Highlights from Jonathan Otto's interview with Dr. Michael Merzenich, for the Depression & Anxiety Series. Dubbed the 'Father of Neuroplasticity', Michael Merzenich discusses brain health, and how the brain can be changed. Alzheimer's and dementia can be reversed. Watch to find out how.

Dr. Michael Merzenich

Dr. Merzenich: the brain has been changing itself plastically. It’s been making natural adjustments, you could say to make the most out of the circumstances that apply through its operations.

All of those changes are reversible. We know that now. We know that we can change them on a dime. We can throw a switch in the brain. We can engage a brain by for example training it intensely in the right way. We can show through all of those things that are changing physically, chemically, functionally in a youthful ward direction again. We can actually rejuvenate a brain rather remarkably. First experiments in which this was done were in animals. We showed that we could take an animal near the end of life, it’s supposed to die pretty soon and look in the brain, do a whole series of things we like did about 25 things.

We saw all of those things were degraded in the old brain versus the young healthy brain. Then we, all of them disadvantaged the old brain. The old brain was slow, inaccurate, disconnected. Cell populations were degraded. Everything we looked at was degraded. Vascularization of the brain was degraded, its immune response was poor. All of these things down-regulated. We asked, “Well how many of these things can be reversed by engaging the brain with appropriate intensive training?” The answer is all of them.

Every physical, chemical, functional change that distinguishes an old brain that’s losing its way from a young brain in the prime of life can actually be reversed. Most of these things can be driven almost all the way back to the condition that applies for a young brain. We now know in human studies that we can train a brain intensely and in appropriate ways with not very many hours in a life. You could say less than one, 24 hour period worth of time from a life. We know from a study that was conducted over the past 14, 15 years, that that results in a random assigned controlled trial of protection in trained subjects and the reduction of the onset of dementia by about 50%.

It’s almost certain that if we increase the way in which we engaged the brain, in which we actually controlled it, we controlled those things so that we kept the brain in a state of high functionality reliably. We can do this, that we would have seen much greater protection than that. I believe that we have ... Within our ability now to manage brain health. That is to say to define through relatively simple assessments, evaluations what’s inside. Then to do something about it to make it stronger.

Scientists have talked about this a lot within the framework of what they call cognitive reserve because they know that if you just look at the pathology in the brain, you cannot account for the loses in the functionality of the individual by the pathology. They say, “Well what’s the difference? Why do some people develop Alzheimer’s disease and some people have terrible functional loses, they are terribly demented?” There is a mismatch in what you see in the pathology.

They say, “The difference is, is that the person that’s still doing well has this magical thing called cognitive reserve.” Well it turns out cognitive reserve, we now understand what it is. In fact, we now understand in a sense how we can deliver it through somebody by intensively engaging them in training. It’s that delivery that is what accounts for the reversal and the physical and functional brain that we see in these studies that we’ve conducted in animals and humans.

There is another really important aspect of this, it’s not just about reversing it by training. There are also really critical nutritional and nutritional supplemental considerations. Because part of this process of the brain destroying itself, results in a strong change in the way the brain chemistry and the way the brain is basically ... The brain has to have nutritional help to restore itself. What’s really going to be effective is to integrate these forms of re-engagement of the brain. Natural and delivered in by computer based training like our training on BrainHQ with nutritional supplementation and with physical exercises. It’s going to be a combination of these different resources brought to bear to strengthen brains and to keep them healthy.

Jonathan: Excellent. I’d love to know more about that and I’d love to know what aspects of that would be implementable by somebody at home where they can do things that are affecting these areas of brain development that you are talking about.

Dr. Merzenich: Right. Well, we believe that in general, guides on health should be managed by your medical doctor. That when you go to the doctor, I think what’s going to happen pretty soon in the almost immediate future is that, for the first time, the physician is going to actually make a first level examination of what’s inside your skull. Now you can actually do this, you actually define the integrity of the operations inside your brain you could say on a first level by doing relatively simple assessments on a computer. For instance, you can sit in front of a computer and for example, you can relatively rapidly define the speed of processing of the brain. Speed and accuracy of processing of the brain is a very good index of brain health. It’s a little bit like taking your blood pressure and taking your pulse rate and measuring oxygenation in blood. Because if your brain is fast and accurate, it means that all of these 25 things I talked about earlier that relate to its basic integrity and health are in good shape.

So you can actually do relatively simple things that, a clinician can and have a first-level assessment about the state of the health of what’s inside. The first thing, approach to it might be in remediation, just like you have a problem with your blood pressure that your medical doctor might suggest to you, you might realize you might need to change your lifestyle. I’ve got to live life more directly in, with the consideration of the health of my brain. I’ve got to think a little bit more carefully about what I eat, and how I exercise physically, and how I exercise mentally, how I’m engaging my brain. You know, I’ve tried to guide people. I’ve tried to provide advice to people. I’ve written a book about this called Soft-Wired, which is a source of advice to people about how to think about living their life to the advantage of their brain.

So the first line of defense I think would be that natural one. Then beyond that we’ll get more serious, just like we do if you have cardio-vascular problems, you know the equivalent of taking that blood pressure medicine, is to go to a computer and intensely exercise your brain. It’s to more seriously consider issues of supplementation and diet. It’s to more seriously consider how you should be engaging in physical exercise, and in other ways doing things that assure that the integrity, the health of the machine inside us, is restored to a stronger position. Then is keep, maintained there.

Jonathan : Great, now can you tell me what kinds of dietary, supplemental and exercise based protocols are good for helping to prevent Alzheimer’s?

Dr Merzenich: That’s your business. I’m a brain training guy, I’m not going to comment about that.

Jonathan : Ah okay, no ...

Dr Merzenich: There are five or six people that have tried to create systems.

Jonathan : Yeah.

Dr Merzenich: Strategies that I’m not really a critic of them, I do know that it matters, I mean I can see good all of the serious efforts.

Jonathan : Yeah.

Dr Merzenich: So I’m not going to choose to be, I just don’t, I just don’t know enough to be really authoritative.

Jonathan : Yeah, I know, and I appreciate it, because what you’re doing is you’re helping me to just hone into your key areas.

Dr Merzenich: Yeah.

Jonathan : Because it’s an ecosystem.

Dr Merzenich: But I know it matters.

Jonathan : Yeah please.

Dr Merzenich: I know that diet and commonly supplementation of diet really matters, of course it does.

Jonathan : Yeah, excellent and can you tell me what are some of these brain exercises that you do that are effective?

Dr Merzenich: Well there are two critical forms of exercise that are important and you could think of them as being, what they accomplish is to re- refine the way the brain is processing information at the bottom of brain systems you could say. The brain has to resolve the details of what you see, or hear, or feel, and it has to basic, in very fine detail in time and in place, and has to always be distinguishing it sharply saliently from the background of things happening that are less meaningful to the individual.

So it has to be operating with accuracy at speed you can say at the bottom of the machine, and that means from the point of view of the physical and functional brain that it’s operating with high facility and accuracy. Then at the top of the machine when you’re operating from the domain of, you could say of thought with mind generated activity, it also requires forms of exercise that sustain and sharpen your operations from the top. So when it’s operating at accuracy and speed you could say from the level of operations and thought from the mind side, and from the reception side or perception side okay? If both of those things are restored to high functionality, not just take brain speed itself, brain speed accounts for about half of the variance in adaptive intelligence. It’s dramatically degraded in the average older human brain. It can be almost completely restored at all levels by retraining the brain at any age, to the powerful form of operations that apply to young person.

Another way to think about it is, in that when you do that you know that you have in fact restored the machinery of the brain probably to be much more like the brain of a young person. In relation to that it’s not just, people have thought about brain plasticity primarily in terms of brain productivity, plasticity is basically changing the way the brain is wired, it’s a lot more than, because when the brain is healthy organically it’s also very strongly supported by the cardiovascular system. It has a very strong separation between the blood compartment and the brain compartment supported by what’s called the blood brain barrier, it’s absolutely walling off the tissues of the brain, and it’s really important from the brain, from the point of view of the functional operation of the brain, from the fluids in the blood. It also has strong intrinsic immune support, it cannot rely on the support of immune response from the vascular system because it’s walled off it.

So, when the brain is really healthy it has its own resources basically to deal with any immune challenge. So when everything is healthy, you know all of these things are in a strong position. All of things are plastic, all of these things can be driven to change in a dramatic way by engaging the brain intensely at any age in life.

So we’re sort of a damn fool if we don’t take advantage of this plasticity, both from the point of view of thinking about our life, not as beyond the middle of life is a period of slow regression, we ultimately wait for the dementia to occur. Think about an older life you know beyond the middle of life as a time of continuous growth, sustaining ourself, sustaining a healthy organ inside our skull growing our powers. You know we have our power, our brain is plastic and we’re in charge of it. We know basically how to throw that switch in a positive direction. So you know I have been trying to strongly encourage people as strongly, as emphatically as I can that they should take advantage of this great gift, this great resource. They should take it more seriously. You know living life to the advantage of your brain is basically living life to your own personal advantage because your brain is you for Gods sake, you know. I mean so, again I think that we’re slowly beginning to understand how we should reorganize our lives so that we can live them you could say continuously to the advantage of our brain that is to ourself.