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This is part 1 of a series examing lessons in brain health learned from our elders — those folk who lived the longest and healthiest.

We’ve living longer, but how do our aging brains fare? 

To answer this question, I’ve looked to two sources — those exceptionally old folks who remain in robust physical and mental health till the very end of their lives, and our evolutionary past.

Over millennia, Mother Nature equipped us to survive and thrive in the wild. Our brains evolved such that from womb to the tomb we’re required to move, eat well, sleep, immerse ourselves in nature, avoid stress, love and befriend, and seek meaning. These requirements neatly map onto the principles of everyday life followed by the world’s longest living people.

When does old age begin?

We can’t seem to make up our minds, and the older we get, the further we move the goalposts marking the last season of our lives.

A 2009 survey of Americans asked participants when they believed someone grew ‘old’.

Young folks in their twenties believed said old age began at 60. Those under 50 put the threshold closer to 70, whereas those 65 and above said that the average person does not become old until turning 74.

Getting old wasn’t nearly as bad as people think it will be. Nor was it quite as good.

On the downside, one in four adults ages 65 surveyed reported memory loss. One in five had a serious illness, are no longer sexually active, or often feel sad or depressed, lonely or have trouble paying bills. One in ten felt like a burden.

On the upside, the same group said they have more time for hobbies, travel, volunteer work, and more financial security. Of all the good things about getting old, the best by far, according to older adults, is being able to spend more time with family members.

“Am I Old? Certainly not!”

One of my boys said to me recently he couldn’t imagine me as a little girl and how did it feel to finally be “old”. I told him I feel the same now as I did when I was 10.

“Am I Old? Certainly not!” This was the answer survey respondents gave too.

In fact, the older they got, the younger they said they feel. About half of those under 30 said they felt their age. But those who were 75 and older? Just 35% say they feel “old”.

It seems we remain on intimate terms with our much younger selves — I sometimes wonder how ten-year old me suddenly became forty-three?

We enter the end of our lifespan with our past woven intimately into our biology.

From birth, our neural architecture is shaped by life’s ups and downs, the decisions we made, the places where we lived, worked and learned, the meaning we’ve derived, and who we loved, gave life to, and travelled with through time. How we spend our early years will determine how we age.

More and more of us are living to into old age, and there has never been a better time in which to do so. Our large clever human brains have bequeathed us with modern medicine and tools with which we manage our reproductive health, avoid maternal and neonatal death, vaccinate against disease, prevent pain, treat infection and some cancers, and perform surgery if required.

One hundred years ago, women lived barely long enough to see out their 50s. A baby girl born today can expect to live to see out the first decades of the 22nd century.

Uncovering the secrets of exceptional longevity

On February 21, 1875, one year before the Alexander Graham Bell filed his patent for the telephone, a baby girl, Jeanne Louise Calment was born in Arles, France. She was alive to witness the invention of the aeroplane, cinema, and on a trip to Paris saw the Eiffel tower being built. When she was 13, Jeanne met Vincent Van Gogh; although apparently, she was less than impressed saying he was ”…very ugly, ungracious, impolite, sick…”.

In 1997, the same year Princess Diana died, Calment finally passed away. She was 122 years and 164 days old. Although blind, almost deaf, and confined to a wheelchair, Calment reportedly remained spirited and “alert as a hummingbird” till the end. The French called her “la doyenne de l’humanitè” (the elder of humankind) and she still holds the record for the world’s longest ever living human (although this has been recently challenged).

In April 2017, the latest longevity record holder, Emma Martina Luigia Morano of Vercelli, Italy, died aged 117. Born in November 1899, Morano was the last known living person who was born in the 1800s. According to the Guinness Book of Records, Morano followed the same extraordinary diet for around 90 years: three eggs per day (two raw, one cooked), fresh Italian pasta, and a dish of raw meat. The current longevity crown belongs to Polish Holocaust survivor Israel Kristal, who celebrated his 113th birthday in September 2017.

Once rare as diamonds, the oldest of the old are the fastest growing sector of our global population.

If you were born in 1900, the odds of living till age 100 were less than 1 in a million, and few people lived long enough see out the 1950s. For girls born into wealthy countries today, the odds of blowing out 100 candles on a cake are roughly 1 in 50.

Israel Kristal claims he doesn’t know the secret of his long life.

I believe that everything is determined from above and we shall never know the reasons why. There have been smarter, stronger and better-looking men then me who are no longer alive. All that is left for us to do is to keep on working as hard as we can and rebuild what is lost.

When asked her secrets, Jeanne Calment attributed her longevity to immunity to stress and a good attitude,

I wasn’t afraid of anything. I was often reproached for that … I took pleasure when I could, I acted clearly and morally and without regret. I’m very lucky.

Calment reportedly ate more than two pounds of chocolate a week, treated her skin with olive oil, rode a bicycle until she was 100, and only quit smoking when she was 117 because she became too proud to ask someone else to light her cigarettes. Known for her wit, she is widely reported as saying,

I’ve never had but one wrinkle, and I’m sitting on it.

Hard work, raw eggs, biking, and no regrets. We clamour to learn their secrets, and typically the oldest of the old love to share their long-won wisdom. Calment once quipped.

I wait. For death and journalists.

Blue Zones lessons for longevity

In another longevity project, National Geographic writer Dan Buettner together Professor Michel Poulain famously described five ‘Blue Zones’ around the globe where the residents live to exceptional old age. Despite being very different parts of the world, there are commonalities to the resident’s lifestyles.

Their longevity has nothing to do with brute discipline, diets, exercise programs or supplements… In Blue Zones areas around the world, longevity happens to people. It’s the result of the right environment that constantly nudges them into moving more, eating more plants and beans while eating less meat and sugar, socializing with the right people and living out their values. It’s that simple, really.

  • Residents of the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica, prioritise friendship and family, and they almost never work extra hours if it means they have to forego a good party. They also foster ‘plan de vida’ or ‘a reason to live’.
  • In Loma Linda, California, the strong sense of purpose, day of rest, no-smoking policy, and healthy diet practices of the local Seventh Day Adventist community has rubbed off on the health of the whole town.
  • Residents of the mountainous villages of Sardinia, Italy and the Greek island of Ikaria, nap, fast, grow their own food, and drink wine daily with friends. It’s thought the clean air, warm breezes and rugged terrain of the Mediterranean islands draw locals outdoors to move naturally.
  • The residents of the Japanese islands of Okinawa, home to the world’s longest living women, are dedicated to family. Okinawans practice ‘Hara hachi bu’, a reminder to stop eating when they’re 80% full, ‘Ikigai’, which roughly translates to “Why I wake up in the morning,” and form ‘Moais’, groups of five friends that remain committed to each other for live.

Buettner has distilled the lifestyle practices of Blue Zones into lessons for longevity. As he says, to make it to 100 you may have to “win the genetic lottery”, but the average person’s life expectancy can be increased by moving move, prioritising friends, family and social gatherings, eating less, drinking wine, and fostering a sense of purpose.

Sydney Centenarian Study lessons for longevity

Due to the rarity of extremely old folks, the Sydney Centenarian Study has partnered with a consortium of centenarian research teams from around the globe to pool their resources and data to enable more powerful conclusions to be drawn. Their data support the Blue Zones observations.

Charlene Levitan, who once headed up the Sydney Centenarian Study says,

What is emerging from the global research is that around 30% of longevity is contributed by genetics. The remaining 70% is to do with our lifestyle, which includes a healthy diet, exercise, and remaining socially integrated.

One of the strongest themes to emerge is related to the personality traits of resilience, adaptability and optimism.

Most of our centenarians will report optimism as a life-long personality characteristic.

This is an excerpt from my book The Women’s Brain Book.

The post When does old age begin? (Part 1 of Your Brain at 100 series) appeared first on Your Brain Health.

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Most scholars agree on three facts about the teenage brain.
  1. Brain structures continue to change between childhood and adulthood. Grey matter volume peaks at puberty then declines throughout adolescence and into the twenties. White matter volume increases throughout childhood, adolescence and into adulthood.
  2. Girls’ brains mature slightly faster than boys’. This sex difference in brain development is in sync with physical development where, on average, girls enter puberty a year or two before boys, who then quickly catch up.
  3. Different brain regions mature at different rates. Development of the limbic system, which drives emotions, speeds up at puberty, but the PFC, which is involved in thinking and judgement, doesn’t mature until our twenties. This causes a ‘developmental mismatch’ between emotion and reward processing, and thinking and judgement. The mismatch determines aspects of teenage behaviour such as being overly emotional, impulsive and hypersensitive to social situations.
Grey matter thins as connections are refined

The prefrontal cortex, as its name suggests, sits at the front of the brain and is sometimes called the brain’s CEO because it acts as a wise leader, exerting top-down control over other brain areas. The PFC is involved in emotion regulation, judgement, strategy, impulse control, attention, working memory and social cognition – navigating complex social relationships such as discerning friend from ‘frenemy’ from foe.

During childhood, the grey matter of the PFC continues to thicken as neurons make new synapses, much like a tree growing extra branches, twigs and roots. During the teens, thinning occurs across much of the cortex but is most obvious in the PFC.

Loss or thinning of grey matter always sounds unhealthy, but as is often the case with the brain, less is more. Grey matter loss is vitally important and is due to pruning away of unwanted ‘twigs and branches’, which partly depends on experience in a ‘use it or lose it’ manner. Connections that are being used are strengthened and those that aren’t being used are pruned away.

More white matter enables faster communication

MRI scans have revealed ever-increasing volumes of white matter in the tracts leading to and from the PFC during adolescence. Recall that axons are insulated by myelin, which speeds up signalling between brain regions. Myelinated axons transmit impulses up to 100 times faster than unmyelinated axons, and faster transmission means faster mental processing.

Jay Giedd, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego, has found that increased white matter means the connections between brain regions become stronger and more numerous. The brain matures by becoming more interconnected and more specialised.

To use Giedd’s metaphor, brain maturation is not so much a matter of adding new letters to the alphabet but one of combining existing letters into words, words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs.

‘These changes ultimately help the brain to specialise in everything from complex thinking to being socially adept.’

Subcortical brain areas shrink and grow

Changes to white and grey matter structure are not restricted to the PFC. Subcortical brain structures start to mature right around puberty, and development is more or less complete by the mid-teenage years.

Subcortical brain regions are those deep inside the brain under (‘sub’) the cortex in the frontal and temporal lobes. They include the limbic system (hippocampus and amygdala), and the corpus striatum, which is made up of four parts: nucleus accumbens, caudate, putamen and globus pallidus. They’re connected to the PFC and to each other by bundles of axons.

In girls, the amygdala and hippocampus get bigger during puberty. At the same time, the four structures making up the corpus striatum all shrink. Maturation of subcortical structures is fastest in late childhood and early adolescence but the rate of growth or shrinkage slows right down after age sixteen.

Teenage girls can be very emotional (no kidding!).

But not all teenage girls experience ‘storm and stress’. When I was seventeen, my levels of anxiety during final-year high-school exams were so out of control I ended up at the family GP being treated for panic attacks. But the vast majority of my teen years were joyful, empowering and a whole lot of fun.

Sarah Whittle is an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Melbourne, where she specialises in adolescent brain development and resilience. Whittle explained to me that the emotional lives of teenage girls differ from adults because of the ‘developmental mismatch’ between their ‘rational PFC’ and ‘emotional limbic brain’.

It’s still only a theory, but the evidence is stacking up that hyperactivity of the limbic system is responsible for heightened emotional reactivity in adolescents. As the PFC matures, its ability to regulate the activity in subcortical structures improves.

Learning to regulate emotions is a vital skill to learn in adolescence

Being able to calmly assess and keep emotions in check is a crucial life skill. Emotional regulation lets us navigate changing social landscapes and foster mental wellbeing. One of the most effective ways to regulate your emotions is a technique called cognitive reappraisal. Cognitive reappraisal changes the way you interpret a situation, which in turn calms your hot-headed response.

Imagine you’re fourteen and walking up to the front door of a party. Inside you can hear all your girlfriends laughing hysterically. Your appraisal of the situation might be, ‘OMG! They’re laughing about me behind my back.’ That appraisal (correct or not) will likely trigger intense feelings of sadness and rejection, and might quickly be followed by the thought, ‘They hate me. I’m going home!’

A different way of thinking about the situation – the reappraisal – might be, ‘Sure, they’re laughing. Perhaps someone told a funny joke. Maybe I should go inside and find out.’ The reappraisal (correct or not) encourages you to consider different perspectives and leads to a way of thinking that keeps a lid on emotional distress.

Adults are much better at cognitive reappraisal than children and teens.

We’re more experienced with a range of social situations and better at deploying the thinking skills required.

The neural basis of cognitive reappraisal is studied by eliciting negative emotions with provocative or distressing photos comprised of images that range from neutral (furniture or landscapes) to horrific or exciting scenes (mutilated bodies or erotic nudes).

Whittle’s research shows that teenage girls find the photos much more emotionally disturbing or arousing than adults. In her lab, fMRI shows that deploying the skill of cognitive reappraisal activates a distributed cortical network including the PFC, which in turn down-regulates excitability in the limbic system.

Emotional regulation skills don’t always magically appear as we mature, but they can be formally taught.

Whittle coaches her teenage volunteers in cognitive reappraisal by encouraging them to think, ‘This isn’t real, it’s a scene from a movie’, or, ‘The situation looks worse than it is’, or, ‘It could be a lot worse’, or, ‘At least it is not me in that situation’.

Is mental illness emotional development gone wrong?

One theme in adolescent brain research can be summed up by the phrase ‘moving parts get broken’. Because the teenage brain is undergoing such extensive remodelling, it’s thought that it’s easy for the wiring to go awry, predisposing girls to depression, anxiety and eating disorders.

The emotional life of teenage girls is complex both inside and out. It’s clear that ‘inside’ hormones are fluctuating and neural networks are fine-tuning. But we tend to forget the dynamic shifts taking place ‘outside’.

Many emotions girls experience are novel

Especially those taking place in new social contexts. There is a first time for everything and that includes your first crush (especially if it’s unrequited), experience of jealousy, being left off the party invite list, and getting likes on Instagram. The newness of these experiences heightens their emotional impact. Sometimes this is positive – falling in love for the first time is pretty wonderful! Sometimes this is negative – being rejected by your first love is rather painful.

Girls’ preference for emotional intimacy increases during their early teenage years.

Intense ‘bosom buddy’ friendships form around the same time girls ‘break up’ with their families. This leaves girls potentially vulnerable if those friendships break down or are less than ideal. Loss of friendship is a significant and overlooked potential cause of stress.

While the ‘wrong’ friendships can lead teens astray, the ‘right’ kinds of friends are powerful and protective. I had one such dear friend all through high school (we’re still close now and I’ve called on her psychiatric training to inform sections of this book). While writing this chapter we talked about how our devoted friendship buffered us from the tumult so many of our peers experienced. We know the happiest teens aren’t the ones who have the most ‘friends’ on Instagram but the ones who have a few close supportive friendships, and sometimes that means having one terrific friend.

This is an excerpt from The Women’s Brain Book. The neuroscience of health, hormones and happiness. (Hachette 2018).

The post The emotional teenage brain is developmentally normal. appeared first on Your Brain Health.

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Stress is an inevitable part of life.

We feel ‘stressed’ when real or imagined pressures exceed our perceived ability to cope. If things all feel ‘too much’, we experience the sensations of ‘stress’.

But feeling stress is not always a bad thing. When stress is short-term and manageable, it motivates and facilitates learning and change. Stress only becomes toxic when it’s excessive or long-lasting.

Long-term low level ‘hum’ of stress or short-term excessive stress can increase our risk of developing serious medical conditions such as high cholesterol, coronary heart disease, hypertension, stroke and autoimmune diseases.

To enable the nuanced and very human responses to the diverse challenges that might come your way, the brain produces a highly coordinated and complex stress-response.

What Makes a Brain Healthy and Happy?

The health and happiness of our brain are our influenced by multiple interacting factors including biology, the world around us, and our thoughts, feelings and mindset.

One useful way to understand how our brain is influenced by so many complex factors is using the Bottom-Up, Outside-In, Top-Down Model of Brain Health. 

It’s also a useful framework to find discover different ways to buffer stress.

  • Bottom-Up elements are the biological or physiological determinants of brain health and include genes, hormones, the immune system, nutrition, exercise, and other lifestyle choices.
  • Outside-In elements include social and environmental factors, stress, life events, education, current circumstances, and family background.
  • Top-Down elements include thoughts, emotions, mindset, and belief systems.
Six Practical Stress-Busters Based on Brain Science.

Using the Bottom-Up Outside-In Top-Down model, here are six practical strategies that allow you to find peace of mind amidst your challenges.

Bottom-Up Approach: Change your biology 1. Get a good night sleep and indulge in a nap

Sleep is the cornerstone of good brain health. While we sleep, the brain consolidates memories and goes through an amazing ‘cleaning up’ process that appears to protect us from developing diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. Sleep also helps us manage stress by assisting with emotional regulation and the management of cortisol levels.

Sleep Action Tip

Getting around 7 to 9 hours sleep each night is believed to be what is required for good health. One of my favourite stress reduction (and productivity) strategies is to also take an afternoon nap. Napping is a great way to “reset” from the stressors of the day, while also smoothing out emotions and increasing clarity.

2. Get moving

Tight shoulders, shallow breathing, tension headaches and feels of overwhelm? Exercise can help reverse the effects of stress by releasing muscle tension, increasing oxygen levels, boosting feel-good hormones (endorphins), while also using up excess adrenaline and cortisol released as part of our stress response.

I find exercise one of the easiest ways to reduce my stress levels, definitely easier than thought-based or mindfulness strategies. For many people, exercise becomes an effective meditation in motion. Exercising outside and with others has also been linked to increased mood.

Move Action Tip:

When you are feeling stressed, get moving in a way that you enjoy — go for a walk, hit the gym, swim in the ocean, take a dance class, even housework can get your heart rate up!

Outside-In Approach: Change your environment to reduce stress 3. Time in nature

Sunshine, light and fresh air are nature’s way of helping us chill out and gain perspective. Time in nature helps to improve mood, reduce blood pressure and can increase our ability to concentrate. Exposure to daylight can also help us sleep better, as light regulates our natural wake and sleep cycle (circadian rhythm).

While we have to be sun-wise (especially here in Australia!), getting some sunshine can make us feel better and improve our mood, thanks to the mood-boosting effects of vitamin D and serotonin, both of which increase with sun exposure.

Nature Action Tip:

Head outside to get some fresh and clear your head if you feel stress rising. Incorporate time in nature during your week to keep your stress in check —try a walk by the beach in the morning, a bushwalk on the weekend, watching a sunset or sunrise, spending time in the garden.

4. Connecting with others

Our brains are wired for connection. We are born as social animals and have a fundamental need for human warmth and connection, especially when we are stressed.

When we connect with friends and loved ones, the bonding hormone oxytocin is released in our brain. Oxytocin not only makes us feel good, but it also lowers our stress and counteracts the effects of cortisol.

Connection Action Tip:

While it can be hard to find the time (or mental energy) to socialise when we are feeling stressed, making time to have a coffee or dinner catch up with friends or family is an effective (and fun) way to take the pressure off and keep stress under control.

Top-Down Approach: Change how you think to reduce stress 5. Mindfulness

When we fixate on a problem in the future or regret from the past, worry and rumination can take hold and cause stress and anxiety. Mindfulness practices train our brain to stay in the here and now.

Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), have been seen to be effective in buffering against stress. By bringing our attention back to the present moment, tuning in to our senses and using our breath to slow our heart rate, we can deactivate our stress response.

Mindful Action Tip:

Slow, deep-breathing exercises evoke the relaxation response. One useful way to practice deep breathing is to use the ‘box breathing’ technique: Breathe in for four seconds. Hold your breath for four seconds. Exhale for four seconds. Then pause for four seconds before taking your next breath.

6. Re-think your stress response

How we think about stress has a considerable effect on our body. In her TED talk, Make Stress Your Friend, health psychologist Kelly McGonigal explains how the belief that stress is harmful is what makes stress unhealthy, not the stress itself.

The negative perception of stress causes the body to change in ways that have been linked to disease and a reduction in life expectancy. However, seeing the stress response as helpful and preparing us for the challenge ahead, can stop our body responding with further stress and making us unwell.

Re-thinking Action Tip:

Next time you feel stressed, notice the symptoms of stress (the racing heart, the sweaty palms), and see if you can re-frame these sensations. Can you re-think the sensation of stress as the sensation of energy, excitement or anticipation?

Stress is something we all face and it can’t be avoided, and nor should we try. By working with the three core influencers of brain health, we can learn to ‘switch off’ our stress response and ‘switch on’ our relaxation response, promoting mental health and physical wellbeing.

Jessica Lee is a neuro-wellbeing writer and educator and owner of The Spark Effect. She is passionate about sharing the fascinating world of the brain and how we can use neuroscience-based strategies to find solutions, build resilience, lower stress and increase health, happiness and creativity.

The post Six Brain-Based Solutions to Beat Stress. appeared first on Your Brain Health.

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What’s on your “to-read” list this year?

Here are a few books that I’ve read (or plan to in 2019) chosen based on research rigour, chosen, publication date (the last year or two) and practical application. In other words: these books synthesise the most compelling brain science and smart ideas emerging from the research lab and make it relevant for our everyday lives.

Have fun exploring big topics like how our emotions are created, the importance of gut health, the latest on habit formation, understanding the teenage brain, epigenetics, mindfulness, depression and anxiety and the female brain. Happy reading!

1. Brain Changer by Professor Felice Jacka

How is our brain and mental health affected by what we eat? Australian scientist, Felice Jacka uncovers the link between obesity and depression, how gut health impacts brain health and how a Mediterranean diet can keep our brains healthy as we age.

2. The Neuroscience of Mindfulness by Dr Stan Rodski

Where is the proof that mindfulness works? Discover the neuroscience behind mindfulness as Dr Rodski explains how being in the moment can lower stress, increase energy levels, build resilience and protect us from a range of life-threatening illnesses.

3. Mind-Brain-Gene by Dr John Arden

In this groundbreaking book, Arden explores the fascinating world of epigenetics, the immune system and mental health. He takes us on a fascinating journey into the mind-brain-body feedback loops, showing how they influence mental and physical health.

4. Inventing Ourselves by Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore

Blakemore, often credited with pioneering adolescent neurosciences, takes us on a tour through the groundbreaking science behind the enigmatic, but crucial, brain developments of adolescence and how those translate into teenage behaviour. Blakemore demystifies this period of development, outlining what makes the teenage brain unique and why mental illness can develop in these years.

5. Lost Connections by Johann Hari

In his bold and inspiring book, Hari goes on a quest to explore nine different causes of depression and anxiety including disconnection from meaningful work, other people, the natural world and hope. He challenges what we have believed to be true about depression and anxiety and their unexpected solution – reconnection.

6. Atomic Habits by James Clear

How do we create habits that stick? In his book, Clear explores the neuroscience of habit formation, along with proven principles in biology and psychology to offer an effective system for change. According to Clear, it’s the small changes made consistently which compound into life-changing results.

7. How Emotions Are Made by Professor Lisa Feldman Barrett

Barrett shakes up what we have previously thought true about how emotions are created. She challenges the idea that emotions are automatic and hard-wired in certain parts of the brain, using the latest in emotion science to show how emotion is actually created from a complex interplay between our brain, body and culture.

8. From the Laboratory to the Classroom by editors Jared Cooney Horvath, Jason M. Lodge and John Hattie

Are we applying what we know about the neuroscience of learning in the classroom? Horvath’s book combines theory and practice exceptionally well, offering useful strategies based on the science of learning, motivation, attention and memory.

9. Every Note Ever Played by Dr Lisa Genova

From neuroscientist and author of Still Alice, Genova’s latest novel is compelling and thought-provoking. She explores what it means to be truly alive, looking at the way neurological conditions impact identity and relationships. Genova is gifted at bringing to life the struggles experienced by those living with a neurological condition and those who love and care for them.

10. The Women’s Brain Book by Dr Sarah McKay

Of course, how could I not include my own book on this list for must-reads of 2019! My book takes you on a journey through the female lifespan (from womb to tomb) and explores how how brains are shaped by the lives we live, and in turn how how lives are shaped by our neurobiology.


Any books I missed or you think should be added to the list?  Leave me a comment below. 

The post 10 brain books you should read in 2019 appeared first on Your Brain Health.

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Playing music is good for people at all stages in their lives – including the elderly.
Jeremy Brooks, CC BY-NC Ageing in harmony: why the third act of life should be musical

Jennifer MacRitchie, Western Sydney University

It’s never too late to pick up a musical instrument. In fact, there are many reasons why it’s a great idea, particularly in old age.

We normally hear about reasons to increase music education for children, and for good cause. There are many cognitive and social benefits to playing an instrument that aid a child’s development. Consequently, as an older adult, there are long-term effects of having taken part in these musical activities, as it can limit cognitive decline.

Even a small amount of training can have long-lasting effects. But this doesn’t mean that those who have never played an instrument in childhood have missed the boat. The ageing brain is plastic: that means it is able to learn new things all the time. So, should we consider an increase in music programs for those in the third age?

Playing music as a workout for the brain

Learning to play a musical instrument is an extremely complex task that involves the coordination of multiple sensory systems within the brain. Many instruments require precise coordination between the eyes, the ears and the hands in order to play a musical note. Using the resulting sound as feedback, the brain prepares for the next note and so it continues. The act of music-making is quite a brain workout.

The relationship between the motor and auditory parts of the brain is strengthened when physically playing music. This may explain why adults trained to play certain melodies have an enhanced representation of music in the brain compared to adults only trained to listen to the same melodies.

As playing music involves many different parts of the brain, even a short-term program for older adult musical novices can lead to generalised improvements for cognitive ability.

Music as a workout for the fingers

Learning to play an instrument such as the piano involves many complex finger sequencing and coordination tasks. As such, it can be a great test-bed for learning to move fingers independently.

The creativity of music and the enjoyment people take in playing is particularly important for rehabilitation, as it encourages sustained practice leading ultimately to higher benefits.


It’s thanks to this that piano lessons have been used to successfully retrain hand function for patients who have had a stroke. The immediate auditory feedback from each finger movement is thought to help adults reduce errors in movement and work towards moving at a more regular pace.

Music training is an excellent environment to train cognitive and motor abilities, both in the contexts of child development and for rehabilitation. The question for older adults is this: can learning a musical instrument not only put the brakes on cognitive and motor decline but actually allow development of new skills?

Older adults can improve their motor learning – that is, they can improve their rate of learning new things – and the best environments for brain training are ones that are novel and flexible.

Of course, many activities can be novel such as juggling or knitting, but the advantages of learning an instrument can be found in the breadth of skills required to play. At Western Sydney University, we are currently investigating how piano training can be used with healthy older adults to improve their general hand function in unrelated daily tasks.

Music for health and wellbeing

Often, the worry is that playing an instrument will be too difficult for older adults to manage. On the contrary, learning to play an instrument can provide a great sense of achievement and satisfaction.

Older adults relish the opportunity to learn something new.
Cognitive benefits aside, music can also be a great social activity for older adults, facilitating social bonding and decreasing feelings of loneliness or isolation.

Music programs are linked to improvements measured in markers of the body’s immune system such as the presence of antibodies and vital signs (heart rate/blood pressure).

It’s suggested that this is a consequence of decreases in stress that can happen when taking part in musical activities. However, further research is needed to determine exactly how this relationship functions.

Music for all

It’s vital to understand how we can aid the current generation of older adults, in terms of both health and personal enjoyment. With the myriad benefits provided by playing a musical instrument, it would seem beneficial to have a wider variety of musical activities on offer to the older generation.

Wouldn’t it be great if the third age wasn’t viewed as a final descent from some mid-life peak, but some new act of life that opens up these opportunities? Perhaps we should give older adults the chance to develop in ways they could never have imagined before.

Activities such as singing in a choir, or playing the piano can provide this opportunity, as well as offering many general benefits to health and wellbeing.

So whether it’s in independent living, retirement or assisted care, let’s make the third act of life a musical one!

Jennifer MacRitchie, Research Lecturer in Music Perception and Cognition, Western Sydney University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The post Ageing in harmony: why the third act of life should be musical appeared first on Your Brain Health.

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Good Cholesterol Can Positively Impact Women’s Brain Health

Statistics bear out the folk wisdom that women live longer than men. However, living longer doesn’t necessarily equate to living better. All too often, dementia robs older women of what could be the happiest time of their lives. And while medical science continues to try to solve the problem of dementia, to date, there is no cure.

Alzheimer’s disease represents approximately 60-80% of all dementia cases, but it is just one of approximately 50 known causes of dementia. Yet, we’ve hardly even scratched the surface on treating Alzheimer’s, let alone those many other lesser-known causes. Nearly two-thirds of those suffering from dementia are women, yet researchers have only performed a handful of studies to study how the disease progresses in females.

However, two recent studies at the Women’s Healthy Ageing Project at the University of Melbourne are now bringing to light not only how dementia develops in women, but also how women can delay or prevent it. Much of the research points to two systems of the body — the cardiovascular system (heart) and the nervous system (brain) — and how they work in tandem to either slow down or speed up the development of dementia.

Grey and White Matter and Dementia

There are two types of brain matter: white matter and grey matter.

Researchers discovered the amount of grey matter a woman has at age 60 can serve as a reliable predictor of her memory ability at age 70.

Researchers believe that one sure sign of dementia in older adults is a decrease in grey matter volume. What’s new about the research at the University of Melbourne, however, is how to potentially prevent this decline in grey matter.

That’s where the cardiovascular system comes into play.

Our brains require a lot of blood, and proper circulation is critical to ensuring our brains receive not only the rich oxygen blood provides but also valuable nutrients and fats the brain needs to thrive.

What Role Does Cholesterol Play in Brain Health?

One simple rule when it comes to heart health and brain health is:  ‘what’s good for your heart is good for your brain’.

Dementia Australia recommends five steps to reduce your risk of dementia, and ‘Look after your heart’ is rule number one!

The bad:

When women develop a high level of LDL, or ‘bad’ cholesterol, it clogs blood vessels and decreases blood flow to the brain. Starving the brain of oxygen and nutrients causes grey matter mass to decline. White matter also sustains damage from lack of adequate blood flow, meaning the different parts of the brain no longer “talk” to each other the way they previously did.

The result, predictably, is a drastic decline in cognitive function, including the ability to remember learned information and the ability to form new memories. When allowed to continue unchecked, dementia develops at a much faster rate.

The good:

On the other hand, women with normal levels of the ‘good’ cholesterol, called HDL which carries cholesterol from other parts of your body back to your liver showed less white matter damage in their brain a decade later when they conducted late-life brain MRI scans and cognitive assessments 20 years later.

The Women’s Healthy Ageing Project researchers point out that maintaining healthy levels of cholesterol impacts on the structure of the brain directly.

To lower your risk of developing dementia, or to stave it off as long as possible, it’s critical to talk to your doctor about getting your cholesterol under control.

“These findings suggest strategies to target major cardiovascular risk factors at midlife might also be effective in reducing the development of brain lesions and late life cognitive decline,”

says Professor Szoeke, one of the lead researchers.

“And while our findings relate to women, we know healthy lifestyles are important for men to maintain their brain health, too.”

Kate Harveston is a women’s health journalist and the founder of So Well, So Woman.

The post Ladies. Good cholesterol is good for your brain. appeared first on Your Brain Health.

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Motherhood changes everything

Little did I know before I had my boys how completely and utterly being their mother would change EVERYTHING.

Having children threw the pieces of my life up in the air. The pieces settled again, but my body, outlook on life, sense of self and emotions have never been quite the same. Not only did I birth two beautiful boys into the world, I birthed a new identity.

Yes, I realise it is the ultimate cliché, but motherhood changes everything. It recalibrates our life course and realigns our lives.

My experience is not unique. For those of us who become mothers, is one of the most fundamental transformations we go through as women. And for many of us, parenthood brings with it powerful identity changes and conflicting emotions: love, protectiveness, joy, nurturing, exhaustion, confusion, anger and apathy.

A cocktail of pregnancy hormones prepares your body and brain

During pregnancy, a cocktail of hormones prepares your body for birth and breastfeeding. You grow an entirely new organ, the placenta, to ensure your baby receives nutrients and to buffer her against stress. Your metabolism resets to store energy for foetal development and lactation. Your breasts grow so you can nurse.

Once your baby arrives, she’s often so irresistible you become consumed by her and spend much of your time caressing, holding, feeding, gazing at her and breathing in her scent. These maternal behaviours, as they’re called, are essential for the survival of your newborn.

The same cocktail profoundly alters the architecture of your expectant brain, in particular, the brain structures underlying social cognition and emotion. These brain changes last, and in both humans and non-human mammals, the differences in the brains and behaviours of mothers and non-mothers are evident throughout the lifespan.

So, here’s a new way to think about pregnancy — changes to your body ensure your baby is carried safely to term; and changes to your brain ensure you’re prepared for the social and emotional challenges of motherhood.

Pregnancy leads to long-lasting changes in women’s brains

A paper published December 2016 in the prestigious journal Nature Neuroscience gave us our first detailed insight into how pregnancy changes the structure of women’s brains. Using MRI, a team of Dutch and Spanish researchers lead by Elseline Hoekzema scanned the brains of twenty-five first-time mothers before and after pregnancy, and compared their brains to twenty women who’d never been pregnant.

Pregnancy was associated with pronounced and long-lasting changes in the structure of women’s brains.

In particular, grey matter volume was lost. Loss wasn’t random, but was from the same cortical regions in every woman, specifically, regions of the cortex related to social cognition, empathy and theory of mind, which is the ability to read the desires and intentions of others from their faces and actions. The hippocampus, a region associated with memory, also lost volume.

The brain changes were long-lasting. Two years after the initial scan, eleven of women who hadn’t fallen pregnant for a second time were invited back and their brains scanned again. In all women, the grey matter shrinkage had endured, except for in the hippocampus, which had recovered volume.

Is grey matter shrinkage a good thing for a new Mum?

In some ways, the plastic changes are not dissimilar to those seen in adolescence when pubertal hormones trigger thinning of the grey matter in teenager’s brains.

“Synaptic pruning in adolescence is generally regarded as an essential process of fine-tuning connections into functional networks and is thought to represent a refinement and specialization of brain circuitry, which is critical for healthy cognitive, emotional and social development,” says Hoekzema.

It’s likely a similar process of maturation and specialisation of the social brain is taking place during pregnancy. Loss of grey matter volume sounds unhealthy, but as is often the case with the brain, less is more, and reflects ‘functional streamlining’, not degeneration.

Brain changes are related to empathy and reading the emotions of others

Because the grey matter changes occurred in regions associated with theory of mind and empathy, Hoekzema and her team ran a series of additional tests, to see if changes were related to real-life skills. Interestingly, data revealed the greater the degree of grey matter plasticity, the greater the strength of the connection and bonding between a mother and her baby.

Usually, MRI and fMRI research examining brain structure shows changes to be very subtle and many thousands of people must be scanned to detect small differences. In this case, the grey matter changes induced by pregnancy were anything but subtle. Notably, a computer program was able to automatically determine whether or not a woman had undergone pregnancy based only on her brain scans!

So, what is it about pregnancy that sculpts women’s brains?

Hoekzema and colleagues propose it is

“The unequaled surges of sex steroid hormones that a woman is exposed to during her pregnancy”.

The endocrine climate of pregnancy may drive grey matter refinement via changes in the number of synapses, number of glia, dendritic structure, blood vessels or myelination.

The process of becoming a parent for the first time is an intense, all-encompassing experience, so the obvious question to ask is, whether it is pregnancy, the act of caring for a child, or another factor such as sleep deprivation that tinkers with brain structure?

The team tested for the effects of parenting versus pregnancy in a rather ingenious way — they scanned the brains of first-time fathers before and after their wife’s pregnancies. They found no changes in the structure of the men’s brains after they took on dad-duties, which strongly suggested any changes in the women were related to the biological changes of pregnancy rather than the process of parenting.

Similar brain changes are seen in other mammals

Female rodents can’t read books to find out what to expect when they’re expecting or how to tame toddlers. Therefore, changes in how new rodent mothers think, feel and behave must be driven entirely by biology.

Behavioural neuroscientists who study the neurobiology of parenting, say,

“The maternal brain is both the goal of the endocrine tsunami that accompanies pregnancy, and the culmination of millennia of natural selective processes.”

The emergence of maternal behaviours and superior cognitive abilities has been neatly mapped on to the ‘maternal circuitry’ in the female rodent brain. Like human mothers, rat mother’s brains are structurally different thanks to the hormones of pregnancy and the enriching experience of caring for their young.

Does this data mean pregnancy necessary for parenthood?

Ummm. No.

It’s important to note this study does not imply fathers nor non-birth mothers lack the ‘parenting brain circuitry’ or a ‘theory of mind’, and it certainly does not let them off the hook from parenting! We don’t need neuroscience to support or deny that fact, anyway. Babies need warm, secure attachment with at least one loving caregiver to organise and regulate healthy brain development.

Pregnancy is one very influential biological factor in sculpting the female brain, and the changes to grey matter represent the refinement of social brain structures that benefit the transition into motherhood.

A birth mother is not the only adult capable of being such a caregiver. This data simply shows pregnancy is a very influential bottom-up biological factor in sculpting the female brain, and the changes to grey matter represent the refinement of social brain structures that may benefit the transition into motherhood.

If you’d like to learn more about girls’ and women’s brain health across the lifespan, you can pick up a copy of my book! This blog is an excerpt from The Women’s Brain Book. The Neuroscience of Health, Hormones and Happiness.

The post Pregnancy sculpts women’s brains in preparation for motherhood appeared first on Your Brain Health.

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More adults than ever live a sedentary lifestyle, and the vast majority of us know this is bad for our waistlines, heart health and blood glucose control.

But do you know that sitting for extended periods of time can also have a negative impact on your brain?

In a 2018 study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, researchers at Liverpool John Moores University in England claim sitting for too long reduces blood flow to the brain.

The Brain Needs Blood Flow

It’s impossible to overemphasise the importance of maintaining blood flow to the brain. The brain needs adequate oxygen to function, and limiting this oxygen supply can be fatal. Indeed, when blood flow in the brain occurs even in a limited area, the result can be a fatal stroke.

But does sitting too long in one position, as many office workers do, really slow blood flow to the brain? After all, our hearts still beat even when we’re sitting, right?

The research study focused on 15 individuals who already had a desk job. They travelled to the research lab at John Moores on three separate occasions. On one occasion, they were to sit at their desks for four hours, getting up only to go to the loo when necessary. On the second visit, participants were directed to get up every half hour and walk on a treadmill for two minutes. On the last, they were instructed to sit at the desk for two hours, then walk for eight minutes.

The participants’ brain blood flow was measured using specialised headbands containing ultrasound probes that track blood flow through their middle cerebral arteries, one of the main vessels supplying blood to the brain.

Unsurprisingly, blood flow dropped after the participants were sedentary for four hours. However, when participants stood up and walked about blood flow to the brain returned to normal.

Two Minute Shortcuts

Interestingly, the study found a two-minute walk every half hour, was more effective than taking an eight-minute walk every two hours.

This simple finding highlights the importance of incorporating regular mini-breaks into our regular office routine to keep our blood flowing.

This study should serve as a wakeup call to anyone who manages people in an office setting – getting you and your employees up and moving can bring about a productivity boost.

For once, there seems to be a ‘quick fix’!

Simply setting some sort of alarm on their phone or computer to go off every 30 minutes or using an app as a reminder to get up and moving regularly can make employees both happier and more productive.

Moving Benefits More Than Just Your Brain

In addition to increasing clear and productivity, we have ample evidence that moving more may help to ward off the onset of brain disease such as Alzheimer’s disease. While diseases such as Alzheimer’s remain too complex to point to any one specific preventative remedy, it makes sense to do as much as possible to try to avoid the disease.

In addition, getting up and moving regularly helps to immediately mitigate the impact of certain neuromuscular diseases such as arthritis and fibromyalgia. We’re all familiar with the stiff neck that comes with staring at a computer monitor for too long. Taking regular mini walking breaks helps ward off stiffness and fatigue, and is a bonus for eye health as well.

Finding ways to move more now can make for a happier and more satisfying life well into our golden years.

So, if you want to improve your productivity and protect your brain health, step away from your desk!

Kate Harveston is a women’s health journalist and the founder of So Well, So Woman.

The post Sitting for too long is bad for your brain. appeared first on Your Brain Health.

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We humans tend to forget we’re wildlife, which is possibly why our planet is heading for climate change catastrophe. We’ve lost connection with Planet Earth and she’s fighting back.

I have come to believe one symptom of our loss of connection the is loss of mental health and wellbeing.

Lifestyle change isn’t simply about preventing or treating disease but is about reconnecting with Planet Earth and to eat, drink, move, sleep and connect with others the way Mother Nature intended.

This article is reposted from The Conversation with thanks to Jerome Sarris, Western Sydney University and Joe Firth, Western Sydney University

When someone is diagnosed with a mental health disorder such as depression or anxiety, first line treatments usually include psychological therapies and medication. What’s not always discussed are the changeable lifestyle factors that influence our mental health.

Even those who don’t have a mental health condition may still be looking for ways to further improve their mood, reduce stress, and manage their day-to-day mental health.

It can be empowering to make positive life changes. While time restrictions and financial limitations may affect some people’s ability to make such changes, we all have the ability to make small meaningful changes.

Here are five lifestyle changes to get you started:

1. Improve your diet and start moving

Wholefoods such as leafy green vegetables, legumes, wholegrains, lean red meat and seafood, provide nutrients that are important for optimal brain function. These foods contain magnesium, folate, zinc and essential fatty acids.

Foods rich in polyphenols, such as berries, tea, dark chocolate, wine and certain herbs, also play an important role in brain function.

In terms of exercise, many types of fitness activities are potentially beneficial – from swimming, to jogging, to lifting weights, or playing sports. Even just getting the body moving by taking a brisk walk or doing active housework is a positive step.

Activities which also involve social interaction and exposure to nature can potentially increase mental well-being even further.

General exercise guidelines recommend getting at least 30 minutes of moderate activity on most days during the week (about 150 minutes total over the week). But even short bouts of activity can provide an immediate elevation of mood.

2. Reduce your vices

Managing problem-drinking or substance misuse is an obvious health recommendation. People with alcohol and drug problems have a greater likelihood than average of having a mental illness, and have far poorer health outcomes.

Some research has shown that a little alcohol consumption (in particular wine) may have beneficial effects on preventing depression. Other recent data, however, has revealed that light alcohol consumption does not provide any beneficial effects on brain function.

Stopping smoking is also an important step, as nicotine-addicted people are constantly at the mercy of a withdrawal-craving cycle, which profoundly affects mood. It may take time to address the initial symptoms of stopping nicotine, but the brain chemistry will adapt in time.

Quitting smoking is associated with better mood and reduced anxiety.

3. Prioritise rest and sleep

Sleep hygiene techniques aim to improve sleep quality and help treat insomnia. They including adjusting caffeine use, limiting exposure to the bed (regulating your sleep time and having a limited time to sleep), and making sure you get up at a similar time in the morning.

Some people are genetically wired towards being more of a morning or evening person, so we need to ideally have some flexibility in this regard (especially with work schedules).

It’s also important not to force sleep – if you can’t get to sleep within around 20 minutes, it may be best to get up and focus the mind on an activity (with minimal light and stimulation) until you feel tired.

The other mainstay of better sleep is to reduce exposure to light – especially blue light from laptops and smartphones – prior to sleep. This will increase the secretion of melatonin, which helps you get to sleep.

Getting enough time for relaxation and leisure activities is important for regulating stress. Hobbies can also enhance mental health, particularly if they involve physical activity.

4. Get a dose of nature

When the sun is shining, many of us seem to feel happier. Adequate exposure to sunshine helps levels of the mood-maintaining chemical serotonin. It also boosts vitamin D levels, which also has an effect on mental health, and helps at the appropriate time to regulate our sleep-wake cycle.

The benefits of sun exposure need to be balanced with the risk of skin cancer, so take into account the recommendations for sun exposure based on the time of day/year and your skin colour.

You might also consider limiting your exposure to environmental toxins, chemicals and pollutants, including “noise” pollution, and cutting down on your mobile phone, computer and TV use if they’re excessive.

An antidote to this can be simply spending time in nature. Studies show time in the wilderness can improve self-esteem and mood. In some parts of Asia, spending time in a forest (known as forest bathing) is considered a mental health prescription.

A natural extension of spending time in flora is also the positive effect that animals have on us. Research suggests having a pet has many positive effects, and animal-assisted therapy (with horses, cats, dogs, and even dolphins) may also boost feelings of well-being.

5. Reach out when you need help

Positive lifestyle changes aren’t a replacement for medication or psychological therapy but, rather, as something people can undertake themselves on top of their treatment.

While many lifestyle changes can be positive, some changes (such as avoiding junk foods, alcohol, or giving up smoking) may be challenging if being used as a psychological crutch. They might need to be handled delicately, and with professional support.

Strict advice promoting abstinence, or a demanding diet or exercise regime, may cause added suffering, potentially provoking guilt if you can’t meet these expectations. So go easy on yourself.

That said, take a moment to reflect how you feel mentally after a nutritious wholefood meal, a good night’s sleep (free of alcohol), or a walk in nature with a friend. `

Jerome Sarris, Professor; NHMRC Clinical Research Fellow; NICM Health Research Institute Deputy Director, Western Sydney University and Joe Firth, Senior Research Fellow at NICM Health Research Institute, Western Sydney University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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By Mariana Rickmann PhD.

What do parents who also happen to be scientists (like me) do when faced with a subject they know nothing about but affects their lives directly? We research!

However, I found very little information about early child development that was evidence-based enough to satisfy me, and at the same time simple and easy to understand.

So, I decided to write myself the article I was looking for!

I started with a bit of research about the scientific facts supporting early childhood education and childcare. Being a new mom I had no idea of what I was doing, and the scientist in me needed evidence.

I was curious because our girls go to a daycare with a specific non-traditional approach, and also because neurobiology is so fascinating to me.


In this blog for Your Brain Health, I summarise 10 neuroscience facts I’ve learned about early child development, and how to help young brains flourish and become resilient.

Fact 1: During the first years of life children’s brains grow faster than at any other period

Early brain development sets the foundations for emotion, memory and decision-making in adulthood.

The brain of a newborn has nearly as many neurons as an adult brain. During the first few years of life, infant’s and children’s brain undergo massive restructuration of their neural networks, new neurons are born, and new connections sprout and existing connections are refined.

Around age 3, children have twice as many synapses (neuronal connections) as an adult; some will remain throughout adulthood but others will be gradually eliminated during late childhood and adolescence according to the unique experiences each child has.

How home and daycare environments support brain development

  • Give the child the chance to participate in daily activities according to each child’s age; for example, helping to prepare food, cleaning or personal hygiene.
  • Encourage children to have a close relationship with nature.
  • Give them the time to engage and repeat the activity of their choice. This allows their brain to rest on the experiences that are more important for them in the moment.
  • Don’t expect children to spend long periods of time sitting down. Give children the freedom to move around the class.
  • Give children time to explore: this is called free play. They can decide what material and activity they will use.
  • Children learn with their hands; they enjoy touching the toys or materials. This way of learning is called hands-on experience. The brain is receiving information from all senses, and this is how brains develop and understand the world.

Tip: The brain develops by having experiences: give the child space and time to experiment.

“You can’t make children grow faster by pushing them, just as you can’t make flowers grow faster by pulling them.” Otto Weininger


Fact 2: Sensitive periods are critical for learning and refining cognitive functions

Our brain goes through during periods of intense development known as critical periods. Most occur in infancy, but some arrive as late as the teenage years. During critical periods, brains rapidly develop abilities such as vision, language and social skills. Experience in the form of sensory input — vision, sound and so on — is needed to form new synapses, strengthen existing connections, prune superfluous dendrites, and add more myelin when faster communication is required.

Critical periods are when the brain not only uses but absolutely requires sensory experiences to remodel and refine the neural circuits.

Myelination is related to sensitive periods

Myelin coats and insulates axons and helps neurons conduct signals efficiently, which in turn helps the brain perform complex tasks. Myelinated axons conduct information 100 times faster than unmyelinated axons (which means quicker thinking).

The process of myelination is the last step in the maturation of the neuronal network: is the brain’s way of saying: “This skill is important in the world around me, I need to pay attention to this”.

Babies are born with few myelinated axons. As the baby grows, the extent of myelination is based on experience.

Experiences and repetition, especially during the sensitive periods, are critical to establish more efficient connections and support the healthy development of the brain.

How home and daycare environments support sensitive periods

  • Let each child engage in what interests her most at each moment.
  • Give the child the time to repeat the activity and help only when needed.
  • Don’t expect all children to learn at the same rate.
  • Teachers and carers should observe the child and guide each of them according to each child’s interests.
  • Provide a safe and prepared environment that is filled with interesting age-related activities, and where the child has the freedom to explore without interruption.

Tip: Observe the child to spot a sensitive period and provide according to her interests (not yours).


Note: What happens if a child misses a sensitive period?

“Neuroscientific research has identified that children facing deprivation or a lack of stimulation in particular areas during sensitive periods for development will have a deficit in that particular area of brain function. However, research has also supported the idea of plasticity in the brain. Given that the human brain can adapt and even produce new neurons over its lifespan, learning and a strengthening of connections within the human brain occur throughout one’s lifespan.” Blakemore & Frith, 2005.

So missing out on appropriate experiences within sensitive periods means harder work to learn a skill later in life. Is like learning a language when you are older; you can still do it, but it may require a bit (or a lot) more of effort.

For example, during the first months of life, babies recognise sounds related to all languages, but by the end of the first year, they remember only the ones related to the languages they are exposed to.

“Because low-level circuits mature early and high-level circuits mature later, different kinds of experiences are critical at different ages for optimal brain development, a concept called age-appropriate experience. Soon after birth, basic sensory, social, and emotional experiences are essential for optimizing the architecture of low-level circuits. At later ages, more sophisticated kinds of experiences are critical for shaping higher-level circuits.” National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2007.

More importantly, in not stressful or traumatic environments, where the child is loved and accepted, it is improbable that she will not get the inputs she needs for healthy brain development.

Fact 3: Executive functions develop alongside maturation of the prefrontal cortex

The pre-frontal cortex (PFC) is the area of the brain behind the forehead.

Executive functions of the PFC include self-control, attention, problem-solving, planning, reasoning, creativity and flexibility. These functions develop exponentially in the pre-school years. 

All activities that have social, emotional and physical ingredients train executive functions.

How home and daycare environments encourage executive functions

  • Children usually can´t sit still. This is because the ‘top-down’ ability to inhibit movement develops alongside other executive functions.
  • Several studies support the interdependency between narrative skills and executive functions. Children get to practice attention, focus and resist distraction when listening to a story. Similarly, those skills help a child construct a story on their own, from pictures or ideas.
  • In some daycare classrooms where there is only one material or toy or play with, children need to be patient and wait for their turn: in doing so they practice self-control.
  • In most group activities, physical movement is linked with a sense of belonging, for example, a walk in the forest or walking on the line in a group.
  • Several materials developed by Dr Maria Montessori (a childhood educator) train the executive functions. For example, the binomial cube is excellent for developing flexible thinking.

Tip: activities with social, emotional and physical components like martial arts, dance, theatre or circus groups are a right way of training executive functions. Go out for a walk or a bike ride with your child!

“School readiness and learning achievement across the content areas and grades rely on Executive Function processes, which is why these skills should be promoted and trained in early childhood programs and schools”. Sabine Kubesch and colleagues, 2009.


Fact 4: Stress affects brain development and executive functions

Prolonged adversity in the absence of a caring adult disrupts healthy brain development.

The PFC is very sensitive to stress, as well as sleep deprivation, sadness, loneliness or being physically unfit.

While positive stress (like meeting a new adult, or a new environment) is an important and necessary aspect of healthy development, chronic toxic stress caused by extreme situations (like poverty, abuse or severe maternal depression) adversely affects the healthy development of the brain.

One primary stress sources in children and young adults during the school years is the focus on achieving high grades and qualifications. Children worry about not being smart enough and not succeeding in school or life.

How children can bypass the stress related to learning

  • The inner motivation to learn is more rewarding than learning to pass an exam, and in many cases gives better academic results. Ideally, the principal objective of education should be to encourage curiosity and independent learning, not grades.
  • Children should not be expected to perform in a standardised way. Every child learns on her rhythm and interests.
  • Each child should be respected as she is, and her interests should be acknowledged and encouraged.
  • Chaos is a source of stress. Classrooms and spaces that are beautiful, not overloaded and kept in order are calming to the senses and thus helps diminish stress.

Tip: Always encourage an effort-mentality to approach goals. More than achievements, effort should be praised. Always tell your child: you do not know how to do it, yet. But you will do, with practice. Invariably discipline your child from a loving and calm perspective.

“Adverse caregiving experiences can affect brain structures and function, and these may in turn impact on psychological and emotional development.” McCrory and Viding, 2010.


Fact 5: Mirror neurons help a child learn by imitation

Watching an activity has almost the same effect on the brain as doing it.

This means that the brain learns by watching, it is part of the preparation to perform the activity.

In brain scanning images, researchers found that the same areas of the brain were active in the person that was doing the activity as well as in the person watching it.

Mirror neurons exist in the premotor cortex of monkey, but neuroscientists are still trying to find out whether they exist in humans, where they are, and what exactly it is they do. Mirror neurons are fascinating but we’re only in the early stages of learning about their role in learning.

Role patterns have a significant implication for a child’s development. Children learn by reproducing what they see. Their brain is getting ready to replicate what they observed.

How mirror neurons might be in action during early child development

  • In some daycare facilities, children are welcome to watch other children as they work with any material or activity. Since there is (usually) only one or a few units of a material of each kind when they want to use it, and it is not free at the moment, they need to wait, but they can watch while the other child uses it.
  • Parents, caregivers, teachers or facilitators are crucial as a role model for the child.

Tip: Be the adult you want your child to become.


Fact 6: Working memory lays the foundation for more complex functions like language

Working memory is a temporary note in the brain, like the instructions for baking a cake that you forget afterwards.

Also considered one of the brain’s executive functions, working memory is the ability to process new information that a child needs for performing a task, like following a series of steps.

How to train working memory

Several materials and activities specially designed for children require that the child uses her working memory. For example:

  • Matching colour tablets at a distance by keeping the requested colour in mind.
  • Retrieving a specified quantity of beads from across the room based on only verbal instructions.
  • The constructive triangle exercises.
  • Any matching game like the colour box.

Tip: Give the child short instructions and time to follow them on her own.



Fact 7: Cognition is linked to movement.

Learning is not only a brain activity, learning is a whole-body task.

Movement is controlled in the brain by the motor cortex together with many other regions, through connections that develop as a child moves and explores her world. This explains why children who get less opportunity to move, show poor school readiness.

“It’s truly astonishing that the dominant model for formal learning is still “sit and git.” It’s not just astonishing; it’s embarrassing.” Eric Jensen

How home and daycare environments support physical activity

  • Give the child activities that require hands-on manipulation of the materials. The learning experience is practical.
  • Understand that learning is an active, enjoyable task with direct physical experience.
  • Understand that there are biological reasons why it is complicated for a child to sit and listen.
  • Children need time to explore and freedom of movement in a prepared environment.

Tip: Children and babies need the freedom to move. Give them opportunities and be prepared if you are in a situation where they won’t be able to run, escalate and jump. Understand it is a physical and developmental need, not misbehaviour.

“The child’s intelligence can develop to a certain level without the help of his hand. But if it develops with his hand, then the level that it reaches is higher, and the child’s character is stronger.” Dr Maria Montessori

Fact 8: Each brain is unique

Even identical twins are different.

Experiences, nutrition, relationships and genes shape the brain of a child. Even the neurons of identical twins have variations due to genetic processes like “jumping genes” that modify the inherited genes and their expression. Genetic changing events like this are highly active in brains during development.

How home and daycare environments support the uniqueness of each child

  • Respect each child and encourage her interests.
  • By observation, teachers, parents and carers can learn about the needs and interests of each child, and provide accordingly.

Tip: Give each child according to her needs and interests, do not make comparisons or try to unify siblings.

“Follow the child.” Dr Maria Montessori

Fact 9: Emotions and relationships shape the growing brain

Emotional well-being and social skills provide a strong foundation for developing cognitive abilities.

Emotional, cognitive and physical capacities that develop in the early childhood years are the essential foundation for success in later adult life.

Emotions support the development of executive functions when they are well regulated, but interfere with them when they are out of control, impeding attention and decision-making.

In the long run, reduced emotional regulation in early childhood affects a child’s social capacities and the ability to adapt to school.

The development of emotional capabilities run along with more evident skills like mobility, thinking and communication.

Therefore, it is essential to pay attention to a child’s emotions, and it should be considered a fundamental part of her brain development. It is impressive to see how children actively react to emotional changes in their parent or carer.

In some cases, learning to manage emotions can be harder than learning to count or read, and it can even be a sign of future psychological problems.

How home and daycare environments support emotions and relationships

  • Attend to each child’s feelings.
  • In classrooms with a mix of ages, children learn to respect other children by observing and taking turns.
  • Set tasks such as setting the table, dusting or keeping the classroom and bedroom tidy give the child a sense of belonging and responsibility. They learn to be useful to their family and friends.

Tip: Always pay attention to all emotions. It may not be relevant to you, but it is for your child. All feelings are allowed, but not all behaviours are. Correct the action, not the emotion.

Important note: you want your child to be able to understand and explain when there is something that hurts her or that she disagrees.

“Healthy development can not separate cognitive development from social and emotional development.” Jack P. Shonkoff.

Fact 10: Creativity is the result of network brain work

Brains become creative when allowed to explore.

Creativity is different from fantasy. Creativity connects seemingly non-connected concepts. Creativity is the capacity of thinking outside the box.

From a neuroscience perspective, the creative process is the result of many parts of the brain working together as a network. For example, similar areas of the brain get activated during musical training and mathematical processing. Early musical experiences are also a support for language development.

In a recent study, fMRI scans of successful engineers showed a characteristic brain activation pattern when creative problem-solving.

A creative environment during childhood not only contributes to better mental health, but lays foundation for lifelong creativity.

How home and daycare environments support creativity and exploration

  • Learn from one another and one’s personal experience. Give children get as much help as needed, and as little help as possible. This means they “discover” how things are done, rather than being passively told how.
  • Give freedom to explore ideas and relationships between seemingly different areas of learning or disciplines.
  • Children who learn to solve problems become independent learners.
  • In the process of discovering how things work (from an adult perspective), children come up with new applications that always surprise the adult.

Tip: Always let the child do by herself what she can do alone. Do not take away from her the pleasure of discovering how the world works. Give your child real-life high-quality material to experiment.

“The most innovative entrepreneurs were very lucky to have been raised in an atmosphere where inquisitiveness was encouraged. We were struck by the stories they told about being sustained by people who cared about experimentation and exploration. Sometimes these people were relatives, but sometimes they were neighbours, teachers or other influential adults.” Hal Gregersen, in “How do innovators think.”


To summarise

Growing a human brain is rather like constructing a home. It starts with laying the foundations, framing the rooms, wiring the electrical system and continues with distinctive features that give the house its individuality. The foundation of a home may not be visible when you look at a house, but every part of the house depends upon it.

Just like a good foundation supports a secure and robust home, the first years of a child’s life shape her personality and cognitive, emotional and social skills.

It is in our hands to understand and nurture growing minds. Research in neuroscience, cognitive development and education are providing more evidence on the importance of the first few years in a little person’s life.

We can learn from the current knowledge about a child early years and know that observation and respect are vital to understanding and supporting children’s growing minds. They are also the framework for healthier and happier human relationships.


Mariana Rickmann is a biomedical scientist turned writer, mother of two girls (with her third girl coming soon) and someone who has been passionate about nature and science since she was a little girl. You can find Mariana via her blog:  www.marianarickmann.com LinkedIN: www.linkedin.com/in/mariana-rickmann/ or Twitter:..

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