What’s it like to lose your mind? Scilla knows. Day by day and bit by frustrating bit, her memory is failing her. She often can’t remember what she’s eaten or whether she’s taken the dog for a walk and it’s threatening her very sense of self. Scilla knows what’s happening to her because she’s a former consultant psychiatrist, but she’s used to dealing with the mental battles of other people. Now, she’s fighting one of her own. It was her daughter, Dr. Catherine Loveday who first spotted the symptoms of her mother’s accelerated decline. Catherine’s a neuropsychologist at the University of Westminster and we first met two years ago while I was studying for an MSc in Psychology, trying to understand some of the mysteries of the brain. How does this jelly-like organ provide consciousness? Is it set for life or can we re-form it and help it develop? Are there ways we can halt its deterioration?
First, we need to move. Research from Edinburgh University suggests exercise stimulates neural development, so even if you’re in your 70s, you can fire new nerve cells and spark connections with something as simple as walking. The general advice is around twenty minutes of walking, five times a week but research into the duration and intensity of physical activity is rather inconclusive. How we relax is key, too. A healthy sleep routine means going to bed every night at a similar time, with electronic devices turned off. Our mobiles may be quiet but our brains are still buzzing. Sleep helps cement what’s happened during the day, consolidating our memories. As importantly, is how we wake up. Gradual exposure to early morning light can change the speed of our thinking, later in the day. If we wake up ‘badly’, it can affect us well into the afternoon.
Puzzles and ‘brain training’ games are very popular at the moment with claims that they improve our minds, but some scientists argue that we usually get better at what we practice and that the skills don’t transfer to unrelated brain functions. We’ll have to wait for more research on those.
What about what we eat? We’re told that fish, nuts and berries will boost our thinking and they’re all important for brain development, however identifying which specific food makes a difference to our brains can be tricky because so many other factors are involved. Coffee is a stimulant and works for some. I certainly did better on cognitive tests after caffeine, although it can have side effects.
Then there are the other drugs. One of the most fascinating discoveries that I made during the making of my new R4 series How to Have a Better Brain is the use of so-called ‘smart drugs’. These are prescription pills and one well-respected scientist tells me that some of her healthy colleagues are popping them regularly, to give their brain a boost. Professor Barbara Sahakian, a clinical neuropsychologist at the University of Cambridge calls them ‘professor’s little helper’ and says that one day, they’ll be so commonplace, we could all amble into our regular coffee shop and ask for a caramel macchiato with a shot or two of cognitive enhancers. There isn’t enough long-term research to know if they’re safe yet and there are ethical questions about whether it’s fair for some to be on these drugs, while others aren’t.
Until then, for Scilla and for many of us who want to build a better brain, there are other ways of doing it. Being active, eating well, learning new skills and socializing will all give our brains a boost. And if that all sounds rather tiring, a snooze will do it too.
How to Have a Better Brain, next Monday to Friday at 1:45 on BBC Radio 4, and available afterwards on the BBC Radio 4 website.