June 22, 2014
The Register-Guard
Carolyn Kortge

It’s an early symptom in the aging process — a nagging concern about memory loss and mental slow-downs.

At first we joke — and then fret — over real or imagined declines in mental agility. But the brain may not be as fragile as we think.

To keep those cells alert and active as we age, just give them a shock now and then, advises neuroscientist Michael Merznich. Not an electric shock. He means the shock of change.

“The brain is a surprise machine,” Merznich says. It wants variety and stimulation. “Most people are sleep-walking through life. We need to connect to the details of the world we live in. To look for what is moving, what is changing, what is humorous, what is surprising.”

He pauses, taken aback momentarily, when I respond to his mandate for surprise with a question about breakfast: “Does this mean I should stop eating oatmeal every day?” I ask.

“Well, at least it’s healthy,” he laughs after a moment of silence. “But remember, the brain loves surprises.”

I remembered the very next day when I joined friends for a breakfast date.

As I scanned the restaurant menu, my eyes lingered on the reassuring comfort of oatmeal. But when our waiter arrived, I took a deep breath and ordered the farm plate — scrambled eggs, country fries and honey-cured bacon.

I can’t remember the last time I ordered bacon for breakfast. My brain felt as scrambled as the eggs, but that was just what the doctor ordered.

Mike and I grew up in Lebanon, classmates in the Lebanon Union High School class of 1960. His wife, Diane, hails from Lebanon, too.

Mike was a well-liked, brainy guy in high school, so it’s really not surprising to me that he went on to earn a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University and become a nationally
recognized neuroscientist and a leading researcher in the area of brain fitness. Former director of the Keck Center for Integrative Neuroscience at the University of California, San Francisco, he retired in 2007 after 36 years on the faculty.

“I didn’t really retire,” he says in a telephone interview. “I just shifted focus.

“At the university, I was primarily a research scientist. Now, I am working to create software. In a well-constructed life, we change continuously. We don’t stand still. We all have this inherent capacity to grow.”

The growth Mike talks about begins with mental growth — brain fitness.

His work these days focuses on developing tools that “retrain” the brain and revitalize more than a sluggish memory. Loss of mental alertness, he says, is often accompanied by a loss of confidence, energy and zest for life.

“Brain training is about retaining your independence. It is all about giving your brain an excellent opportunity to last as long as your physical body,” he writes in his recent book, “Soft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life.” (www.soft-wired.com)

Mike now heads research at Posit Science, a therapeutic software company he founded to develop computerized programs that seek to restore cognitive losses resulting from injury, stroke, depression, toxins or normal aging. His findings have been featured in PBS specials, TED talks and scores of articles.

Mike maintains that keeping the brain alive depends on keeping the senses alive.

Adding surprise to the breakfast menu is only one of the suggestions he offers for keeping the neural networks charging in my brain.

A faulty memory is a product of faulty observation, he insists. As we age, we get lazy about what we see, hear, feel, taste and smell. It’s a “been there, done that” approach that turns us into “sleep-walkers.”

To wake up the brain, we need to act young again. We need to pay attention. We need to become bright-eyed.

Young people move their eyes often, taking in snapshots of the environment at a rate much faster than older adults, he says. Older adults tend to stare at one spot much longer than young people, and thus limit the information they take in.

“Memory is dependent upon picking up the details of what you see and hear. If I remove details, if I degrade what I receive from the world, I destroy my ability to remember it.”

By 60 years of age, the average person sees only about 75 percent of what a young person sees, he says. By age 80, the visual intake is about half of that we have in youth.

“To my mind, it’s like putting on blinders,” Mike says. “It’s like giving up a big screen TV for a small one.

“You are missing out on all those things in front of you that you don’t see. Your brain loses its ability to take in what is happening in the world.”

The consequences are immediate, he warns. How can you remember what you don’t really see?

This is where brain training comes in. Computerized awareness drills, such as those found on BrainHQ, the Posit Science program created by Mike’s research teams, or on the popular Lumosity app, propose to help us take the blinders off.

In controlled studies of 15,000 people in university laboratories, Mike’s research has demonstrated that 30 hours of directed brain training can slice years off ones mental age.

“You might start out as a typical 70-year-old, and 30 hours later, you might be acting like a typical 50-year-old,” he says.

“Because the brain is plastic, you can slowly improve the brain’s operation. You can drive your powers back to the younger brain.”

Don’t count on crossword puzzles to provide the same benefits, he cautions. Crosswords are fun — he does The New York Times every Sunday. But in studies comparing crosswords with computer brain games, crosswords fell short, he says.

The science of brain plasticity is a cauldron of activity these days as boomers pursue prolonged vitality. Researchers offer diverse opinions about how well brain training skills transfer to daily life, but none questions the ability of the brain to learn new tricks, even as it ages.

“If I could accomplish one thing before I quit, it’s to make more people understand that they have to be thinking about the health of their brain just as they think about the health of their body,” Mike says.

“How many people understand at 60 that they will probably live to be 85, on average, and half of the people who live to be 85 are going to be demented? Who understands that?”

Mike’s confidence in the effectiveness and crucial role of brain training sends me to his BrainHQ website as soon as I hang up the phone.

I tackle “Double Decision,” an exercise that has me chasing a roadster down Main Street and tracking Route 66 road signs that flash across the screen. The exercise targets reaction time and peripheral vision and leaves me buzzing with the energy of a new challenge.

But computer challenges aren’t the only way to stimulate brain activity. Mike’s research also validates the significant benefits of a good walk. Any stroll boosts brain function with a dose of oxygen, he says, but a walk that actively engages the senses feeds neural cells with mental stimulation as well as oxygen.

“When you go for a walk, engage your brain,” he urges. “Don’t limit the exercise to the body. One of the things I do in my walks is to continually look for surprises.”

Pay attention to the way your body moves, he suggests. Notice the feel of the sidewalk or the ground. Notice the temperature on your skin, or the sounds around you.

Take along a small camera or a mobile phone and make a habit of snapping a picture on every walk of something that catches your attention. Just looking for something to photograph wakes up the brain and gets it engaged in the action.

Now that’s research I find reassuring. I’m hoping my passion for walking will offset the mental risks I’ve been taking with a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast most days. And I’m not even going to mention my lunch routine.