For a long time, the scientific community believed that our big, beautiful brains were immutable. Eventually, they said, we’d just stop growing neurons, and well, the paths we carved along the way were there permanently. Fixed in place. With no room for growth.
But research and studies have recently thrown this long-standing theory into disarray. “In neurology [for years] We’ve always talked about how the brain can’t change and that we can’t grow new neurons… but at the same time we’ve been able to learn new hobbies or languages. There was such a disconnect!” says Michael Hennes, DC, of Northwestern Health Sciences University’s Sweere Clinic. “When we learn something new, our brain must have changed somehow.”
As a specialist in craniocerebral trauma, Hennes is an eyewitness to this phenomenon in his practice. “Neurological rehab is cool because we can make changes [to the brain] really fast; but if it’s only done once, it’s a party trick,” he says. Your brain needs 15 consecutive minutes of activity to learn something new, the threshold for neuroplasticity (i.e. the brain’s ability to form new neural connections over time). If we only deal with flashcards or mind maps or Duolingo every few days, it doesn’t really have a lasting effect.
“If we keep doing something over the course of weeks or months, we get long-term potentiation — that is, permanent changes in the brain,” says Hennes. “It takes some time and patience, but that’s how we keep things.” If we’re not careful to stimulate neurons or individual brain cells, they will essentially die or prune themselves.
What is good for the body is good for the mind
Wordle, reading, and crosswords aren’t the only ways to get your brain to open new filing cabinets. Another surefire way to keep the brain mass stimulated is through actual exercise. Exercise is considered a form of mental stimulation that has positive effects on the body and mind.
One of the biggest benefits of exercise for the brain is that it boosts brain-derived neurotrophic factors (BDNF), which Hennes says basically act like fertilizer for our brain and neurons, promoting the connections between these different cells. “One neuron talking to another is really cool, but when neurons start talking to 400 or 4,000 other neurons, we start to see resilience in the brain,” he says. “Or more complex or learning skills because that network is growing. By participating in movement, BDNF allows our brains to do some interesting things. This is the basis of plasticity, the ability of the brain to change.”
Any type of movement – from a wall sit to a plank or even a short walk – counts as a brain booster. Hennes says, “We just want to get your body to move… nothing happens to your brain until something moves. Whether you’re opening a book or moving a limb, it’s all about stimulation. Electricity, sensory input, that’s what we’re looking for.”
Not only does exercise protect brain health by boosting cell regeneration, but it also does a variety of other things that lead to greater cognitive function: it reduces inflammation, improves blood flow to the brain (and everywhere else), and lowers cortisol levels, the stress hormone, which can be a precursor to dementia and other cognitive disorders. Several studies even show that repetitive motion can thicken the cerebral cortex, which is positively associated with intelligence.)
While the prospect of literally growing our brains (okay, thickening the cortex!) is electrifying, we don’t have to strain to see results. “When it comes to your brain, you know you’ve gone too far, like when your muscles get sore from too much exercise and take those extra three days to recover,” says Hennes. “You’ll feel tired or a little more irritable, signs your brain has been overworked.” To sum it up: stay active, dust off those puzzles you used in the early days of the pandemic and stay connected with loved ones in connection. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that social interaction is associated with slower rates of cognitive decline.
Northwestern Health Sciences University in Bloomington is a leading integrative healthcare institution preparing the next generation of healthcare professionals to deliver and advance healthcare and offers 11 areas of study. Its clinics and the TruNorth Wellness Hub are open to the public to support healthier and better lives for all. The Bloomington Clinic specializes in caring for the whole family, offering chiropractic, acupuncture, Chinese medicine, massage therapy, naturopathic medicine, nutrition and cupping. Sweere Clinic offers comprehensive care for complex pain conditions and trauma. The Biomechanics Lab and Human Performance Center support proper movement and recovery through gait analysis, rehabilitation, and strength and conditioning.
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