Are you tired of your stupid, good for nothing brain?
The emergent science of neurogenesis has produced a vibrant industry—in Sacramento and beyond—that claims it can help you think faster, cope better, remember more.
You’ve had it. You’re sick and tired of your stupid brain. It’s cranky and dull. It can’t concentrate, it’s lethargic and it makes horrible decisions. It’s basically a no good cheatin’ brain.
So you’ve decided to fire off a Dear Brain letter: This relationship is over!
But your brain has a message for you: I can change. Really, I can change.
And your brain is right.
The burgeoning science of neurogenesis—that new neural networks can be created to keep brains fresh and alive—has produced a vibrant industry in brain games, brain gyms, designer chemicals, supplements, herbs, diets and every imaginable device to help us think faster, cope better and delay age-related illness. For millions of Americans pressured by overwork, stress and “monkey mind,” the promise of a newer, sharper brain is neurological nirvana.
This cutting-edge brain exploration is a little like settling the Wild West. “We’ve learned more in, say, the last decade than the entire history of the world,” says Leo Chalupa, formerly a neurobiologist for the UC Davis Center for Neuroscience. “But where we are right now in terms of understanding how the brain works … is probably where the Wright brothers were in aviation.”
Look no further for intrepid brain explorers than the Sacramento area. Our region is home to several mainstream neurological research facilities and treatment centers, as well as some intriguing alternative practitioners who use diet, exercise and a brainy riff on cognitive therapy to help patients tune up their battered brains. A bit further down the road in San Francisco, we find a leading brain-training software company along with the country’s first “brain gym,” where members pound keyboards instead of weights in hopes of bulking up memory, concentration and visual skills.Pledge allegiance to the brain
It’s pledge-drive time on public radio, and once again a local station is offering a brain-training program from Posit Science. The San Francisco-based computer learning company has quickly gained a populist foothold in an industry oozing with investment capital, vast promises and equal skepticism. Its electronic brain games promise users will think faster, remember better and focus more. One research firm estimates that brain fitness sales in 2008 totaled $265 million, up nearly 20 percent from its $225 million the year before.
But Dr. John Grohol, CEO and founder of Psych Central—a mental-health information site voted one of Time magazine’s top 50 Web sites in 2008—echoes the sentiments of many when he writes, “We’re skeptical of a new industry that appears virtually out of nowhere that bases much of its exercises on activities that you could do just as easily for free.”
Grohol examined claims by Posit Science and competing firms, finding much of its research anecdotal. “There’s been no new definitive studies showing that brain training programs have any specific benefits to people without a brain disease,” writes Grohol.
Working outside the dollar-hungry business of brain fitness, a researcher at UC Davis’ Center for Neuroscience is also using computer-based brain games to study how humans remember and forget information. Dr. Charan Ranganath, associate professor of psychology, says his work involves games similar to those of Posit Science, “but not as fun.”
“We’re testing the idea that the brain is like a muscle,” he says, sitting beneath a poster of his former college band—The Great Brain.
Ranganath brings a scientist’s skepticism to any new pill or device designed to improve cognition. “It takes time and money to invest in this kind of medicine, and it’s always easier to say it just works.”
That’s what one game manufacturer wanted a Ranganath colleague to say when the company asked her to endorse its electronic brain game. When she replied that she wanted to explore the research further, company flaks said, “Look, we just want to put your name on it.”
Ranganath says the biggest problem with brain games is their repetitive nature, and uses the Nintendo DS game as an example. Play the game long enough and you’ll get better at the game, he says. “The big question is not whether you are better at (computer games), but whether you are better in real life.”
While Ranganath says Posit Science “has done an admirable job” in many ways, he says its brain games improve perceptual ability—the ability to observe surroundings—but not necessarily working memory—the current tasks in front of us.
Ranganath’s own testing lab uses 11 students harvested from an Intro to Psychology Class to perform various memory tasks involving letters, images and colors that tap different parts of the brain.
Post-tests measure improvements in learning.
“Some people show incredible gains within 20 minutes,” says Ranganath. Not surprisingly, gamers typically do better on these tests. And in what might be considered the best job in the history of science, a researcher at the University of Rochester in New York is studying the effects of gaming on the brain. In bad news for parents everywhere, her research shows that “first-person action games” like Grand Theft Auto actually improve certain cognitive functions, especially the ability to remain attentive when “task switching.”Hitting the brain gym
Laying claim as the first “brain gym” in the country when it opened two years ago, San Francisco’s VibrantBrains trains a floating clientele of 200 on workstations jammed with the latest computer software to help noodle Bay Area noggins.
Members pay $92 a month to use software licensed from Posit Science, Happy Neuron, Luminosity and others. Clients can work with a personal trainer to select specific programs designed to help bulk up various brain abilities: perceptual skills, processing speed or working memory.
Member Linda Bucklin, 64, says when she first walked past Vibrant Brains she thought it was “a fantastic idea—a place to keep your mind active.” Since joining, she’s noticed improvements in several areas of her life. Better visual perception on the tennis court. Sharper memory while playing bridge. More alert while driving. And emotionally, she feels “more present.”
Yet critics stand firm that these facilities don’t add any true value. “The brain centers seem to be founded on the premise that mental activity done with a proprietary computer is superior to simply reading, staying socially active and discussing current events,” says Dr. David Knopman, a neurology professor at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and a spokesman for the American Academy of Neurology. “You can discuss current events on your own and interact with friends, family and community without paying $500 a pop.”
Doug Reitmeyer disagrees—vehemently. One of the country’s most determined researchers on cognitive function, Reitmeyer has no scientific degrees whatsoever, yet has perhaps the best credentials of all: His son suffered a traumatic brain injury four years ago and was told he’d have to live the rest of his life in a nursing home. After the 29-year-old Ryan was injured in a boating accident, Reitmeyer spent the next year—12 hours a day, seven days a week—immersing himself in the exploding yet often hazy world of neuroscience.
Ryan couldn’t create new memories. So a year after his accident, his father called a new software company beta testing its software—Posit Science—and told them about his son’s dilemma. But the company didn’t want to work with a patient suffering from TBI. Reitmeyer pleaded with them: “I’ll sign any release you want.” The next day the father-and-son team flew to San Francisco from their home in Austin, Texas.
A neuropsychologist at Posit Science placed Ryan’s education at the kindergarten level. After training with the program for 11 days, the duo returned home, and Reitmeyer recalls the moment that made him a true believer. He was on yet another call with a brain expert and needed to write down a phone number. As he scrambled for a pen, he repeated the number out loud.
“Dad, I got it,” blurted Ryan. And Ryan recited the number back to his father. Reitmeyer couldn’t believe it. His son had just created a new memory.
“That program solved the problem of the ability to make memories … and when you can make memories then you can begin to learn.”
Ryan then began a flurry of games, activities and classes, and speech and acting improvisation sessions. He played board games, electronic brain games and listened to music to “safely alter your braiwaves with multilayered patterns of sound frequencies.” Reitmeyer examined more than 1,000 different concepts for improving cognitive function. Eventually, Ryan actually used 42 of them.
“All [of these] contributed to his amazing recovery,” Reitmeyer says. Today, Ryan is physically recovered, receiving his black belt in karate earlier this year. He has surpassed basic reading and math skills to pursue more complex tasks. Reitmeyer speaks frequently around the country on cognitive function, TBIs and new brain technology.[page] Feeding the brain
Before Ryan’s recovery, Reitmeyer watched helplessly as his son dropped from 160 to 124 pounds in under four months. Disenchanted with the nutrition teams at two hospitals, he then sought out and found a nutritionist who overhauled Ryan’s food, vitamin and supplement regimen.
“As soon as he got the proper nutrition, he lit up like a light bulb,” says Reitmeyer.
A pioneer in the field of sports nutrition, UC Davis’ Dr. Liz Applegate is charged with optimizing athletic performance through diet for all intercollegiate athletics programs at the university. Applegate says the key to a healthy brain is, in some respects, deceptively simple: Eat a diet varied in colorful foods.
Applegate, director of sports nutrition, tells students in her popular course “Discoveries and Concepts in Nutrition,” affectionately named Nut 10—that the body is awash in rogue molecules called free radicals which age the body prematurely. Applegate likens these to small fires in cubicles around an office. Putting out these free radical fires requires a diet rich in antioxidants.
“We’re stationing little fire extinguishers around our brain cells [with antioxidants],” says Applegate, who also writes the nutrition column for Runner’s World magazine. Retrospective studies of patients with Alzheimer’s disease have shown a low early intake of antioxidants, she adds.
The second half of a healthy diet includes phytonutrients. This means the polyphenols of dark, rich fruits like grapes, and the carotenes found in rich red and orange produce like watermelons, tomatoes and papayas.
“Colorful foods offer antioxidants and phytonutrients,” summarizes Applegate.
Besides recommending the popular Mediterranean diet, Applegate identifies three important nutrients for brain health: omega-3 fatty acids which strengthen cell walls, the B-vitamin folate and choline. She says the latter two “we don’t hear a lot about” but are now proving important to brain health.The fear of age-related illness
The Sutter Neuroscience Institute’s conference room in Midtown Sacramento is packed with a lively mix of neurologists, registered nurses, social workers and other personnel. They’re gathered over lunch for the second meeting of the institute’s Memory Clinic to discuss recent cases in an atmosphere of collaborative cross talk. Chaired by the gently affable Dr. William Au, the group discusses the specifics of patients—ranging from verbal and motor skills to alcohol and prescription consumption. The gathering is professional yet casual and congenial.
“My memory isn’t that good after six back-to-back patients,” jokes neuropsychologist Dr. Renee Low, producing a burst of laughter.
It’s evident from the meeting that some patients arrive at the institute simply terrified of getting old. Wives bring in their husbands with natural, age-related forgetfulness and assume the worst: Alzheimer’s or dementia.
“A very high-functioning gentleman that is fearful,” summarizes Au of one man. “This is what happens when you get labeled [with dementia]. And the label isn’t accurate.”
Sitting among this collection of brains—with perhaps more than a century of combined medical expertise—one imagines that there is a magic cure for brain enhancement, a “little blue pill” that will speed growth of neural pathways or re-energize flaccid brain matter. Alas, there is not. Cognitive breakdown is typically treated with drugs borrowed from Alzheimer’s treatment—and even those are typically regarded as poor.
Au, director of the Sutter Neuroscience Memory Clinic, says a steadily rising number of patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia is due simply to the fact that Americans are living longer. Today there are about 5 million patients suffering with Alzheimer’s in the United States.
Since 1992, Au has seen four or five promising drugs for Alzheimer’s treatment that “didn’t pan out.” So patients and family members have continued their search for a miracle cure independently.
“I see people bring in shopping bags full” of supplements, herbs, brain food and other concoctions, he says with a mix of compassion and dismay.Gink-no?
Since the wacky world of brain health can be packed fast and loose with snake oils and pseudoscience—one Internet site announced, “In an attempt to address the concerns of the scientific community … we have refined the language on our Web site”—a popular herb under scrutiny is ginkgo biloba. Frequently included in herbal remedies spanning teas to energy drinks and beyond, ginkgo is still considered a brain enhancer by many consumers and is even listed as one of the top 10 natural products used by Americans in a 2007 National Health Interview Survey.
Yet the Ginkgo Evaluation of Memory (GEM) Study of 2008, which included data collected at UC Davis, is one of many studies to discredit the efficacy of ginkgo biloba. Co-funded by five arms of the National Institutes of Health, including its National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, the study said ginkgo biloba had no effects in preventing dementia or Alzheimer’s disease in the elderly.
While sharing dinner at a Thai restaurant on Broadway, self-proclaimed “Medicine Hunter” Chris Kilham disagrees. He says that ginkgo’s popularity came after German company’s extensive research on the now-popular herb; Kilham confirmed their studies with his own research, and today considers ginkgo “a powerful brain aid.”
An expert on medicinal botanicals who teaches Plant Medicine at the University of Massachusetts, Kilham is quick to pounce on those who discredit herbal remedies.
“The days of ‘There’s not enough science’ are so far gone,” groans Kilham, who is in Sacramento to talk with potential distributors about his new herbal energy drink Viv. “The people who are not in the field of botanical medicine—no matter how well-intentioned they may be—don’t know jack shit.” He says herbs used around the world for mental concentration include schizandra berry and Siberian ginseng. But he reserves the top spot for rhodiola rosea, “the Mighty Joe Young of medicinal botanicals.”[page] Neuro-Buddhists
While local psychologist Dr. John Leonard calls his work “neuro-Buddhism” (see “Your brain, the doctor,” page 24), Buddhist scholar Alan Wallace is teaming with local researchers to conduct a continuing study on meditation’s effect on the brain called the Shamatha Project. At the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain, assistant research scientist Dr. Clifford Saron leads the team of 25 prominent researchers.
Saron says much of the public discourse about neuroplasticity—that the brain is malleable—ambles unwittingly down the wrong path, because it assumes humans have to do something quick and dramatic to change their brains. The right way to think about neuroplasticity, he says, is quite simple: “Neuroplasticity is always on.” Saron says our entire lives—habits, relationships, coping skills and lifestyle—create a “physiological momentum” that maintains our current brain organization. Given this physiological momentum, it’s easy to see why change is so hard.
“Each one of you is an absolute world expert at being yourself,” Saron told a captive audience of meditators at Marin County’s Spirit Rock Meditation Center, “and you’ve carefully crafted … the exact habitual shape that you take.” He added that humans have the ability to modify their unconscious behaviors.
Working with the UC Davis Center for Neuroscience and the departments of psychology and neurology, the Shamatha Project established two groups of meditators who sat for three months each at the Shambhala Mountain Center in Colorado. They experienced greater self-acceptance, more mental resilience and less mind wandering. They also reported significantly reduced anxiety.
Laboratory tests showed that participants also improved in visual perception and sustained attention, suggesting that they might be able sharpen their focus for longer periods of time in the future.
“You can slowly give birth to a new you over a long period of time by learning to incorporate naturally new skills,” says Saron. “But it does require new skills in a new direction.”Kitchen crasher
Scott Estrada is a home wrecker. The Sacramento fitness trainer and nutritionist wants to tear out your kitchen cabinets, throw away your crappy food and help give your brain the nutrients it needs. After that, he wants to get your lazy-ass brain out of the house and into the yoga studio or on the water.
Estrada doesn’t star in a reality TV show for the Brain Channel. Instead, Estrada teaches clients that a happy brain is the result of all the input it receives on a daily basis: diet, exercise, media, personal thoughts and communal experiences. Yet Estrada doesn’t do this from afar. He dives in headfirst with clients, visiting their homes, taking them to the health-food store or dragging them outside for exercise. It’s part of a service he markets as “brain chemistry optimization.”
The bedrock of a happy brain, says Estrada, is proper diet. But Estrada doesn’t simplify diet into “good” or “bad” foods. Nutrients ideal for one client may be suboptimal for another. The trick, he says, is finding the right balance for each brain.
“I want to help them remove the foods that adversely affect their brain,” he says. “They bring this puzzle to me and I’ve got to piece it together. It’s challenging.”
Estrada talks at length about “balancing chemical levels in the brain” and references the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is essential to learning and experiencing pleasure. Yet excess dopamine can create feelings of anger, rage and anxiety.
“As a society, we’re moving towards this higher dopamine state, and it’s creating a lot of havoc,” says Estrada. From assassin drivers to Bernie Madoff, Estrada says our culture reflects this imbalance, with more and more Americans addicted to speed, greed and instant gratification.
“Their baseline [dopamine] levels are higher than someone more balanced. Consistent exercise is a must to keep their levels in check,” says Estrada. “[Other] people have lower levels and getting them off the couch is a chore … in [their] case, the ‘right’ exercise will stimulate dopamine.”
The holy trinity of good brain health, says Estrada, includes outdoor exercise, good nutrition and yoga. The key, he says, is consistency.
“Here’s the interesting thing,” says Estrada. “The brain has no morals. It only wants a high. It’s like the kid who only wants an after-school snack. He’ll cheat or lie just to get that endorphin rush.”
Estrada takes me out on the Sacramento River where he introduces me to stand-up paddling, or SUP. The boards are longer, thicker and slightly wider than a surfboard. Once on the river we stand tall on top of the boards and paddle, looking like matching Huck Finns.
We paddle upstream for about half an hour, then sit and talk on a sandbar, where Estrada talks passionately about this perfect mix of full-body resistance workout with the power and freedom of being on the water.
Estrada waxes philosophical about the need for a new health paradigm. We’re sick on so many levels, he says: stuck in cubicles, eating horrible food, alienated from our neighbors and ourselves.
As we float quietly on the river, in the distance I see the traffic on Business 80 careening in both directions. My eyes shift to Estrada, who represents to me the future of health: fit, active, engaged, holistic … and completely responsible for his own health.
Welcome to the future of fitness: not just a just a buffer body, but a healthier brain.