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3 Daily Habits That Boost Brainpower

Cognitive, physical, and social activities can reverse brain shrinkage.

Neuroscientists have known for decades that enriched environments stimulate the growth of new neurons (neurogenesis) and bulk up both the gray and white matter of the brain. A new Canadian study has found that the combination of physical, social and cognitive activities increased the volume of the hippocampus—a brain area associated with learning, memory and overall brainpower.

Dr. Robin Green, senior scientist and neuropsychologist at Toronto Rehab, and her team have been studying the impact of traumatic brain injury (TBI) and treatments to reverse the impediments of TBI. Her new findings imply that simple lifestyle changes can reverse brain atrophy and degeneration associated with TBI.

For the first time, Green and her colleagues at Toronto Rehab have found that in people with chronic moderate-severe TBI, can reverse atrophy (shrinkage) in the brain by participating in environmental enrichment. Environmental enrichment includes 3 simple daily activities: physical, social and cognitive stimulation.

Green’s research paper, titled "Environmental Enrichment May Protect Against Hippocampal Atrophy in the Chronic Stages of Traumatic Brain Injury," was published September 24, 2013 in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

From a positive psychology perspective, I use a scale of -5 to +5 with zero being a neutral baseline. The goal is always to get "north of zero." Usually scientists need to study brain injury and disease to look for clues that the general public can use to go from 0 to +5. Although this new study focused on people with TBI who were technically "south of zero," the research offers simple ways that anyone can boost brainpower, increase longevity, and maximize his or her human potential.

Physical, Social and Cognitive Stimulation are Key to Brain Health

"People with moderate-severe TBI are commonly unable to return to the same level of engagement in their work, school or social lives as before the injury. This decrease in environmental stimulation puts them at a greater risk of increased atrophy in the chronic stages of their brain injury," said Dr. Green. "However, those with greater environmental enrichment may be keeping vulnerable areas stimulated. Environmental enrichment is also known to increase production of neurons in the hippocampus and to promote their integration into existing brain networks."

Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), Dr. Green and colleagues observed ongoing damage or atrophy in the brains of many people with moderate-severe TBI. Exactly what's causing this—and whether it eventually stabilizes—is unclear. At one level, inflammation, delayed apoptosis (programmed cell death) and excessive protein accumulation may play a role. What seems clearer is that the damaged areas affect healthy cells.

Importantly, they discovered that in people with chronic moderate-severe TBI, environmental enrichment—increased physical, social, and cognitive stimulation—can offset brain deterioration.

Those who reported greater amounts of environmental enrichment—for example, reading, problem solving exercises, puzzles, physical activity, socializing—at 5 months after their injury showed less shrinkage of the hippocampus from 5 to 28 months post-injury.

To address long-term cognitive problems in this population, Dr. Green has focused her research on tailored treatments to offset this progressive deterioration. "What we believe is going on," said Dr. Green, "is that after a serious brain injury, damaged tissue disconnects the healthy areas of the brain. Those healthy areas are under stimulated and, over time, deteriorate."

Conclusion: Enriched Environments Improve Brain Function

Based on the findings from their study, Green's team which includes Greg Noack, is now engaged in research designed to proactively offset deterioration, which includes the delivery of environmental enrichment to patients. "One thing I loved about this study is that it facilitated greater customization of a patient's care," said Noack. "I could see how my patients benefited from the increased amount of stimulation through extended therapy."

Dr. Green concludes, "Our focus now is how to incorporate environmental enrichment into long-term rehabilitation. We are exploring the key ingredients to environmental enrichment for off-setting atrophy, and also the benefits of combining environmental enrichment with other therapies."

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