Posts Tagged ‘Merzenich’

What Constitutes Proof that Alzheimer’s or Dementia Could be Cured or Prevented?

January 4, 2017

Two excellent questions for consideration.  The first question, what constitutes a cure can be easily answered, that is the administration of operations or medications that would eliminate the affliction.  Currently, the only medications for Alzheimer’s do not cure the disease, but rather slow the progression.  One can question whether this prolongs meaningful or enjoyable life, or merely prolongs suffering.  This is a question for individuals to decide.
With respect to Alzheimer’s, there are many individuals who died with the defining features of the disease—neurofibrillary tangles and amyloid plaque, but who never exhibited any of the behavioral or cognitive characteristics of the disease.  Apparently there were many people who died not knowing that they had the disease.  So for these individuals, at least, the debilitating features of the disease had been prevented.  The only explanation that has been provided for this prevention is that they had built up a cognitive reserve during their lifetimes, by using their brains.  This is the justification for advocating growth mindsets.  But there are other factors such as being socially active, which also requires the use of one’s mind.

The only way of trying to determine the factors fostering prevention is through longitudinal studies.  There are two longitudinal investigation—the Religious Orders Study and the Rush Memory and Aging Project, which have enrolled more than 3200 older adults across the United States.  This studies are being led by David A. Bennet at the Rush Alzheimer’s  Disease Center in Chicago.  The volunteers enter these studies dementia-free, anywhere from their mid-50s to their 100’s and agree to hours of testing each year.  They all have agreed to undergo autopsies once they have died.  Here are the two primary findings that have emerged from these investigations.

Virtually all brains in old age contain some pathological signs of Alzheimer’s disease, but only some people suffer any symptoms as a result.  Those who do not develop dementia appear to have greater cognitive reserve to fall back on.

Choices we make throughout life, from learning a second language or studying music in childhood to finding purpose and remaining physical, intellectually, an socially active in retirement can build cognitive reserve and dramatically reduce the risk of dementia.

It is hoped that growth mindsets capture the general nature of intellectual activity.  Mindfulness and meditation foster greater control over one’s cognitive activity and lead to better control over one’s emotions and enhance personal interactions.  The healthy memory blog certainly endorses physical activity and a healthy lifestyle which includes, obviously, a healthy diet.

Regarding the defining characteristics of Alzheimer’s, the neurofibrillary tangles and amyloid plaque, seem to have little or no effect on individuals who have built up this cognitive reserve.  And there has been little success in the development of drugs to treat these physical symptoms.  One of the foremost experts in this area, Peter J. Whitehouse, M.D., Ph.D, who is the senior author of “The Myth of Alzheimer’s”  does not think that successful medications will ever be developed.

Perhaps one of the best resources on the extensive research that has been done in the area can be found in the book, “Nurturing the Older Brain and Mind” by Pamela M. Greenwood and Raja Parasuraman.

Dr. Michael Merzenich has been called “the father of brain plasticity,” and the co-founder of Scientific Learning and Posit Science.  You can go to
and find brain training exercises.  These exercises can be helpful, but by themselves cannot be regarded as providing a cognitive reserve.  Building a cognitive reserve requires a lifestyle devoted to cognitive and physical health.  Dr. Merzenich also has an interesting book, “Soft-Wired:  How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life.”

Research reviewed by Norman Doidge, M.D.  has documented the extreme plasticity of the brain.  It is truly plastic in its ability to recover from severe injury.   His research is documented in two books,”The Brain that Changes Itself” and The Brain’s Way of Healing:  Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity.”

HM would like to see extensive research done on individuals suffering from Alzheimer’s who apparently failed to build up this cognitive reserve.  What level of recovery might be achieved through exercises designed to recover lost capacity?  And at what level of dementia might individuals still be recoverable?  HM believes that money spent on this research would be more valuable that the extensive work that is being done on drug treatments that are likely to be doomed to failure.  Unfortunately, the money is in potential drug sales.

There have been many previous HM posts on these topics.  Enter “Bennet,”  “Whitehouse,”  “Parasuraman,”  “Merzenich,”  “Doidge,”  “The Relaxation Response Update,’ and  “Mindfulness” to find them.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Ten Fundamentals of Brain Plasticity

August 3, 2016

These ten fundamentals come from Dr. Merzenich’s book, “Soft-Wired” with elaboration and comments by Healthy Memory (HM).

1. Change is mostly limited to those situations in which the brain is in the mood for it.
If you force it the learning will be inefficient and of poor quality.  I find it surprising that Dr. Merzenich, in spite of his participation in the conferences at Mind and Life Institute in Dharmsala, India  with the Dalai Lama that have demonstrated the pronounced effects of meditation, he makes no mention of meditation.  Meditation is one of the best, if not the best, means of restoring the mind.

2.  The harder we try, the more we are motivated, the more alert we are, and the better (or worse) the outcome, the bigger the brain change.
Once again HM marvels that Dr. Merzenich, in spite of his participation in the conferences at Mind and Life Institute in Dharmsala, India  with the Dalai Lama that have demonstrated the pronounced effects of meditation.  Meditation provides an ideal means of gaining control of one’s attention, and an ideal means of focusing attention.

3.  What actually changes in the brain are the strength of the connections that are engage together, moment by moment, in time.
Both neurorgenesis, the forming of new neurons, and synaptogenesis, the forming of new connections among neurons are involved.  It is also important to realize that these neurons are not necessarily adjacent to each other.  Neurons transmit signals through axons that can be quite long.  So a single neuron in the prefrontal cortex can be sending a signal to another neuron in a distant part of the brain.  These connections can be quite long and complicated.  Their interactions have been described as being conversations within the brain.

4.  Learning-driven changes in connections increase cell-to-cell cooperation, which is crucial for increasing reliability.
So the process of learning involves increasing this cell-to-cell cooperation, cells which can be quite far apart depending upon the type of learning, and the reliability of the learning.

5.  The brain also strengthens the connections between those teams of neurons representing separate moments of activity that represent each little part of an action or thought.
So these signals need to be strengthened in terms of the time sequence of the actions or thoughts.

6  Initial changes are just temporary.
So with the exception of certain extraordinary conditions, these changes will be lost unless they are strengthened by further activity.

7.  The brain is changed by internal mental rehearsal in the same ways, and involving precisely the same processes, that construct changes with the external world
So thinking alone will strengthens these processes.  Thinking and mental rehearsal are very important.

8.  Memory guides and controls most learning.
Indeed, memory is key.  Memory is a device for time travel.  It reviews what it can find in memory and then uses it to solve problems, to consider alternative courses of action, to make a joke, or for pleasure.

9.  Every moment of learning provides a moment of opportunity for the brain to stabilize and to reduce the disruptive power of—potentially interfering and background or “noise.
This is all good.

10.  Brain plasticity is a two-way street; it is just as easy to generate negative changes as it is to produce positive ones.
So brain activity can be destructive.  Thinking negative thoughts and having a fixed mindset are damaging and do not allow us to fulfill our potential.  HM is reminded of an incident that took place in his last place of employment.  He was riding down in an elevator and one of the fellow passengers in the elevator remarked to his friend, that when he retired he was going to do absolutely nothing.  If all he could find on television were Luci reruns,, he would just watch “I Love Lucy.”  HM would place a large wager that serious dementia was not too far in this individual’s future.

HM would like to add a couple of more comments.
Please read the healthy memory blog post “The Myth of Cognitive Decline”, and “More on the Myth of Cognitive Decline.”  The longer we live, the more we have in memory, and if we have growth mindsets we have even more in memory.  This might appear to slow us down, but in reality we have rich mindsets with brains with many long interconnections within them.  In addition to adding to these mindsets it is healthy to review old memories.  Writing a biography or a family history can be enriching.

It is also important to realize that our brains continue to work even when you stop thinking about something.  My wife and I are frustrated when we know something, the name of an actress,for example, but can’t remember it.  We become frustrated, but find that the name comes into consciousness, unsolicited at some later time.  HM thinks this is very healthy, so he resists trying to google something that he is sure he knows.  He will try for a while to remember it.  He knows that when he stops consciously thinking about it, his brain will continue searching and will probably eventually find it.  HM believes that this unconscious bran activity is reactivating memory circuits and providing for memory health.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.