Friday, February 27, 2015

Plastic Brains and Exercise

Adults have always envied kids' ability to learn new things quickly. And the dream of reopening the brain's natural plasticity later in life is an old one, too. An excellent piece by Rebecca Boyle, out today in my new favorite online magazine, Aeon, looks at research on the use of both the seizure drug valproate and the dementia drug donepezil to stimulate that plastic neural magic where language, music, and bike riding can be effortlessly added to one's repertoire. The research is promising, but hardly unequivocal. And as far as I can tell, the effectiveness of these drugs has not been rigorously compared to much more accessible techniquest of boosting plasticity. The most important and obvious is exercise. Among its other neuro-salutary benefits, exercise causes the release of Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), a stimulant to the creation of new neurons and the maintenance of old ones. 

But does exercise reopen the window of neuroplasticity?  That might be the wrong way to frame the question. One of the last couple of decades' big neurological insights, as Boyle's piece recounts, is that the window stays open, or at least openable, our whole lives. "Your brain can always change, whatever your age," says UCSF's Michael Merzenich, a seminal researcher of brain plasticity. "And there are things you can do to make it change faster," he says. 

As far as my review of the science can tell, nothing works better than exercise to keep the brain's plasticity window open...or to pry it open once again. So for now, while you wait for a learning pill to take before dulcimer class, Rebecca, try walking to your lesson. 

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