Brain Neurobics

What are neurobics?

I have been using the Brain Builder 3.0 program for a few weeks, and two of the activities on that program involve reversing a series of numbers delivered either auditorily or visually.

I did not want to try those exercises, for fear of....failure! Even though I am alone in my office, and no one will ever see my scores, the fear of evaluation almost stopped a very interesting process for me.

I over came my shame and tried them out, and now doing them is almost habit. And I have developed a bit of a strategy for remembering the sequence. I have moved up a couple of levels, and am doing neurobics.  (See below to find out what neurobics is). .



Try out this exercise for size: the next time you return home, close your eyes in front of your door, find your keys, open the door and turn on the inside light all without re-opening your eyes.

Or, if you're right-handed, brush your teeth one morning with your left hand.

While both activities may sound like exercises in frustration, they are actually healthy exercises for your brain.

Call it neurobics, a term coined by Duke University neurobiology professor Lawrence Katz. It means using one or more of your senses in an unusual way.

"The basic idea is that you are using sensory systems or pathways that are not usually used to perform a given task. What's that is doing is making different groups of cells more active than they normally would be," explains Katz, an internationally recognized expert on the development and function of the cortex in mammals.

"This, in turn, can strengthen connections between cells and cause them to release growth factors, which are molecules that help cells stay healthy," he says.

By creating these additional pathways, you give your brain different routes to process information. And that can be helpful if one of your pathways gets blocked by a stroke or blood clot, for example.

Do Those Neurobics Now

Do Them Now

Katz says that while anyone can do neurobics at any age, the concept is targeted at Baby Boomers.

It's between the ages of 40 and 50, he says, that people begin to notice that their mind might not be as sharp as it used to be. And that makes many Boomers begin to pay more attention to lifestyle issues that will affect their health down the road.

Neurobics "is an approach that is designed for people still young enough that doing the exercises will make a difference," Katz says.

While such mental exercise are "appropriate for anyone at any age," they are great for Boomers, he adds.

Katz's research is part of a growing body of academic studies showing that the human brain's capacity for growth doesn't stop as early as previously thought.

"There's no question that the adult brain does have a capacity for forming new neurons and that these are incorporated into circuits," says Dr. Caleb Finch, a professor in biological sciences and gerontology at the University of Southern California,

But Finch cautions that while "that part is clear, it's not clear how important this is to human memory and age changes."

Growth sometimes means adding new cells, but at other times, it means that the cell gets new contacts, like a tree sprouting new branches. This plasticity is maintained during adult phases of life but, in general, most of the neurons we have in our brains are in place by the time we're 10 or 15, Finch says.

Neurobics as a Part of Daily Life

Part of Daily Life

Katz stresses that the point of neurobics isn't to create a "super brain" that can memorize half the phone book. Instead, the exercises in mental agility are intended to keep the brain flexible, growing and able to process information on different pathways.

Do them in little ways throughout the day, Katz says. It's a similar approach to incorporating exercise into our daily routine by, say, parking the car in a far-away spot from the mall.

"It's really much more of an approach to a brain healthy lifestyle," says Katz, co-author of the popular book Keep Your Brain Alive - 83 Memory Exercises to Help Prevent Memory Loss and Increase Mental Fitness.

"The whole book is suggestions on how you can use the activities of daily living, but do them differently so that you increase production of brain healthy chemicals," he adds.

So what does Katz, 47, do to exercise his brain?

"Some of my favorite ones are taking different routes to work and shopping in farmers markets. I'm also a big fan of trying to do things with my sense of touch versus the sense of sight," he says.

While the area of brain research continues to expand continually, it is known that exercise of all types helps the brain stay healthy.

"The key point is that, almost without exception, the same advice for keeping a healthy heart applies for keeping a healthy brain. Lower blood pressure, cholesterol  The whole package also appears  and this is a new point of view  helpful in reducing the risk of Alzheimer's disease," Finch says.

So tomorrow, instead of waking up to the smell of coffee, try taking a whiff of vanilla bean after you stagger downstairs into the kitchen to make that pot of coffee.

And then, go take a walk  with your eyes open, of course.

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