Life After Batman Inside Bruce Wayne's Brain

Does all the toil and training provide neuroprotection against the Knight?

Posted Mar 29, 2019

Batman burst onto the scene as “The Bat-Man” in Detective Comics #27 cover dated May 1939. Since the book was released on March 30 and thus DC Comics set his 80th anniversary to be that day. If we kludge together the version of Batman we see in his first story by co-creators Bill Finger and Bob Kane—“The Case of the Chemical Syndicate”—with the timelines explored by folks like Frank Miller in Batman Year One and seen in the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight trilogy, we can say Batman would have been in his 20s on his debut in Detective Comics. In 2019 he'd be somewhere between 80 and 100+ years old!

E. Paul Zehr
Brooding Batman statue at Warner Brothers Studios.
Source: E. Paul Zehr

What might Oldman Batman be like as an octagenerian (let's agree centenarian is probably out of reach)? How protective might Bruce Wayne’s training be when he is a very old man? That is, would the physical and mental activity required to become Batman help offset decrements due to aging and the trauma of being Batman for decades? This bumps into the controversial concept of “cognitive reserve” which links the lifetime experiences and activities of a person to brain development and enrichment that might be resilient to damage occurring from aging or trauma.

Considerable evidence suggests that physical activity positively affects neurons (and even neurogenesis) to help brain function at every age. Data from both reduced non-human animal preparations and we humans show that physical activity, especially as we age from so called "mid-life" and beyond, can reduce the impact of cognitive decline in later life. Imaging studies show that brain regions typically found to be degenerative in dementia can be better preserved in those with a prior history of consistent physical activity.

Taken together with other lifestyle modulators like diet and mental activity, physical activity seems critical to healthy aging in body and brain. Major issues that remain poorly understood are the threshold (if there is one) for a protective "dose", the relationship between volume of activity and amount of benefit, and whether neuroprotection continues if activity is lessened or stops altogether

A physically and mentally active lifestyle with a good diet is likely key to maintaining cognitive performance well into "old age". If we consider Batman’s training history as a positive lifestyle factor, does this benefit him? A major focus of Batman’s training is martial arts, a point I focused on extensively in Becoming Batman, but is there evidence that a martial arts lifestyle can help in later life?

Martial arts training acutely produces positive effects on the brain. Middle-aged (mean = 54 y) women and men showed improved executive function immediately after Korean martial arts training. Training in martial arts at an older age can improve many factors. Kerstin Witte and colleagues in Magdeburg, Germany, found that even 5 months of karate training gave enhanced motor reaction, tolerance to stress, and the capacity to "multi-task" in a group of older (mean age = 70 y) women. A longer period of 10 months provided larger benefits. Considerable evidence shows Tai Chi training can enhance balance and proprioception in older (greater than 60 y) folks. Elderly (greater than 70 y) Kendo players have higher life quality, muscle strength and balance.

In prior posts I've also discussed the beneficial effects of karate training in older adults with Parkinson's Disease and in otherwise healthy elders. There may also be some beneficial effects of martial arts training on emotional state and mood, but I think it would be a stretch to suggest that the portrayal of Batman in comics and movies indicates he was a "responder" in this domain.

There's lots of evidence, then, that a physically active lifestyle, including one grounded in martial arts practice, can be beneficial across the lifespan even into very old age. Whether the extreme training history of Batman shows diminishing returns and whether his trauma exposure, especially to concussion, interact with any neuroprotection remain questions unanswered. But I will definitely have more to say later, so please check this space later!

For us mere mortals, though, the message is clear: get active and stay active your whole life. And if you aren't active now, it's never to late to start finding that bit of Batman deep inside and putting it to good use. Your brain will thank you now, later, and beyond.

(c) E. Paul Zehr (2019)