Monthly Archives: December 2008

Segue to 2009

Thank you to the many folks who have contributed to Neurons Firing, and my learning, with your comments. I appreciate these new connections, and wish all of you a 2009 filled with healthy challenges (like a hike up Camelback Mountain!) and sunrises that awaken new possibilities!


Since becoming parents almost 25 years ago, we have tended to spend New Year’s Eve in New York or Boston, and always with family. We are still spending New Year’s with family, but this time we are across the country in Phoenix, Arizona, having just been part of a Family Reunion with 99 people!

From a brain perspective my amygdala has been firing thousands of emotion packed synapses; my visual cortex has feasted on family faces and desert scenery!

Happy New Year!


Nelson’s Memory Nuggets

When I think about the body-brain connection, the spiritual Dem Bones comes to mind. Perhaps you are familiar with the lyrics for this tune about the connection of one bone to the next, starting with the toes and going all the way up to the head and then back down again. It ain’t just the bones that are connected; our entire internal system is connected, and that includes the brain!

According to Aaron Nelson, there are a number of reasons, in addition to those related to normal aging, that our memories become less optimal as we age.

  • poor sleeping due to habits or physical issues
  • hereditary factors 
  • hormones that act up
  • age-related illnesses
  • neurological illnesses
  • side-effects of cancer treatment
  • accidents to the head
  • exposure to excessive stress
  • taking certain medications or drugs
  • eating a nutritionally poor diet
  • excessive alcohol intake
  • inadequate exercise
  • insufficient intellectual stimulation
  • smoking

While some of these factors are beyond our control, many of them are manageable. For those that are manageable, making changes will likely improve both cognitive functioning as well as physical functioning. Nelson’s prescriptions sound like common sense, and most are suggestions that have been touted in the news at one point or another as facilitating improved health in a part of the body. Many of us are general practitioners of our own health, so it may behoove us to remember that our internal systems are interconnected, and delight that improved memory is now added to the list of benefits that can accrue from taking care of ourselves.

Here are Nelson’s Memory Nuggets:

Obtain regular exercise 

  • lowers the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s
  • increases brain plasticity
  • helps manage weight
  • helps manage stress

Put out the cigarettes

  • give your lungs and blood vessels a reprieve
  • unfog your memory and your cognitive functioning

Take vitamins

  • antioxidants fight against free radicals
  • antioxidants may protect against memory loss

Involve yourself with others

  • social stimulation improves mood
  • interacting with others provides cognitive stimulation

Maintain healthful nutrition

Aim for a good night’s sleep

  • six hours is minimum needed
  • helps cement new learning

Learn something new

  • engaging in novel challenges promotes memory and cognition
  • cognitive reserve applies to lifelong learning

Moderate alcohol intake

  • one to two drinks of red wine might help fend off dementia
  • excessive alcohol promotes memory loss

Engage in life

  • learn something new
  • engage in social interaction
  • stimulate your mind
  • feel worthwhile

Manage stress

  • high levels of stress make it difficult to attend to new information, thus impacting memory

Organize your thinking, organize your life

  • organization aids memory

Routinely take precautions to protect your brain

  • “Head trauma is a major cause of memory impairment in young people and a risk factor for later development of dementia.” (This direct from Nelson, who serves as the neuropsychology consultant to the Boston Bruins hockey team.)
  • wear helmets, mouth guards and seat belts

Yes you can! Maintain a positive attitude

  • All of the above are within your control to manage, and are worth managing for both your physical and mental health.

Move It!

Holy BDNF Batperson! BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor) is a protein in the brain that John Medina, author of Brain Rules, likens to “miracle-gro for the brain”. It turns out that EXERCISE boosts not only BDNF, but also the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, all known for helping the brain to feel good and be alert, as well as assisting with neuron communication.

This probably does not come as a surprise to many, because the benefits of exercise have been espoused in the news on and off for many years. Exercise helps alleviate stress, can be a preventative for many diseases, and can assist with weight control and body image. The surprising aspect, really, is why you can still visit schools where phys ed has been curtailed (budget issues) and businesses where office workers still spend the overwhelming portion of their day in sedentary conditions.

Rule #1 in John Medina’s Brain Rules states:

Exercise boosts brain power.

And he goes on to explain what happens inside your brain when you exercise your body.

• Your brain needs oxygen and food. While your brain may only represent about 2 percent of your body weight, it accounts for about 20 percent of your total energy usage.

• What exercise does is provide your body greater access to the oxygen and the food.

• The more you exercise, the more tissues you can feed and the more toxic waste you can remove.

• …exercise literally increases blood volume in a region of the brain called the dentate gyrus. … The dentate gyrus is a vital constituent of the hippocampus, a region deeply involved in memory formation.

• BDNF…keeps existing neurons young and healthy, rendering them much more willing to connect with one another. It also encourages neurogenesis, the formation of new cells in the brain.

I’m a swimmer and a walker and a kayaker. On average, during the school year, we walk about 15 miles a week. And during the summer I swim several miles a week. Take away my exercise and I get grumpy. With my exercise, I have more energy and think more clearly.

You don’t have to take my experiences and writing, or John Medina’s word for it. There is a wealth of information regarding the physical and cognitive benefits of exercise. Aaron Nelson, in stating his pointers for improving memory, listed regular exercise as his first nugget of advice, followed by getting a good night’s sleep and alleviating stress, both which can be positively impacted by exercise.

Brain Cues

Today is my Dad’s 83rd birthday! As some of you may know, my Dad has Alzheimer’s and resides in a nursing home some twenty minutes from where we live. Today is also a snow day, causing our December vacation to begin one day early! And today my eighth post for SharpBrains was published. I have written extensively about the Learning & the Brain conference, and my Sharp article discusses how some of the recent conference content applies to education.  



Memory 101 (Aaron Nelson)

When we talk about memory, we mean not only all that we remember but also our capacity for remembering.

So writes Aaron Nelson at the beginning of chapter 1 in his book The Harvard Medical School Guide to Achieving Optimal Memory.

Think about what it is you tend to remember. Most likely, if your memory is fairly typical, you tend to remember items and events that are important to you. The information is important because you need the facts or because there is some emotional pull or because you make use of certain processes to accomplish certain tasks. Did you know that each time you reference a memory, it can get altered, because your memories are not static.

Our memory apparatus consists of two components – short-term and long-term. Their names simply designate the duration of the memory. 

Short-term memory can hold a string of 5 to 7 items, is what you make use of when you only need to briefly reference something, and dissipates quickly, especially if you are interrupted in the process of using it.

You’ve probably heard of working memory, either as being the same as, or a form of, short-term memory. Nelson explains working memory as a more sophisticated part of short-term memory, in that it is used to hold onto information necessary for a “specific purpose” and, once used, as with the rest of short-term memory, it can be discarded.

Long-term memory, as its name suggests, is of a much longer duration. In fact, it stretches way back to your childhood, and is like a bottomless well in what it can hold, though not everything in long-term memory remains there forever. The kinds of memories you hold onto for the long-term include Declarative (also called Explicit) and Procedural.

Declarative memory is more susceptible to aging and illness because memories of this type are stored in the hippocampus, which gets a bum deal as it ages, and is particularly hard hit by diseases such as Alzheimer’s. 

Your episodic memories “are linked to events that occurred at specific times and in specific places” (like episodes in a television series that air on certain dates), whereas your semantic memories (like words and their meanings) are those items that you just “know”, but would be hard pressed to detail when or where you learned them. These memories consist of facts and meanings.

This last type of memory consists of “the skills and routines that you draw on automatically to perform actions” as part of functioning as a person. Nelson writes that “Even people with Alzheimer’s disease can perform many routine tasks until the advanced stage of the illness. Scientists believe that procedural memory is robust because it is stored widely throughout the brain [including the frontal lobes, cerebellum, and basal ganglia]  and because it is not dependent upon the hippocampus, one of the memory structures within the brain that is particularly vulnerable to the effects of normal aging.”

Did you know that what is good for your body is good for your brain? Taking care of your body is taking care of your brain. (Yes, it bears repeating!) In my next post, some practical advice from Dr Nelson.

Further resources about Memory:

The Aging Brain (Aaron Nelson)

Aaron Nelson began his Learning & the Brain session by telling a tale on himself regarding memory. If you’ve ever left home on a car trip and wondered if you turned off the coffee pot or the stove or some other gadget, Nelson’s tale of forgetting his child’s blanket and returning home only to discover that he had left the keys to their other car in that car, which was parked in the driveway and running, will resonate! He went on to describe the components of memory, which consist of “multiple memory systems” as explained by Larry Squire and his memory schema. Scroll to the third page and notice that  the diagram, which references long term memory, shows memory as residing in multiple areas of the brain.

The bulk of Nelson’s talk focused on how the brain and memory change with age. Did you know that “memory starts to decline between 25 and 30 years of age in normal situations.” He explained a bit about what scientists think happens in the brain in terms of aging and memory, further explained the concept of “cognitive reserve”, and then discussed ways to optimize memory. No doubt one reason his talk was well attended is that every last attendee had an aging brain, and a number most likely also have parents who are well ahead in the aging arena!

I took a lot of notes and was persuaded by the practical nature of Aaron’s talk to then purchase his book, The Harvard Medical School Guide to Achieving Optimal Memory.

Of particular interest was Aaron’s description of Yakov Stern and his study of cognitive reserve. SharpBrains has an informative interview with Dr Stern entitled Build Your Cognitive Reserve. I referenced cognitive reserve, or the brain-reserve hypothesis in my prior post on Ken Kosik’s talk.

As with many of the books I read, an entry or two about Aaron Nelson’s book will eventually wind up posted here. Meanwhile, I leave you with this teaser from his book:

Obtain regular exercise
Put out the cigarettes
Take vitamins
Involve yourself with others
Maintain healthful nutrition
Aim for a good night’s sleep
Learn something new
Moderate alcohol intake
Engage in life!
Manage stress
Organize your thinking, organize your life
Routinely take precautions to protect your brain
Yes you can! Maintain a positive attitude

(and a promise to myself to stop buying books until I’ve read all the ones waiting for me!)

Gregory Petsko’s TED Talk

Jack, of clarityworx, shared this link to Gregory Petsko’s TED Talk: The coming neurological epidemic. This is the perfect time to point you in Petsko’s direction, inserted between my post on Ken Kosik’s talk about Alzheimer’s and my upcoming post covering Aaron Nelson’s talk on memory. 

It’s also the perfect time to ask any of you who are WordPress folks for some advice. I would love to be able to use the embed commands from TED Talks – has anyone figured out if it’s possible to make them work? Currently I have to use youtube, which is fine, except for occasions like this when the TED Talk is not yet posted to youtube.

Thanks for any insight anyone might provide!

December 6 – Petsko’s TED Talk is now on youtube, the code for which embeds nicely in wordpress, so here it is: