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Posted: February 18, 2009 12:01 a.m.

Boost your brain power, health

 The human brain is a marvel. It has neuroplasticity (can rewire itself) and is capable of neurogenesis (growing new cells). Scientists are studying and identifying factors that positively affect both. Here are six ways determined by research to boost brain power and health.

Exercise: Exercise improves the brain’s ability to plan, organize and multi-task, etc. It elevates mood, decreases the chances of getting dementia with age and has been shown to improve immune system functioning and quality of sleep. Even seniors who have lived their entire lives as couch potatoes can improve these abilities by increasing frequency and duration of movement.

Diet: Although the brain is mostly fat, highest and best performance requires good fats like omega-3, found in fish, nuts and seeks. Fruits and vegetables are brain superfoods, high in antioxidants, shown in aging lab rats to keep learning and memory sharp and to reduce brain damage caused by stroke. Contrarily, diets high in saturated fats increase the risk of dementia and are suspected of decreasing performance on tests of learning and memory. And it’s not just what you eat — laboratory animals fed calorie-restricted diets live 25 to 50 percent longer, perform better on tests of memory and coordination and show longer resistance to the negative symptoms of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease.

Stimulants: Stimulants rev up the nervous system, increasing heart rate, blood pressure, energy, arousal, alertness, breathing and more. "Caffeine is probably the most famous and the most widely used "drug" in the world. In high doses, though, stimulants become dangerous. Cocaine and amphetamines work on the brain through different mechanisms and increase the release of the brain’s feel good transmitters, dopamine and serotonin, in addition, to boosting alertness and energy. But, they are extremely addictive, and use can result in psychosis, agonizing withdrawal and even death.

Video games: while video games can improve mental dexterity, boost hand-eye coordination, depth perception, pattern recognition and increase attention span and information-processing skills, it is important to monitor the content quality of what the brain is fed. Although data do not yet support a cause-and-effect relation between violent video game use and increased youth violence, a number of studies do show a correlation between heavy use by male playing first-person shooter games and decreased sensitivity to violent depictions as well as increased brain patterns that indicate aggression.

Music: Music activates the auditory cortex which analyzes volume, pitch, timbre, melody and rhythm. In addition, it can activate your brain’s reward centers, reduce anxiety, insomnia, blood pressure, soothe patients with dementia, promote weight gain in premature babies and depress activity in the amygdale, the hub of emotional memory, reducing fear and other negative feelings.

Meditation: "An om a day keeps the doctor away." Reams of scientific studies show that meditation — the turning of the mind inward for contemplation and relaxation — is good medicine for all types of conditions, including anxiety, stress, pain, blood pressure, asthma, insomnia, diabetes and depression. Experts in meditation show spikes of activity in the left prefrontal cortex, the area associated with positive emotion, as well as big boosts in immune system functioning.

 Peggy Nolen is a licensed professional counselor in Covington. Her areas of interest include anxiety, depression, recovery from traumatic experience and problems with drugs and alcohol. She can be reached at (770) 313-5924

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