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Six Ways to Boost Brainpower

Excerps from Emily Anthes
Scientific American - Mind Magazine and by NAOMI COLEMAN,

The adult human brain is surprisingly malleable: it can rewire itself and even grow new cells. Here are some habits that can fine-tune your mind.

There is mounting evidence to suggest that it is possible to preserve the function of the brain as we age. Amputees sometimes experience phantom limb sensations, feeling pain, itching or other impulses coming from limbs that no longer exist. Neuroscientist Vilayanur S. Ramachandran worked with patients who had so-called phantom limbs, including Tom, a man who had lost one of his arms Ramachandran discovered that if he stroked Tom’s face, Tom felt like his missing fingers were also being touched. Each part of the body is represented by a different region of the somatosensory cortex, and, as it happens, the region for the hand is adjacent to the region for the face. The neuroscientist deduced that a remarkable change had taken place in Tom’s somatosensory cortex.

Experts believe that working out the brain can help keep our memory in peak condition.

Regular exercise such as dancing is associated with a significantly reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and other forms of mental impairment, while meditation is a powerful tool for memory because it limits the amount of thoughts entering the brain.

Here, we look at six ways to boost your memory

1. Take up dancing
The old adage a healthy mind, healthy body is true according to brain experts. Dancing - especially salsa, jazz and classical - for 20 minutes three to four times a week is a great cardiovascular exercise for the body and brain.

The function of the brain depends on a variety of factors, two of the most important being the blood supply to the brain, and the nutrient and oxygen content of that blood. Because dancing stimulates the circulation, it stands to reason that it may enhance mental function.

And if dancing is not your cup of tea, the good news is swimming, rowing, running and fast walking will also help keep your memory fighting fit.

2. Feed your memory
There’s not much evidence connecting specific foods with improved memory, but a balanced diet in general can definitely help. In fact 20 per cent of all the food calories we consume are used by the brain. To keep it at its peak performance, it’s therefore important to eat regularly and not skip meals. Regular meals help drip feed the brain with the glucose it need to function.

Try adding a handful of blueberries to your cereal because, according to research carried out at Tufts University in Boston USA, eating just half a cup of these berries daily - rich in protective antioxidant components called anthocyanidins - could delay the deterioration in co-ordination and short-term memory that occurs as we age.

Also, eat plenty of foods rich in B vitamins which are essential for the formation of neurotransmitters which transmit nerve impulses. Good sources include wholemeal bread, milk, cereals and pulses.

Low iron intakes can also blunt brain power, so try to include the occasional meal of liver or red meat - both of which contain an easily absorbed form of this mineral.

Research at at the University of Berne in Switzerland, has found that higher blood levels of vitamin C and beta carotene are associated with better memory in people aged 65 and older. A really good source of both these nutrients is red peppers, but other brightly colored and deep green vegetables (spinach, mango, carrots and cantaloupe melons) provide them too.

Don’t skimp on fish either: fatty fish in particular contains large amounts of omega-3 oils which are an important component of cell membranes in the brain and nervous system. In addition, oily fish has been proven to reduce inflammation, so it may slow down the inflammatory processes in the brain which can lead to memory deterioration.

3. Cut down your alcohol intake
Research shows heavy drinking affects memory, learning, reaction time and complex reasoning. Memory and judgment problems are the result of the toxic effects of alcohol on nerve cells.

If you drink heavily over a long period and then stop suddenly, you can be susceptible to fits, seizures and blackouts, which can be fatal or have permanent effects on the brain.

4. Meditate daily
Meditation is a very powerful way of controlling attention and there is some evidence to show that it can benefit memory.

‘It is thought that meditation can influence parts of the brain associated with relaxation and a focused mind,’ says Ian Robinson, professor of psychology at Trinity College, Dublin.

Experts believe meditation helps control attention because it limits the amount of thoughts entering the memory system found in the frontal lobes of the brain. This means the memory is not flooded with cortisol - the chemical produced from too many thoughts associated with stress. Too much stress can clutter up the memory system causing mental blocks.

5. Tackle your stress levels
Scientists have shown that stress can send the memory haywire, leaving even the brightest person struggling for words. Researchers from the University of Zurich in Switzerland and the University of California at Irvine found that the hormone cortisol, which floods the brain at times of severe stress, can affect ability to access memory.

Once levels fall, remembering becomes easier again - explaining why quiz contestants often come up with the answer after their chance has passed.

6. Think in pictures
According to Professor Robinson, imagery is one of the most ancient and effective ways to improve your memory. Research shows that pictures activate more areas of our brain than words, proving to be a powerful tool for remembering faces, names, events and experiences.

‘We are brought up to think in pictures as children, but as we grow up we lose the ability to think in images,’ says Professor Robinson. ‘Thinking in pictures helps fire up our brain cells between different parts of our brain. The more we practise using visual imagery, the better we will be at remembering things,’ he says.

How to think in pictures
• Write down your shopping list - start with around ten items.

• Now, in your mind’s eye pick some path or route that you know well from your house to the supermarket.

• Make a shopping list in images by mentally laying each item at a particular point on the route - for example, a corner, gateway, shop front, post box.

• Now, mentally walk with your mind’s eye along this path again, and see if you can ‘see’ the shopping list items in their places.

• To check if you remembered correctly, compare your mental list with your written shopping list.