Life Extension for the BrainMarch 2004
By Bruce Scali
While how to correct conditions that affect memory is beyond the scope of this article, knowing that other health complaints have a bearing on memory leads to pointed questions that can be directed to a physician so that the contributing factors to, or actual cause of, the memory loss can be address-ed. When indicated, psychiatric counseling or medications, hormone balancing, or chelation could go a long way to slowing, or even reversing, cognitive loss. Once other conditions have been mitigated or eliminated, all effort can be brought to bear on the memory decline itself.
As Dr. Braverman notes, “It doesn’t make much sense to pump out your basement if you don’t patch the hole in the roof.”
A global health assessment that identifies contributing factors to memory loss is what leads to patching that hole. What follows is how to pump out the basement.
Preserving Your Memories
Aging affects brain anatomy and physiology. After age 40, our gray matter shrinks: with each succeeding decade, the brain steadily loses some brain cells, called neurons, and some of the surrounding cerebrospinal fluid. Neurons begin to lose some of their chemical firepower, and neuronal connections are short-circuited by a buildup of plaque, a breakdown of the insulating layer that covers neurons, and the aforementioned loss of fluid.22 These underlying changes that cause cognitive declines have been confirmed by both magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans and QEEG. Knowing what is happening to the body leads to effective countermeasures.
The discussion earlier about brain lobe anatomy and function is crucial to the treatment of illness. Associating medications with specific areas of the brain and their specific brain chemicals has produced dramatic advancements in pharmacology. For example, the introduction of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which affect the production of serotonin in the occipital lobes, greatly advanced the treatment of depression. Similarly, sleep medications also address serotonin in the same lobes that are responsible for the restorative function.
It is interesting to note that memories remain stored even when our ability to access them is impaired. A study conducted by Dr. William Penfield showed hidden memories still present in the brain when they were electrically activated in an open skull. Since the nineteenth century, enhancement of the memory function has been attempted and described through the use of hypnosis; individuals have been described as accessing areas of the brain thought lost when they spoke in a language they had not used for decades.
But the memory function starts with the reception of information controlled by the parietal lobes and the acetylcholine neurotransmitter. It is followed closely by the processing of that information in the frontal lobes that are powered by dopamine. Memory decline starts at the beginning: if we cannot receive information, we certainly cannot process or store it.
Life is defined by the electrical activity that takes place in the brain. Chemicals initiate this electrical activity, which is represented by various brainwaves. Assuming that no other contributing conditions discussed earlier are present, diminished electrical activity, which causes diminished cognitive function, is restored by the replacement of the vital neurotransmitters, or brain chemicals. The ways to accomplish this include lifestyle changes and exercise, electrical stimulation, diet and supplements, and medications and hormones. All of these affect brain chemistry incrementally.
Lifestyle and Exercise
Physical exercise plays an important role in mental acuity.23 Exercise promotes general health and minimizes the factors that contribute to memory loss. Maintaining a healthy cardiovascular system ensures proper blood flow to the brain, supplying the necessary raw ingredients it needs to function properly.
Other prudent recommendations include avoiding toxic metal poisoning by drinking filtered water and reading labels for harmful ingredients. Everyday products such as baking powder, antacids, water softeners, paints, varnishes, and makeup may contain lead, aluminum, or mercury. Electromag-netic fields such as those near power lines, as well as microwave radiation from appliances and cell phones, should be avoided.24,25
Just as physical exercise builds and tones muscle, simple mental exercises can build and tone cognition. Crossword puzzles, brainteasers, and trivia games are all ways to flex your mental muscles. Other simple exercises include repeating the significant details of a story immediately after it is read to you, duplicating a drawing or diagram right after viewing it, repeating a series of 10 numbers after seeing or hearing it, or reading a news story and writing the answers to the who, what, when, where, why, and how questions.
None of the recommendations here will reverse a severe case of cognitive decline. But all are part of the first line of defense against a slipping memory, and it is never too early to use them.
The introduction of electrical modulation does not have to be so invasive. Research abounds about the external application of gentle direct current via two electrodes attached to a palm-sized cranial electrical stimulation (CES) device.26 CES is used for 45 minutes when relaxing in the evening, by attaching the electrodes to each ear lobe or to the forehead and wrist.
CES has been proven to have a positive impact on anxiety and insomnia, as well as other conditions.27,28 It plays a role in keeping cognitive circuits open and functioning. This makes perfect sense: reduce anxiety, one of the conditions that contribute to memory loss, and your memory will improve.
Diet and Supplements
The neurotransmitters, or biochemicals, responsible for brain activity come from the foods we eat and the supplements we take.29,30 As discussed earlier, memory function starts in the parietal lobes where the neurotransmitter acetylcholine controls brain speed. Boosting acetylcholine naturally when memory first starts to slip is something everyone can do.
Acetylcholine is synthesized by the body from choline, a B vitamin that comes from lecithin in the foods we eat (see sidebar on p. 51, “A Diet to Remember”). Choline is now recognized as so important to cognitive function that the US government requires food manufacturers and processors to supply at least 55 mg per portion to claim “a good source of choline” on their labels. It should be noted, however, that the recommended daily allowance for choline is 550 mg for men, 425 mg for women, and 450 mg and 550 mg for pregnant and lactating women, respectively.
Because the digestive system is inefficient and cannot absorb all of the nutrients available from food before they pass through the body, essential nutrients such as choline must be supplemented. Natural formulations containing choline in any of its many forms, along with other ingredients that support its circulation to and absorption by the brain, are a vital part of a healthy diet.
“There is clinical evidence that acetylcholine and dopamine precursors enhance P300 wave magnitude and latency [speed],” says Kenneth Blum, PhD, adjunct professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of North Texas. Blum is an expert on genetics and brain function, and coauthor of a P300 study.31 “Blood-flow enhancers like quercetin and d-phenylalanine, and herbals such as Huperzine, Rhodiola rosea, and ginkgo, have improved memory and focus in Alzheimer’s patients,” he says.
“Supplements such as Cognitex (a potent source of glycerylphosphoryl-choline and other nutrients for the brain) are as vital to overall health as a daily multivitamin,” says Dr. Braverman.