I thought that this article would be a good opportunity to follow on from Lucy’s article on dementia. Whilst I knew that dementia was on the rise in Australia – I really didn’t realise just how bad the problem is and just how much worse it’s projected to get. The stats are scary indeed. If you haven’t read Lucy’s article yet, or worse still don’t remember it (ouch), you can check it out here – is your brain healthy?

Dementia really is the ultimate example of use it or lose it! This has been well documented in a book by Norman Doidge titled, “The Brain That Changes Itself”. It’s a remarkable book about brain plasticity – where the brain is capable of changing its very structure, often with just thoughts alone. Really just take a moment to take that in. Your brain can actually change the way it functions – just from thoughts alone. Research has even shown that changing your thoughts results in neurones switching on/off different genes. This is no “pie in the sky” idea, the book is well researched and the evidence is astounding.

Even more remarkable is the DVD of the same title. I cannot possibly over-state the WOW factor associated with this DVD. Sure the book has the science and the detail but watching the actual experiments and the results in front of you has a jaw dropping effect. If I could recommend you watch just one educational DVD this year – this would be it. The reason being that it can literally change your life.

In the first scene we are introduced to a blind man with a camera on his head and a sensor on his tongue. Using this camera and sensor, he is able to walk his way unassisted through a maze marked out in tape on the ground. If this isn’t incredible enough, we later see the same man throw a ball into a bin – that’s right, a blind man THROWS A BALL into a bin!!! This man’s brain has re-organised so that the part of the brain that processes vision, processes the stimulus from the tongue as if it were vision – the camera and tongue sensor together truly become his “eyes”.

So just how does this relate to dementia?

Your brain is not fixed, its plastic. It is precisely because of this fact that your brain needs to be exercised just like your body. But there is the catch – you need focussed attention, not just running on autopilot. The frontal lobe needs to be engaged and this means that learning NEW activities is actually the most important thing you need to know.

Learning something new with focussed attention is the key to keeping your brain in good shape.

The best options are languages, musical instruments and complex body movements like dancing and Tai Chi. But it must be NEW. If you have done ballroom dancing for years, there is no use running over the same dance steps you have performed for the past 30 years. This doesn’t engage the frontal lobe.  You need to learn new dance steps to get that frontal lobe in gear.

In fact the more difficult the activity is to learn – the better. So don’t give up just because you find it frustrating. This is actually the best thing for your brain and means that the extra concentration required is forcing new connections to be formed. New connections means you are ADDING to brain function. Neurons that fire together, wire together. Keeping those connections alive is the true antidote for dementia.

When considered along side the field of epigenetics, I believe that this concept of the plastic brain is just about the most important thing that I have ever learnt in life. This is because it means that we really don’t know the limit of our potential. We aren’t fixed where we are right now, we are not even limited by the genes our bodies currently express. What are we capable of? We are (almost) limited only by our imaginations.

You can click here if you want to read the second part of this article where I have expanded this concept substantially and give you more detail about what’s actually going on. We also take a look at an example of the dark side of brain plasticity – chronic pain.