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FEATURE|MYSTERIES OF THE BRAIN|HEALTHY FOOD AND EXERCISE FOR THOUGHT
 The cerebral cortex makes up about 80 percent of your brain’s mass. It contains grey ma er, predominantly neuron cell bodies (light purple), and white ma er axons (dark purple). It is deeply wrinkled in order to fit more neurons into a small space.
 The mysteries of the brain:
healthy food and exercise for thought...
If you ask a group of people what makes humans different from animals and why we developed into the species we are today, you’ll get a vast array of responses. These will range from the biological – that we stand on our hind legs enabling our hands to do other things than walk and we have opposable thumbs so we can use these hands with par cular precision – to the cultural: we have tamed fire, we use tools and language, and we feel empathy. And underlying all of these is the human brain, and its incredible capacity to learn, remember and adapt.
The brain is a marvel of evolu on and deciphering how it works is one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. How does it change over the course of a life me, and respond to your genes, experiences and the passing years to make you the person you are?
At the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, which is free to visit, there’s a new exhibi on, Modern Neuroscience in Ac on ‘Brain Diaries’ (10th March 2017 ­ 1st January 2018 for age twelve and over). Oxford University neuroscien sts share their thoughts about the mysteries of the brain looking at its development chapter­by­ chapter from before birth un l old age – offering insights into what this could mean for trea ng the nervous system and mental health disorders.
Whilst visi ng the exhibi on, you can compare the human brain with the brain of a cat, kangaroo, porpoise and other animals along the ‘brain wall’. Follow too the changes that take place in the brain throughout life:
see how the mind­boggling billions of neurons and trillions of connec ons in your brain make toddlers learn so fast, make teenagers emo onal risk­takers, and allow others to se le into middle age with relief!
It’s long been known that over  me our ability to think quickly, to recall stored memories, and to respond to s muli slows down, this is because of the gradually shrinking cortex, the brain’s outermost layer. From age 40, your brain shrinks by five percent a decade on average but there’s s ll plenty of energy and learning poten al which is best kept from decline through physical exercise and new experiences. From age 60, the gaps between the folds in the brain’s surface become increasingly larger as the brain shrinks in volume, par cularly in the frontal cortex – and you can actually see this in the 3D­printed models of the brain of one of the scien sts and her family members at different stages of life!
In a recent Scien fic American magazine, however, there’s new research showing that some older adults have a shrink­resistant cortex, and they perform more like youngsters in memory tests. To qualify as a superager, someone must be over the age of 80 but perform as well as 55­year­olds in memory tests. When asked to recall a list of 15 words 15 minutes a er hearing them, the average 80­year­old remembers about five, while superagers remember around nine.
Emily Rogalski, PhD (Research Associate Professor of Cogni ve Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center (CNADC)) and her colleagues at Northwestern University in Chicago are now trying to figure out how this small subset of elderly people manages to maintain mental agility. By screening more than a thousand people who thought they had an excep onal memory, the team has iden fied and recruited 62 superagers to study. One man was so thrilled to find out
that he is a superager that he now wears a “superager” cape his friend made him.
So far, the team have found no obvious lifestyle clues to why these people are superagers. “They don’t all have pris ne diets or exercise regimens – some of them drink, and some have been smoking for many years,” says Rogalski. “They don’t all have a high IQ, and they aren’t all doctors and lawyers. Their health history is very variable, but cogni vely, they’re doing much be er than their peers.” Because these people are more resistant to age­related diseases like Alzheimer's and demen a, they could begin to give researchers some clues about the genes that keep the brain func oning be er for longer, a first step developing a successful treatment for these condi ons. And although the answers are likely to be a long  me coming because brain health also requires a healthy way of life, keep doing the crosswords and ea ng healthily!
And here’s something else – when you feel happy it’s down to certain chemicals in the brain and surprisingly scien sts have shown that a win or an achievement may not result in the happiness you’d expect because the neurons – or signalling cells – actually react most to the an cipa on. So however old we are, however reduced our horizons, by physical or mental capacity, we can all s ll feel happiness by looking ahead to a meal, or a visit or the warm weather of summer. Enjoy!
Wri en by
Esther Lafferty Day and Nightcare Assistance
Brain Diaries: The exhibi on runs un l 1st January 2018 and is recommended for ages 12 and over. To learn more visit: www.braindiaries.org
    22|OACP|TALKING CARE|ISSUE 4|2017
Image: Professor Michael R Peres ­ Wellcome Images















































































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