Exercise does a body — and a BRAIN — good

Posted Posted in Vegtosterone Blog

Here’s something I’ve been wanting to look into. We know that mental exercises help the brain stay alert, but what about physical exercise?

Now comes news from the latest edition of the Neurobiology of Aging (I know, sounds rather obscure, but hey, it’s probably the “Maxim of aging neurobiology mags”) — anyway, — in the latest edition, there’s a report about a recent Canadian research project that suggests physical exercise is indeed as healthy for the BRAIN as it is for the body.

According to the report, the study considered Canadian women 65 years or older and found that those who took part in regular aerobic activity had cognitive functions that were 10% higher than those who did not.

The fit women also, no surprise, had lower blood pressure, and better vascular responses suggesting that better blood flow aided the ability to think, according to researchers.

“Being sedentary is now considered a risk factor for stroke and dementia,” said the lead researcher, Marc Poulin, associate professor, Faculties of Medicine and Kinesiology at the University of Calgary. “The take-home message is that basic fitness is critical to staying mentally sharp,” he said.

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…This is your brain on Ikea

Posted Posted in Vegtosterone Blog

Ever wonder why the instructions for your new IkeaSkurnk” love seat, or the “Funkl” computer desk, the “Vertunk” Dining Room Set, the “Crink” queen size bed, “PRNQ” track lighting…. should I go on… ever wonder why the god*!#X instructions for those things are so obtuse?

Well, from researchers in Sweden, there’s the following news that may be a clue to all this. It may be the Swedes’ way of trying to save our brains.

Seems like researchers in Sweden have proven something actually quite fascinating. We’ve always believed, or that is hoped, that cognitive training would improve cognitive skills, but now is the news that cognitive training actually changes the biochemistry of the brain.

In other words, doing certain mental exercises is indeed like “doing drugs.”

“Brain biochemistry doesn’t just underpin our mental activity; our mental activity and thinking process can also affect the biochemistry,” says Professor Torkel Klingberg, who led the study. “This hasn’t been demonstrated in humans before, and opens up a floodgate of fascinating questions.” — ScienceDaily (Feb. 6, 2009)

According to researchers at the Swedish medical university Karolinska Institutet, in conjunction with the Stockholm Brain Institute (I know, sounds like something from a Mel Brooks movie), the active training of the working memory brings about visible changes in the number of dopamine receptors in the human brain.

Dopamine plays a critical role in memory and problem solving, and impaired dopamine receptors have proven to be a contributing factor to disorders such as ADHD and schizophrenia.

So next time you complain about the seemingly complex, almost comically cruel assembly directions that accompanying your next purchase from Ikea, remember, they’re Swedish — it’s legal there… or is that the Netherlands?

(PS: Click on the “Instructions” above to view a larger image.)

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Improve Memory? Feed the brain, Starve the belly.

Posted Posted in Vegtosterone Blog

Two interesting stories in today’s news on memory.

One deals with the research indicating that a low caloric diet may lead to improved memory.

This is consistent with some of my earlier posts on the Mediterranean diet. That is, a low caloric, unsaturated fatty acid diet (olive oil and fish) are beneficial for brain function, and this has been, apparently, proven, in various studies to improve memory in aging rats. (Who knew?) So they at least remember where the cheese is; although presumably, they would find it unhealthy and not seek it out.

To see whether the same effects can be induced in humans, the latest researchers wanted to see if a low caloric diet improved memory in animals caught up in the “Rat Race,” so they divided 50 normal- to overweight individuals whose average age was 60 years into three groups.

One group reduced their calories by 30 percent; the second increased their unsaturated fatty acids 20 percent; the third group, the control group, made no changes.

The result: The calorie restricted group was very irritable!

I’m presuming, but according to the researchers, this group also saw a 20 percent average increase in verbal memory score after 3 months even over both groups, and they also decreased insulin levels and “bio markers” of inflammation.

Alternative Memory Enhancement: You Can be Born With It

If you don’t want to go through all that dieting, you may just be born with it, and you may not want it after you read this article. Here’s an excerpt:

“A Southern California man employed in the entertainment business is the
fourth person verified by scientists to have an ultra-rare memory gift: He
recalls in detail most days of his life, as well as the day and date of key
public events
, says Larry Cahill, who co-leads a project on people with

There’s a project on people with super memory?

According to this group, they have scanned the brain of one of the four people identified so far; and have discovered that the caudate nuclei section of the brain — typically used for memory when forming automatic habits — and a part of the temporal lobe that stores facts, dates and events, are magnified in the brain, probably accounting for the super memory in these people.

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A man’s brain craves food less than a woman’s, but…

Posted Posted in FOOD, Vegtosterone Blog

It was hard to miss this news over the weekend, as it was picked up by almost every news outlet in the universe: see this simple google search:

In what can only be characterized as a rather “cruel” study, where 23 male and female “volunteers” were “starved” for 17 hours. Then, they were asked, what their most favorite food might be.

The researchers then prepared that food, say a big stack of barbecued ribs, and then waived it in front of the “subjects,” taunting them.

… It gets worse. Then they, took a cotton swab and dipped it into the food and let the “subjects” taste just the flavor of the food.

Meanwhile, they had injected some nuclear tracer into the “subjects” (I hesitate to call them volunteers any longer) and monitored their brain activity on a PET scanner.

Not surprisingly, the brain activity set off bells and whistles like a pin ball machine at a dive bar, and in particular “in the orbital frontal cortex, which is linked to self-control; the striatum, which is linked to motivation; the hippocampus, which is linked to memory; and the amygdala, which is linked to powerful emotions.”

Then the researcher, Dr. Gene-Jack Wang, asked each subject to try and suppress their craving for the food, and it is here where the key findings of the study emerged.

Apparently men were much better at disciplining their amygdalas.


Dr. Wang was impressed. “It takes a lot of inhibition to control the amygdala,” he said.

I am not.

I believe Dr. Wang (ironically named) is simply looking in the wrong place.

While we may be better at disciplining the amygdalas in our brain when it comes to food; I wonder what the study would have revealed had it focused on a different “craving” and the “amygdalas” that most men keep in their pants.

And I wonder if we couldn’t spend our time doing brain research on subjects of a more importance.


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Doctors are people too.

Posted Posted in STRESS, Vegtosterone Blog

From the New York Times today comes a short piece from a doctor (okay.. a psychiatrist…) that lets us in on a bit of a secret– doctors are people too.

I knew this outside of the world of medicine having grown up with my father, the doctor, but one thing I’ve learned all too well since being stricken with an incurable illness over these past five years is how human doctors are in the practice of their own profession, which I thought, for some reason, I thought doctors were above. Not sure why. Perhaps it is the rigor of medical training, the seriousness of the profession, or my liberal-arts education that enabled me to avoid even one math class, let alone biology that made anyone who tackled science much more super human, I guess.

But now that I’ve spent my share around hospitals and doctors as a patient for the past five years, ironically, the first five years my father has not been with us, I have a new appreciation for the subjectivity of doctors.

In his article, Professor Richard Friedman says quite bluntly that doctors don’t like it when patients elude their clinical skills and therapeutic cleverness.

It’s a new concept for me, as I literally have never been significantly ill in my life until now, but what I have found is that doctors, like anyone else, want to be successful at what they do and for that that means curing the patient.

When you have an incurable illness, or one that’s hard to cure, a category in which most CNS disorders fall under, you have a recipe for frustration, and it’s why you have both a great deal of grasping for any indication of success, and a quick denial of symptoms when they don’t fit the typical pattern.

My current doctors are truly a superlative group and I’m blessed, but it was not always that way, and initially, much of the blame I placed upon myself.

I once had a neurologist literally say to me:

“You have migraines? Are you sure. That’s not consistent with your MRI.” In other words… “No you don’t” and I was referred to a cardiologist for tests. (Which only proved my heart was fine.)

A number of patients get this same type of response when they complain of pain, a symptom that is difficult to measure, difficult to cure and legally, difficult to treat as many drugs that treat pain are controlled (and sometimes even illegal, except in California).

Point being, that many people assume that doctors assume they are god-like. The truth is more likely opposite.

It is a stressful job where life and death is a legitimate outcome at the end of each day. It’s natural to want to “fix” the “problem” they encounter each day, and it’s to be expected that some people, under that stress, would become frustrated and begin to blame the patient when their treatment does not cure their diagnosis.

It’s actually human, which really isn’t an insult, honest; but it does give patients a license to insist that their symptoms are legitimate.


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Does your brain care what you eat?

Posted Posted in FOOD, Vegtosterone Blog

One thing that needs to be explored in this journal is the connection between diet and brain health.

While the connection between a healthy diet and health itself, or more specifically cardiovascular health, is obvious; it’s less clear the direct connection between diet and brain health.

Sure, there are a number of studies to suggest that there are connections. Indeed, many studies have connected the Mediterranean Diet to reduced cases of Alzheimer’s and even Parkinson’s, but don’t expect anyone to tell you WHY.

And such is the field of neuroscience. For example, even distinguished outlets like the MAYO Clinic will relay somewhat lame findings like Vitamin D is thought to reduce the onset of Multiple Sclerosis because it’s acquired directly through exposure to sunlight.

“Okay, tell me more,” you might say.

And since most cases of MS are found further from the equator, say these findings, then the assumption is that Vitamin D is helpful in warding off MS.

Seriously? That’s the “science” behind that research?

Maybe, but it does not explain why an Hispanic male raised in Texas who now lives in California (the author) contracted an illness that primarily strikes Caucasian women from northern climates.

Is my case the exception to the rule or the exception that disproves the rule?

Most of the findings on diet and the CNS are like this: linguine thrown on the wall. Some of it sticks, some it doesn’t, but either way, if you’re Mediterranean, that’s NOT the best way to tell if you’re pasta is done.

What you need to do is actually taste it and taste it with the sauce or other foods it is to be prepared with in mind. Sometimes it needs to be al dente, sometimes, not so much, etc. (enough with that metaphor).

Point being, the body works as a whole, and while the brain is, well, the brain (couldn’t think of a better metaphor), it isn’t alone.

Ironically, when we treat the brain or CNS, we often do treat it alone because our neurologists and other specialists are all trained only to look at this XYZ part of our body. As an example, my MS which causes neurological problems is caused by an autoimmune disease. Have I ever been referred to an immunologist? A nutrionist? (Those were rhetorical. The answer is “no.”)

But that is the role of today’s 21st century patient, to take control of their treatment by learning as much as they can about how their body functions, and knowing enough to make sure they are getting the complete treatment they need.


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If you’re over 40, it’s a snap, just a slower one.

Posted Posted in Vegtosterone Blog

For the most part, modern medicine delivers good news, but here’s a depressing dispatch about just hitting 40 — which I thought was still young (I thought).

Apparently, the brain’s myelin, the protective sheath that covers our brain and nerves. erodes over time; (even among folks not afflicted by demyelinating diseases like MS). And what’s worse, this erosion begins around 40 years of age. Most depressing, there seems little to be done about it.

How do we know?

Researchers at the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, studied participants –all men ages 23 to 80–and asked all them to perform a simple task — tap their index finger as fast as they could.

While doing this, they had MRI imaging track activity in their brain and found that the speed at which one could tap, correlated to their age and to their demyelination both as it improved with age and as it slightly deteriorated with age.


Yes. We actually are better in our 30’s than our 20’s, which may explain why the average age of Olympians in 2008 was the oldest it has ever been, but this bell curve tops out at age 39 and begins to decline at age 40.

And to add insult to “injury,” the ability to tap one’s finger, that is the physical ability to perform certain motor skills is also consistent with the deterioration of other brain functions such as memory and cognitive skills.

So as you age not only are you not able to snap you’re fingers quickly, you can’t remember what it is you were going to snap your fingers about!

All I can is, if you’re in your 30’s enjoy it, THESE are the best years of your life. If you’re in your 40s, you can probably still fake it, and if you’re in your 50’s or above, hopefully, you’ve learned enough in life to have forgotten more than most people in their 30’s have learned.

So, maybe it’s all for the best.


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Apparently, the brain thinks searching Google is complicated.

Posted Posted in Vegtosterone Blog

A recent study at the UCLA Semel Institute suggests that using Google, a search engine tool that was designed for its simplicity, exercised parts of the brain that stimulated complex reasoning.

“With the use of brain imaging technology, UCLA scientists uncovered that searching on Google triggers key centers for decision-making and complex reasoning in the brains, leading to possible improvements in brain function.”


But the real point of the study was the long-term impact of surfing the Web has on the brain, as demonstrated in the photograph here:

Taken by a functional MRI (fMRI), the images show the brain activity of subjects (all of whom were more than 50 years of age). The top set of images is an example of those who were considered Web naive (i.e., no experience on the Web) and the bottom an example of those considered Web experienced. What’s amazing, however, is that these images were taken as the subjects were performing the SAME TASK. Which was? You guessed it. Conducting a Google Search.

According to the head of this study, Dr. Gary Small, the discrepancy in the two may be due to the fact that the Web-naive group does not fully grasp the task as they do not have experience using the Internet. (Do not fully understand a Google search?)

Notwithstanding that the research could be bit skewed a bit by the IQ’s (or lack thereof) of some of the subjects, the good news is that in as little as five days, the subjects in the inexperienced group began to show the same level of brain activity in the same frontal brain regions responsible for higher order thinking once they began to gain experience on the Web.

“The brain is extraordinarily plastic and it is never too late for it to learn new tasks,” Dr. Small said.

In light of the fact that many retiring baby boomers will no doubt supplement their incomes with part-time work, such skills will be invaluable.

After all, there is no more useful office skill today than being able to waste time surfing the Internet.

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Do we really only use 10% of our brain?

Posted Posted in Vegtosterone Blog

When I was first diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, my first neurologist told me that because, initially, all of my lesions were on my spinal cord and not my brain, that was actually worse — and it is. If you see the size of the brain vs. the size of the spinal cord, a hole in your myelin covers a greater surface area, and thus has a greater impact on more area. My brain has now caught up to my spinal cord (Woo hoo! lucky me!).

At the same time, he said, that the old saying, “You only use 10% of your brain, and in this case, it’s sort of true.”

He went on to tell me, and this has been confirmed by other documented cases, that there have been people who have died, and in autopsy discovered to have multiple myelin lesions on their brain, but never had symptoms, suggesting that there are places on the brain where MS can have almost no, at least, visible affect.

Furthermore, brain lesions, are known to heal or at least repair much faster than spinal cord lesions.

So, is it true, do we really only use 10% of our brains?

Well, here’s the answer from the Dana Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to brain science and immunology:

“There is a common myth that we use only 10 percent of our brains.

We’re not sure exactly where this idea came from, but one possibility is that in experiments recording brain tissue’s electrical activity, some scientists assume that at any one time roughly 10 percent of neurons will be spontaneously active—firing off action potentials.

But it is important to remember that the lab is hardly a natural environment. The brains under investigation either belong to anesthetized animals or are thin slices of tissue kept alive in a dish. Imaging technologies look at regions of the brain over time, so the pictures they create are too general to allow us to count how many neurons are firing at any one time.

Even apart from these qualifications, we must consider that neurons that are temporarily silent may well be fulfilling some important role by not being active. Single neurons, just like larger brain regions, do not operate in isolation.
Once again, and on a much tinier scale, the whole is more than the sum of its parts.”

So, um, er, ….what?!?

Again, I think all you need do is read the front page of today’s Wall Street Journal, and I think it’s rather obvious, most of us are not playing with a full deck.

For me, the question is not whether we underutilized our brain, be it 10%, 15% or more like 5%, but why? — and how can we improve our rate of return (double entendre intended).

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Multitasking can make you a jack-ass of all trades, master of none.

Posted Posted in STRESS, Vegtosterone Blog

More on multitasking from John Hamilton at NPR. Not surprising, at least for those of us older than 18, but trying to do homework, watch TV, surf the web, play a video game and listen to music makes one rather bad at all of the above.

I don’t feel so bad now when my son becomes addicted to one video game for a couple of hours, it shows a bit of focus that is apparently a key to success–and a stress free brain.

As an example, I once listened to a speaker in South Africa who spent time in the Bush and had a nice metaphor for life in the wild and compared that to life in business. He compared how cheetahs focused their task of hunting on one animal before they began, set their sights, and once they began the chase they would not change focus, even as they passed other animals in the herd along the way; they kept their eyes keenly focused on the prey they selected from the start until they reached their goal. Otherwise, you would see the ultra fast cheetah running from animal to another animal like a spotted pinball, which is humorous imagery, but in the end a hungry cheetah.

The most interesting part of the story, for me, is the fact that multitasking is both addictive and stressful, which I find fascinating. What is it about the distraction, the stress, that we find addictive? Is it similar to a narcotic?

Next up on this series, is a story about multitasking on the mobile phone, which by the way, while driving is almost three (3) times more debilitating than driving drunk and even worse than driving while high on cannabis.

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