MOUNT VERNON — The human brain is an organ which has been described as resembling the texture and consistency of “cooked cauliflower.” It controls all of the body’s functions, including involuntary, instinctive or automatic actions, such as breathing, and voluntary actions, such as walking and talking and thinking.
The brain is also the source of a person’s emotions and moods, contains one’s memories, and processes the information from sense organs such as eyes and ears. The information to and from the brain is transmitted by electrochemical signals sent through the nervous system.
Although not a muscle per se, research has shown the brain does benefit from exercise, partly because physical exercise can improve blood circulation in the brain. Blood carries the oxygen and glucose the brain needs to function at its best.
“Research suggests that exercise stimulates brain cell development and the connections made between brain cells, perhaps due to enhanced oxygen and nutrient flow,” said Dr. Randy Cronk, professor of psychology at Mount Vernon Nazarene University. “It might also be that brain chemistry changes in neurotransmitters and growth factor contribute to the beneficial effects of exercise.”
Exercise has a positive effect on one’s mood, reducing depression, anxiety and stress, all states which can adversely affect one’s brain function. Some studies suggest that aerobic exercise can also improve human cognitive functions such as memory and planning.
“There is clear evidence,” Cronk said, “that with students, a strong positive association exists between exercise and traditional academic performance measures such as standardized testing and grades.”
The benefits of exercise for older adults is also well documented.
“In numerous studies,” said Cronk, “sedentary older adults randomly assigned to exercise programs show improved cognitive function.”
The jury seems to be out on whether brain games or brain training have any long-term cognitive benefits. Although there is well-documented evidence that stimulating environments promote cognitive development, Cronk said, “Most of us live in what would be called stimulating environments — thanks in part to technologies that put information at our fingertips and rich social networks.”
Other sources suggest crosswords and other word puzzles can help strengthen memory in vintage brains and bolsters one’s ability to focus. Some say yoga, meditation and memory exercises, as well as a plethora of interactive games on the Web, might be effective in maintaining cognitive ability.
As to actually feeding the brain, glucose is the only fuel the brain knows how to use. An overall well-balanced diet, low in saturated fat, is the first step toward nourishing the brain, as is avoiding alcohol abuse. Eating antioxident-rich fruits and vegetables high in vitamin C and E, may help protect the brain from free radicals. Free radicals attack living cells, and can have a cumulative negative effect on the body. Foods with potassium and calcium are also recommended, because those two minerals are important for the nervous system.
Nutritional supplements such as ginkgo and specific vitamins and minerals can be helpful, but caffeine is probably the supplement most consumed.
“Its stimulating effect is sought by millions of people every day,” said Cronk.
So, to keep your brain healthy, avoid high-stress activities, improve your blood circulation, exercise and eat a well-balanced diet.
Cronk also said getting enough sleep is important.
“Research seems to point to the benefits of adequate and healthy sleep on cognitive functioning and mood,” he said.
Additional resources for this story include Richard Cunningham, chairman of Mount Vernon High School science department; Brain Facts, from the Society for Neuroscience; Brains for Dummies.com; Cool Brain Facts from the Amen Clinics Web site; Explore the Brain, Enchanted Learning.com; and healthchecksystems.com.