A neuroscientist has discovered a mental fountain of youth: how to re-wire the older adult brain for substantially improved cognition and memory.
Neuroscientist Michael Merzenich has spent a lifetime studying brain plasticity. He noticed that rat brains age in much the same way human ones do. Merzenich and his team built a brain-training program designed to help the elderly rat brains perform faster and more accurately.
Study Shows Lasting Gains
His training program came partly from a study, partly organized by neuroscientist Karlene Ball, that looked at 3,000 adults aged 65 and up for 10 years. They were divided into four groups: a control group, one that performed memory training, another that did reasoning training, and a last one that did speed training. The groups trained for 10 hours the first month, and about half in each training group was asked to train an additional four hours at the end of years one and three. That’s it: 18 hours of training over 10 years.
As the average participant passed from 74 years old to 84, an amazing thing happened. Each group not only improved function in its target skill after training, but improvements lasted throughout the duration of the decade-long research period. In fact, the people who had trained still had about three years more protection against decline in the ability after 10 years than the control group.
Furthermore, one approach in particular seemed to offer additional benefits. The speed training group showed transfers to real-life abilities, including:
- 38% less risk of onset of depressive symptoms
- 30% less risk of deepening of depressive symptoms
- 68% stronger feeling of confidence and control
- 48% less risk of at-fault car crashes
Rats Get Younger Brains
So, how did Merzenich and his colleagues attempt to rewire the rat brains?
“The rat listened to a series of frequencies, and every time the rat heard the target frequency, the rat could get a food reward,” he writes. “As the rat got better and better at noticing the target sound amidst distractor sounds, we made the sounds faster, and less different — to improve auditory precision and speed.”
Brain health in the older rats was improved nearly to that of young rats, according to photos of brain function. But how can humans benefit from this knowledge?
Merzenich started with auditory exercises, then paired with Ball for visual workouts. The end result is BrainHQ
, an online platform and app with dozens of activities that target different brain systems. It may be available for free at your library. But you don’t have to use the brain program.
Start with these seven examples from everyday life that can enhance brain function:
- Put together a jigsaw puzzle. Choose one with a minimum of 500 pieces, or whatever is challenging for you. You’ll engage visual processing and manipulation.
- Learn how to play a musical instrument. It’s a complete brain workout!
- Play ball. Throwing a ball up and catching it hones visual, tactile and hand-eye coordination responses.
- Do a timed word game. For example, choose a word with three syllables and see how many words you can make with the letters it contains in five minutes.
- Knit or crochet. If you already know how, push yourself to get faster and better.
- Turn the volume down on your TV. See if you can follow along by concentrating harder. It can teach your brain to ignore the “static” that sets in with age.
- Perform a task with the hand that is not dominant. Start by brushing your teeth, then move on to a more complex task, such as eating.
We no longer have to sit back and accept that our aging brains will merely continue to devolve. Just like our bodies need physical exercise, our brains need mental gymnastics to perform optimally. So get your head out of its mental recliner and take it to the gym! You can stay mentally alert longer than you may have thought.