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Mental workouts help keep brain flexible

Scientists now believe cross-training can keep the human mind in peak running condition throughout life.

July 15, 2007|Jim Shea | Hartford Courant

It has long been accepted that as we age, we are going to have a certain amount of trouble remembering where we left the car keys -- and, on some days, where we left the car.

This assumption is based on the belief that all of the brain's development -- its major wiring -- occurs in infancy, and that the mature brain is incapable of change.

Now scientists believe the human brain is constantly changing, revising and rewiring itself in response to everything we see, feel, learn, do and experience.

In other words, it is possible to maintain the 200-amp service you were born with throughout your life.

Scientists call the brain's ability to constantly adapt "brain plasticity."

That's the good news.

The bad news is that, to keep the brain in shape, it must be exercised regularly. This means the health police are going to be nagging us to get our brains as well as our bodies up off the couch.

But haven't we been doing that? Haven't we been working on our crossword puzzles every day?

Crossword puzzles are good, the experts say, but they're not enough. To see results, we need to exercise our brains hard and often. We need to do cross-training, perform specific exercises for the various regions of the brain.

Not surprisingly, the Internet is awash with brain-fitness sites -- my favorite, namewise, being Brain Gym -- all promising to whip flabby neurons and sagging temporal lobes into shape.

Many of the programs being offered will have your brain feeling the burn, but there are also some that will return little gain for your pain. In general, experts advise that any brain-exercise workout should be based in science and be challenging, progressively more difficult, and teach you something new. They also warn people to be leery of programs that are too entertaining.

Although my brain seems to be relatively operational at the moment -- but then if it wasn't, wouldn't I be the last to know? -- I nonetheless have decided to commit to a brain-exercise program.

That said, I am still working on what workout I will do and how frequently I will do it.

One thing I've committed to doing every day, without fail, no excuses, is to eat dark chocolate. Dark chocolate gets the dopamine in your brain pumping, and this helps in learning and memory.

I'm also going to eat more fish to improve my cognitive function. (Apparently, fish are rich in cognitive function.)

Besides doing brain drills on the computer, some of the other things I will be incorporating into my training include:

* Song lyrics memorization: Good for releasing the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, a brain chemical that vivifies memory.

* Juggling: good for the brain's hand-eye coordination responses.

* Use your other hand for routine tasks: Good for teaching old neurons new tricks, not to mention an excellent skill to have in case you ever lose a limb in a rodeo accident or something.

* Jigsaw puzzles: While this is purported to be of great benefit to your brain because it requires fine visual judgments, I don't see how being bored stiff is helpful, but I'll give it a shot.

* Regular physical exercise: Good for your body as well as a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is critical to learning and memory.

* TV volume: Another interesting thing I'm going to try involves turning down the volume on the television. Many people crank up the volume because their listening has become detuned. By progressively reducing the volume until it matches a normal conversational level, you will be able to catch more when speaking with others. (I don't know if this will work on rock 'n' roll ears, but it's worth a try.)

* Learn to play a musical instrument: Good for working on several interrelated functions, including listening and control of refined movements.

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