Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Flexing your Brain

The lead article in the fall 2009 issue of the Rocky Mountain MS society's magazine InforMS is about changes in the brains of London cab drivers while they learn their craft. In this blog post, I will summarize the article and the conclusions it draws based on this research. In my next post, I will propose another direction the research can take us and how that might help people with MS.

Studies show that as new drivers go through an intensive three year training program to memorize all streets, attractions, and restaurants in central London, the parts of their brains thought to be connected to navigation got bigger and bigger. The study shows that our brains continue to change and develop over time in response to what we do and think. The article states:
“This research on the cab drivers adds to our growing understanding that our brains are sculpted by what we learn and experience throughout our lifetime. We know that our brains influence what we do with our lives. Now we are beginning to appreciate the converse: what we do with our lives influences our brains.” (p. 3)
The article continues that our brains ability to grow and change is called “Cognitive reserve”. Which is defined as "...a measure of brain fitness and flexibility. Like muscles, brains become more flexible if they are regularly challenged.” (p. 4) Brains with lots of cognitive reserve have an easier time repairing themselves.

The article continues to talk about ways to improve one's cognitive reserve, of which the best ways are physical and mental exercise. Physical exercise improves blood flow to the brain and reduces stress. As for mental exercise, the article states that “Apparently, what really stimulates the brain to learn and grow is more a function of how, and how much you are challenged to learn, not what you learn. “ (p. 5) As with physical exercise, the amount of benefit you receive is directly related to the amount of effort you expend. If you focus on a mental challenge, you will build mental muscle.

The Rocky Mountain MS society does wonderful work and also does a lot of work with examining how complimentary and alternative medicine can help people with MS – something near and dear to my heart. I recommend checking out their website and subscribing to their newsletters and quarterly magazine. As an addendum to this post, I would recommend checking out the bibliography on the brain Article as well.

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