Brain Tweaking Without Drugs

Brain Colours

Brain Shimmer

Today we’ll look at a few methods of tweaking brain function without using pharmaceuticals. These and similar methods offer the promise of improving cognition, emotional levels (depression), attention and memory, and other aspects of brain function and behaviour.

A recent Canadian study used focused ultrasound treatments on a special Alzheimer’s Disease model mouse strain. The targetic ultrasound treatment resulted in improved cognition and spatial learning in the treated mice.

The researchers used MR imaging-guided focused ultrasound with microbubbles to open the BBB and treat the hippocampus of the mice. The hippocampus is divided into two parts, one in each hemisphere of the brain. They found the treatment led to improvements in cognition and spatial learning in the transgenic mice, potentially caused by reduced plaque and increased neuronal plasticity due to the focused ultrasound treatment.

They found no tissue damage or negative behavioral changes in the mice due to the treatments in either the transgenic mice or the control (nontransgenic) mice. Both groups of mice benefited from increased neuronal plasticity, which confirms the previous research on the effects of MR imaging-guided focused ultrasound on plasticity in healthy mice. __ Targeted Ultrasound Brain Therapy

This is a provocative finding that suggests a possible use in human dementias in the future. Even more intriguing, it suggests that normal brains may also benefit from the ultrasound tweak.

Another Canadian study — this time in humans — studied the impact of electrical stimulation on the hippocampus of dementia patients using a deep brain electrode implant.

In the trial, the patients were treated with steady electrical pulses through a brain implant (powered by a pacemaker) over the course of a year. Similar techniques have been used to treat Parkinson’s disease and other neurological disorders.

Four of Lozano’s six patients continued to regress over the period of study, with their brains shrinking in size as predicted.

“But in two patients, we were completely surprised,” said Lozano. “Because not only did the brain not shrink in these two patients, the brain actually grew. The hippocampus grew.” __ Deep Brain Implant in Dementia

The “brain pacemaker” approach is a long-term, continuous treatment, as opposed to the targeted ultrasound treatment. Combining the two approaches in the same patient might provide some interesting comparison data.

Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) has been studied in relation to cognitive enhancement in normal humans. Over 60 studies have demonstrated enhanced cognitive performance using TMS. For example:

Scientists at Northwestern University in the US, discovered that stimulating parts of the brain improved memory by more than 20 per cent.

And the effects appear to last for several days after the treatment.

“We show for the first time that you can specifically change memory functions of the brain in adults without surgery or drugs, “said senior author Dr Joel Voss, assistant professor of medical social sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine __ Telegraph

The test subjects had normal cognition, but researchers speculate that this kind of therapy may help dementia patients.

Transcranial electrical stimulation (tDCS) has also been studied in relation to cognitive enhancement — and appears to show some promise.

Hemoencephalography (HEG) is a technique using red and infra-red light to induce a “haemodynamic response” in the brain via neurofeedback.

A large group of researchers headed up by Dr. Hershel Toomim and his wife Marjorie have repeatedly found that NIR HEG training can consciously enhance regional cerebral oxygenation to specific areas of the brain and result in increased performance on cognitive tasks. It is widely known that regular cardiovascular exercise results in increased cerebral blood flow due to increased vascularization of the capillaries feeding neuronal tissue. Toomim, Mize, Kwong et al. found that after only ten 30-minute sessions of HEG brain exercise training, participants with various neurological disorders showed increases in attention and decreases in impulsivity to within normal levels. A subset of participants also experienced increases in cerebral vascularization similar to those witnessed upon increasing physical activity. __ Wikipedia Hemoencephalography entry

HEG neurofeedback is distinct from EEG neurofeedback. In EEG neurofeedback the subject attempts to maintain particular brain wave frequencies and/or amplitudes within a pre-set range. The machine is not affecting brain waves directly.

In HEG, the subject attempts to “control” the haemodynamic response of the targeted part of his brain. But there is a potential for infra-red light to affect brain activity directly, depending upon frequency and intensity of the light.

The combination of rhythmic light, sound, and electromagnetic “brain wave pacing” with EEG (or MR) neurofeedback offers another level of intervention.

We have looked briefly at physically tweaking the brain using ultrasound, magnetic stimulation, electrical stimulation — via both deep brain implants and via transcranial methods, neurofeedback using brain wave monitoring and infra-red monitoring of haemodynamic brain response.

Meditation may be the oldest and best proven non-drug brain tweak of all

Last week, a study from UCLA found that long-term meditators had better-preserved brains than non-meditators as they aged. Participants who’d been meditating for an average of 20 years had more grey matter volume throughout the brain — although older meditators still had some volume loss compared to younger meditators, it wasn’t as pronounced as the non-meditators…

… A review study last year at Johns Hopkins looked at the relationship between mindfulness meditation and its ability to reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, and pain. Researcher Madhav Goyal and his team found that the effect size of meditation was moderate, at 0.3. If this sounds low, keep in mind that the effect size for antidepressants is also 0.3, which makes the effect of meditation sound pretty good…

… Eight weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) was found to increase cortical thickness in the hippocampus, which governs learning and memory, and in certain areas of the brain that play roles in emotion regulation and self-referential processing. There were also decreases in brain cell volume in the amygdala, which is responsible for fear, anxiety, and stress – and these changes matched the participants’ self-reports of their stress levels, indicating that meditation not only changes the brain, but it changes our subjective perception and feelings as well…
__ Forbes

Sex is a Popular Brain Tweak

Researchers in Maryland and South Korea recently found that sexual activity in mice and rats improves mental performance and increases neurogenesis (the production of new neurons) in the hippocampus, where long-term memories are formed.

… A study published just last month found that older adults with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), often a forerunner of Alzheimer’s disease, were only about half as likely to have engaged recently in sexual activity as were their cognitively healthy peers. Of those with MCI, just 32.5 percent had recently engaged in sex, compared to 62.3 percent of those without MCI. __ Sex and Intelligence

Sex is, after all, a rhythmic physical activity. Dancing can provide some of the same benefits, without having to remove any clothing.

Musical training and appreciation are important forms of rhythmic brain training with the additional benefits of improving spatial cognition and emotional balance. More

Playing computer games can improve certain cognitive skills. But when raising children, remember that humans are not machines — they are animals. For full human brain development, children must learn animal skills too. Hunting, route-finding, survival in a variety of climates, self defence, situational awareness, instinctive reactions to different split second occurrences . . . The brain can benefit from all of these trainings.

These interventions might be used in normal persons to enhance cognition, in depressed persons to improve multiple measures of brain function, and in persons with dementia to improve cognitive abilities such as short-term memory and new long-term memory consolidation.

Brain game training — such as the n-back cognitive game — has been shown by some researchers to offer benefits in short term working memory, and fluid intelligence. The claims are controversial, and it may take time to prove whether the benefits are significant and lasting. A web search using the search term “Dual N Back Brain Training” will lead you to a number of different free online and downloadable N-back training games.

The addition of a healthy diet, rational supplementation of particular vitamins (D) and herbs, and rhythmic exercises, might well confer additional benefit.

At the Al Fin Institute for Advanced Cognition, we have been experimenting with many of these and other methods of brain tweaking for several years. And although microwaves have been used to kill brain tumours, we strongly advise against the controversial brain tweak of putting one’s head inside a functioning microwave oven (or any other type of functioning oven). Radiation hormesis may provide benefits in DNA repair, induction of free radical quenchers, and immune stimulation — but has not yet been shown to provide direct benefit to cognitive processes.

Persons with seizure disorders should tread lightly and cautiously when working with rhythmic brain wave entrainment methods that use flashing lights or rhythmic electromagnetic stimulation. Consult an expert (neurologist etc.) before jumping into the fire. Since tDCS provides a constant current — rather than a rhythmic or pulsed current — it is considered generally safe for use by persons with epilepsy.

We are still living in the dark ages of personalised brain tweaking, but a number of promising research studies offer significant hope for better brain tweaking in the future.

Nature Neuroscience looks at tDCS

Recent BrainBlogger look at tDCS

Brain wave entrainment via light and sound Beware the hype, since this field is swimming in it.

Cognitive and behavioural affects of rhythmic exercise on young (age 6-9) schoolchildren This study suggests that there are likely to be many unconventional approaches to training executive function in very young children.

Some home experimenters have achieved states of ineffable bliss when experimenting with these methods of brain tweaking. What we at the Al Fin Institute are typically aiming for is more efficient cognition and more balanced and resilient emotional states — combined with a brain that is anti-fragile toward dementia and age-related changes. A bit of bliss on the side never hurt anybody.

Happy tweaking.

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