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Activity 3 - Go Mental
 

Words Go Mental and an illustration of chess piecesOur plastic brains can be bent and reshaped as we learn and make new memories. But that mesh of neurons needs to be challenged if it is to reorganise itself effectively. Thankfully you don’t need to train for University Challenge or outdo a chess grandmaster. Education, reading, hobbies and artistic or creative pastimes help to protect against cognitive problems in MS when pursued over a lifetime.

Everyday activities count as “brain workouts” and they will give your brain a head start in its ability to rejig connections when the need arises. You will need to push yourself beyond your comfort limits – no pain, no gain – but brain boot camp can still be pleasant. You could learn or improve your skills on a musical instrument, take up a new hobby (or an old one), read a good book, travel to new places or interact socially; physical activities similarly act as brain fertiliser, stimulating brain cells (neurons) to grow new branches and connections.

Use it or lose it

A newborn baby is deluged with new information, but its brain is primed for this moment, with billions of neurons on standby. They already bristle with a tree-top of branches called synapses – and by toddlerdom we have twice as many of these synapses as adults – so as kids we have buckets of spares at the ready.

As we age, though, the rule is “use it or lose it.” Unused branches are pruned, while stronger connections are strengthened. This is a natural process, but as we age neurons that are left out of the action through lack of use become damaged and die.

Challenging your brain stimulates the connections between neurons, essentially promoting neuroplasticity and so may help to fight off decline in mental functions like memory and it may protect against the symptoms of diseases like MS. Even reading and thinking about those benefits causes a rewiring of your brain! So when you learn something new and memorise it, your brain readjusts its weave.

Learn. Repeat. Route.

Try learning a famous speech, a long poem, a rap or the words of a song by heart and you will discover it is a testing task, like beating a path through an overgrown hedge. But repetition lays down a proper track through the ‘hedge’ and eventually you form an indelible memory – a path through the bramble. If you become an expert in one skill, be it music, rhyme, dance or design, then entire regions of your brain may be be reshaped.

A famous study of London taxi drivers showed how a particular part of their brain – within the seahorse-shaped hippocampus which is crucial for laying down new memories – bulged in size as drivers memorised a map of the English capital, with its 25,000 streets.

That takes years, but change can be swift too. If you are blindfolded, within just two hours, extra touch signals are rerouted via the area of your brain that normally deals with vision. Eventually, much of the area could switch tasks. The brain does not allow parts to lie fallow; blind people use the vision department of the brain for hearing, for example.

Rerouting is a key strategy of damaged brains. Rather than try to repair a network, neurons will sometimes go around a blockage and make do with what is available to get a circuit back up and running. In animal studies, brain cells beside a damaged area took on new functions and shapes that allowed them to take on new roles from their damaged neighbours. This is important to know for rehabilitating people who sustain brain injury from stroke, or who lose function through diseases such as MS. If a person does not practise a lost movement, for example, the damaged brain cells and surrounding tissue are starved of stimulation and may die off. We now know there is great scope for brain compensation and recovery with the right practice and training, and therein lies the hope and the hard work.


Can you limit brain atrophy by keeping mentally active?

 
 
Hello Brain For more info on brain health visit Hello Brain
 

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