” by Dr. O. Hornykiewicz gives a detailed account of how scientists unearthed the link between dopamine deficiency and Parkinson’s disease.

Parkinson’s disease is currently incurable, but it can be treated in its early stages by drugs and other interventions. As time goes by, and the disease progresses, these drugs become less effective. At more advanced stages, doctors may implant electrodes in the brain to provide “deep brain stimulation”, but not everyone responds well to such treatments.

Placement of an electrode into the brain. From Wikipedia.

Placement of an electrode into the brain. From Wikipedia.

There are of course other, less invasive ways to stimulate the brain to slow down the progression of the disease. According to research done by Rose MH, Løkkegaard A, Sonne-Holm S, Jensen BR, at the University of Copenhagen, high-intensity locomotor training can greatly improve Parkinson’s symptoms. Similar research conducted by Cakit BD, Saracoglu M, Genc H, Erdem HR, Inan L., at Ankara Education and Research Hospital, Turkey, show treadmill training can improve mobility in Parkinson’s patients, and reduce their fear of falling.

So it appears that regular exercise in the early stages of Parkinson’s can slow down the disease’s progression, with or without medication. David H. Blatt, M.D., who is himself a Parkinson’s sufferer and runs the website, Exerciseforparkinsons.com, recommends regular exercise to treat Parkinson’s, especially learning how to juggle. In his own words:

I believe that by practicing juggling I have substantially slowed the progression of my Parkinson’s disease. Juggling stimulates the brain – it forces the brain to quickly process complex, sensory input and then it forces the brain to direct muscles to move quickly in a complex, coordinated manner.

He has many inspiring videos on his website which demonstrate the benefits of his approach. Juggling and exercise may prevent other neurological conditions besides Parkinson’s, as my previous post demonstrated. I would love to see some studies to see if and how juggling helps Parkinson’s patients. As time goes by, the list of benefits of juggling and exercise in general continues to grow.

Juggle to prevent dementia

It is so secret that by far the best way to prevent dementia is exercise. It is almost a truism – active people tend to age more slowly than couch potatoes. Just like muscle, “use it or lose it” applies to your brain and its 86 billion or so neurons(if you have counted your neurons recently and discover you have a little less, don’t worry!). 

The second best way to prevent a decline in neurological function is to engage in brain-stimulating activities, like doing puzzles, or learning new skills. Playing chess is excellent brain stimulation.

She won't be coming down with dementia any time soon.

She won’t be coming down with dementia any time soon.

Also, generally speaking, the more educated a person is, the lower their risk for dementia or alzheimers. 

This is why fitness juggling is such powerful preventive medicine. It’s the ultimate all-in-one exercise/brain stimulating activity. Joggling would be even better, so long as you don’t bump into any trees or people. Or you can simply move around a lot or dance while juggling at home to make it even more fun and challenging if you can’t run. Why should fitness be boring?

Your brain is an amazing natural wonder. It is your greatest asset and deserves to be protected and stimulated. Love your brain and it will love you back.

Have fun juggling!