How to Build a Better Brain
New research has found that to boost memory and stay sharp, it makes sense to stick to the basics.
Wendy Suzuki was a highly respected brain researcher with her own lab and a string of published studies when a high-energy gym class and a quiet cup of tea changed her neurons—and her life.
“I just wanted stronger muscles, but after six months of aerobic exercise, I noticed that difficult mental jobs were easier. I could keep lots of little details in my mind,” recalls Suzuki, 55, a professor at New York University’s Center for Neural Science. “It transformed my research. Exercise and the brain is a major focus of my work now. And I exercise almost every day.”
If Suzuki had looked into her own brain after establishing her new routines, which included daily meditation, she’d have witnessed some amazing things: new brain cells sprouting new connections, new blood vessels feeding more oxygen and fuel to her neurons, and more brain tissue in areas involved with learning, memory and decision making. This renaissance—called neuroplasticity—was once thought to happen only in children’s brains. But research now shows that the brain can do these tricks at any age. Benefits include improved memory and thinking skills, more creativity and a reduced risk of dementia. Or, as Suzuki enthusiastically says, “You can grow a bigger, happier brain.” Lately, an avalanche of new studies is pointing out exactly how to harness neuroplasticity. Advanced brain- imaging techniques (among other lab tools) are allowing researchers to get a peek at how everything from sleep to food to physical activity affects your little grey cells.
One insight worth mentioning right here: Brain plasticity works both ways. “About 50 per cent of the things people do every day that affect their brain are toxic,” notes cognitive neuroscientist Sandra Bond Chapman, chief director of the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas. “They skimp on sleep. They multitask. They aren’t active.”
Besides changing those bad habits, what can you do to grow your own new brain cells? Hint: Brain scientists don’t recommend spending a lot of money on brain-training programs or nutritional supplements. Nor do they advocate trying science-fictional stuff such as do-it-yourself electrical stimulation. Fresh from the frontlines of brain science, here are simple things you can do to build a better brain.
Yes to Green Leafy Veggies, No to ‘Nootropics’.
In 2015, researchers from Australia’s Deakin University published one of the first studies measuring food’s physical effect on the left hippocampus, a seahorse-shaped brain region crucial for memory, learning and decision making. It is also one of the first areas to shrink in people with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Two hundred fifty-five people filled out diet surveys and then underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans that measured their brains. Four years later, they returned for another scan.
The study found that the left hippocampus was heftier in the healthy eaters than in the unhealthy ones, regardless of age, sex, weight, exercise habits or general health. The average difference was 203 square millimetres, nearly one third of a square inch. Sounds small, but that’s room for a lot of extra brain cells—and strong new evidence that eating the right foods and skipping the wrong stuff could help protect against declines in thinking and memory that lead to dementia.
Brain-friendly fare associated with a bigger hippocampus included fresh fruits and vegetables salads and grilled fish. The brain-shrinking diet was heavy on burgers, fries and soft drinks, as well as sausage, potato chips and red meat.
Healthy eating doesn’t just prevent brain decline. It boosts scores on thinking and memory tests, according to a study published in March 2019 that tracked 2,621 American women and men for 30 years. “Plant-based diets have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects that may protect against cognitive decline and dementia,” says lead researcher Claire McEvoy, research dietician at the Centre for Public Health at Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland.
Even a little healthy food goes a long way. According to a 2018 study at Chicago’s Rush University that tracked 960 people for 4.7 years, participants who ate just 1.3 extra servings of green leafy vegetables a day—that’s 1.3 cups of salad or a smidge more than half a cup of cooked spinach, kale or collards—demonstrated cognitive abilities similar to those of people 11 years younger. And a January 2020 study in the journal Neurology showed that getting just 15.3 milligrams a day of plant compounds called flavonols—the amount in a small green salad plus one cup of cooked veggies and a half cup of berries—was associated with a 48 per cent lower risk of Alzheimer’s-like dementia.
“That’s not a lot on a day-to-day basis,” says lead study author Dr Thomas M. Holland, a Rush University researcher. If you eat “a big salad every other day, throw in some carrots or broccoli at dinner, and snack on some strawberries, then you’ve got it.”
While food emerges as an important brain protector, experts say brain supplements (sometimes called nootropics) aren’t all that effective. These pills and capsules may contain vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and amino acids in addition to herbs, caffeine, green tea extract, mushroom powder, jellyfish protein or other ingredients. But studies show that they don’t activate brain cells in a significantly positive way. “Let the buyer beware,” says Dr David Hogan, a specialist in geriatric medicine at the University of Calgary, Canada. Dr. Hogan authored a 2015 review of brain supplements in the Canadian Geriatrics Journal that found no convincing evidence of benefits.
Eat your Fruits and Veggies: Participants in a 2019 study who ate more vegetables and fruits boosted their scores on thinking and memory tests.
Exercise: Moves That Reprogramme the Brain
Most of the time, your brain is the boss of your muscles—directing how you hit a ball, play the piano or open a cereal box. But when it comes to growing new brain cells, more and more research shows that when you exercise, your muscles (along with your liver and body fat) take charge. When you’re active, they send chemical signals telling your brain, “Hey, it’s time to grow!” Recent research suggests physical activity has multiple brain benefits, encouraging the birth and growth of new brain cells and the extension of blood vessels that supply oxygen and blood sugar to brain cells.
In a 2016 National Institute on Aging study, people who ran on a treadmill for 45 minutes three days a week boosted their levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a chemical that acts like fertilizer for new brain cells. After four months of workouts, their scores improved on a memory test.
Without exercise, Suzuki says, “little baby neurons don’t get bigger and make thousands of new connections to other brain cells. With exercise, you get fully functioning adult brain cells.” Studies suggest that in younger adults, this can add to the overall number of cells in the hippocampus. And once age-related brain changes begin, starting in our 30s, exercise helps keep brain cells alive longer and replaces old cells with new ones. It’s a good deal. “There’s evidence these new brain cells are very active,” she says. “They’re excitable, like teenagers. They get involved in more memory circuits than older cells do. You get more connections.”
At any age, you might notice over time that you feel more alert and have an easier time remembering things after you start a new exercise routine. Sticking with it could reduce your risk for dementia. “Women who were fit at midlife and stayed fit into their 80s delayed the development of dementia by nine years in one exciting study,” Suzuki says. “That’s huge.”
Again, a little goes a long way. If you’re inactive, a stroll around the block may be all it takes to encourage neuroplasticity, she says. And every bit counts. In a 2019 Boston University study of 2,354 adults in their 40s through 60s, sedentary people who boosted their daily walking by 7,500 steps or more had bigger brains than those who didn’t exercise—equivalent to 1.4 to 2.2 fewer years of brain ageing. The more light activity study participants logged, such as doing housework, shopping, gardening or walking the dog, the greater the overall size of their brains.
Play Games: Playing old-fashioned games such as card and chess was linked to sharper thinking, on par with a 1.4-point-higher IQ.
Sleep: The Nighttime Brain Cleanup In 2019, Boston University researchers put caps with attached wires on 13 people, sent them to sleep for the night inside a functional MRI machine, and then tracked the electrical activity that naturally ripples across the gray matter. It was like shooting a film of the brain’s secret life, and it was a great show. The researchers found that as brain waves slowed during deep sleep, blood levels dropped in some areas, allowing more of the cerebrospinal fluid that normally surrounds and cushions the brain to pulse in and then recede like an outgoing tide. The watery ballet may increase communication in the slumbering brain. It also might wash away toxins—by-products left over from a long day of thinking—thought to interfere with memory.
Sleep deprivation messes with mental focus, stifles creativity, interferes with recall and slows reaction times by as much as 50 per cent. The effects are immediate—in a University of South Florida study of 130 middle-aged women and men, missing out on just 16 minutes of sleep reduced their concentration the next day. In contrast, a good night’s sleep doubled volunteers’ ability to remember words they’d learned the day before, according to a 2015 study from the UK’s University of Exeter.
To ensure that you get enough sleep (eight hours is the magic number for most people), “try to stick with a regular sleep schedule,” suggests Michael Scullin, a brain scientist at Baylor University in Texas. “Prime your body clock by getting natural light exposure in the morning and by relaxing at night. And if your bed partner tells you that you snore loudly, tell your doctor. Obstructive sleep apnoea can raise risk for brain threats like high blood pressure.”
You may be surprised by the wide range of brain-powered benefits you reap from getting enough sleep. “Every aspect of brain health is related to sleep quality and quantity,” Scullin says. “We even found in a recent study that people were less likely to forgive each other when they got six hours of sleep than when they got seven and a half or eight hours.”
Challenge Your Brain, the Smart Way
The brain-training industry has grown into a $1.9 billion behemoth that promises to tune up your thinking, enhance memory, and even stall declines that lead to dementia. But whether or not brain games really work depends on your attitude. If you already love playing brain games, they will probably help.
“You have to increase levels of the feel-good brain chemical dopamine in order to generate brain-cell growth,” explains neuroscientist Dr William Shankle, medical director of the Pickup Family Neurosciences Institute of the Hoag Hospital Network in Newport Beach, California. “Don’t do things you don’t like just because they’re supposed to boost brainpower. Pick something you love. Keep learning about it and doing it. It takes passion to get benefits. Over time, people who keep their minds active have slower declines in memory and thinking.
They build cognitive reserve, which helps the brain find work-arounds even when there are physical signs of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.”
So do what you like. A study of 1,091 older adults found that playing old-fashioned games such as cards, bingo and chess several times a week was linked to sharper thinking and memory skills—on par with a 1.4-point-higher IQ. In a Mayo Clinic study, people who kept up with arts and crafts such as sewing, woodworking and painting were 45 to 73 per cent less likely to develop mild cognitive impairment over four years.
Focus counts too. “Chronic multitasking and constantly switching your attention from one thing to another disrupts the memory-formation system in your hippocampus,” Chapman explains. “Allow yourself to focus on just one thing and go deep. This can change brain structure and brain function for the better.”
While you’re at it, try meditation. It may help the brain by calming stress circuits that link up areas involved with memory and thinking. (Suzuki now meditates daily.) Yoga also encourages brain plasticity, according to a 2019 University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign review of 11 brain-imaging studies. People who practised hatha yoga tended to have a larger hippocampus, amygdala (the area of the brain involved in coping with emotions) and prefrontal cortex (involved with planning and making decisions). Yoga’s brain-changing power may come from its mix of exercise with deep stress reduction, the researchers note. “You can sit still, breathe, and reap brain-plasticity benefits,” Suzuki says.