Use Your Head
Kent State researchers are studying how you can train and maintain a healthy brain.
By Erin Peterson | Illustrations by Mikey Burton ’08
Our brains are curious organs, responsible for our most logical decisions as well as our most irrational behavior. They help us love and loathe, think and feel. They help us remember obscure geography facts so we can ace armchair Jeopardy!—and also, unfortunately, remember every last lyric of “Hey Mickey.”
With advances in neuroscience, we’re beginning to learn what makes our brains tick. In the following pages, we talk to six Kent State University researchers who are unlocking some of the brain’s deepest mysteries. They agreed to share some of their current research—as well as their best ideas about how to harness the brain’s power to learn more effectively, become more present in daily life and maintain intellectual sharpness for a lifetime.
Could losing a few pounds actually make you smarter?
Researchers have long known that carrying extra weight can be hard on our bodies: studies show that obesity is linked to higher rates of heart and liver disease, for example.
Those extra pounds may be weighing down our brains, too, says John Gunstad, Ph.D., professor of psychological sciences and director of Kent State’s Applied Psychology Center. “Our research has found that individuals who are overweight—not even obese—have difficulties with memory and problem-solving that their normal-weight peers don’t.”
For example, Gunstad’s research has found that people who carry excess weight have more difficulty acquiring new information and skills and also struggle more to recall recently learned information when they need it. They also are more likely to struggle with “executive functioning”—a set of skills that includes planning, organizing and problem-solving.
Those additional difficulties can compound the already challenging work of losing weight in a way that almost seems like self-sabotage. “An individual trying to lose weight might have a hard time remembering to pack all their exercise clothes and equipment for their class at the gym, or fail to bring a healthy snack from home and get stuck at the vending machine later in the afternoon,” Gunstad says.
So what’s going on? Though researchers are still trying to suss out the links, Gunstad suspects it’s a combination of several subtle factors. Gaining weight seems to make it harder for our bodies to regulate blood sugar, and even modest disruptions in these blood sugar levels can make it harder for our brains to work the way they’re supposed to. Extra weight can also damage blood vessels. Such damage may affect the amount of oxygen getting to the brain, which in turn can “starve” the regions of the brain essential for memory and problem-solving activities.
If you do successfully drop even a few pounds, all these changes are reversible, and the improvements in brain function happen almost from the moment you shed the weight. “Individuals who start losing weight may notice improvements even within the first couple weeks,” Gunstad says.
Maintain a healthy weight: Following a Mediterranean diet to avoid developing prediabetes or type 2 diabetes may help you lose weight, lower blood sugar levels and keep the brain working as it should.
He has requested funding to develop a smartphone app that could remind people trying to lose weight to make healthy decisions—pack a lunch, take the stairs, grab the gym bag on the way out the door—right when they need them. “We want to find ways to provide support systems in people’s everyday lives,” says Gunstad.
Is oxytocin the key to a kinder, gentler world?
This hormone found in the brain may help us unlock new solutions for age-old problems.
Oxytocin has long been hailed as a love drug for its influence on human behavior: it’s the chemical that floods the brain while a mother breastfeeds her newborn and helps cement the maternal bond with her child. During times of heartbreak, we often have lower levels of the chemical in our system.
But oxytocin’s effects on our emotional state and behavior is far more nuanced than these examples suggest, says Heather Caldwell, Ph.D., associate professor of biological sciences, who studies oxytocin and a closely linked hormone called vasopressin. The good news is that these subtleties open up new ways to think about how we can use the chemical to prevent disorders, treat disease and improve our relationships.
We asked Caldwell to draw out some of the potential practical implications of early findings in the research that she and other experts have done.
OXYTOCIN IN: FETAL DEVELOPMENT
What researchers have learned: Caldwell’s research has found that if male mice are not exposed to oxytocin in embryonic development, they are more likely to show abnormally high aggression levels when they’re adults.
What that might mean for us: If similar behaviors hold true in humans, it may open up opportunities to prevent problems before they start. “Someday, we might be able to do an intervention during fetal development to make sure that the developing brain is getting as much oxytocin as it needs, if we notice that receptor levels are low,” Caldwell says.
OXYTOCIN IN: POSTPARTUM DEPRESSION
What researchers have learned: Women who experience postpartum depression are more likely to have had lower oxytocin levels during the third semester of their pregnancy.
What that might mean for us: “That correlation might not mean that a lack of oxytocin causes postpartum depression,” Caldwell says. “That said, if we know the levels were low during that trimester, we can be more attentive to potential problems after the baby is born.”
OXYTOCIN IN: RELATIONSHIPS
What researchers have learned: Oxytocin may not be Love Potion No. 9, but an elevated presence of the chemical may help us see our beloved with slightly more rose-tinted glasses—even if we’re not feeling particularly rosy toward our significant other in a given situation.
What that might mean for us: While oxytocin isn’t available over the counter, U.S. scientists are beginning to do clinical trials with the hormone. “Some scientists have proposed using oxytocin for people heading to couples therapy—taking a bit right before a session might make both of them a little more open to the therapist’s suggestions, for instance,” Caldwell says.
Your 100-year plan for mental acuity
Help your brain last as long as you do.
As a result of our rapidly increasing lifespans, more people than ever are facing the specter of Alzheimer’s disease, which is strongly linked to aging.
While our genetics play an important role in whether or not we end up with the disease, we also have a hand in our fate, says Gemma Casadesus Smith, Ph.D., associate professor of biological sciences. “Even if you were born with an imperfect genetic portfolio, lifestyle changes can help you delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease,” she says.
Give your brain a workout. As a Kent State graduate, you already hold an advantage, Smith says. “The higher level of education a person has, the later they’re likely to develop Alzheimer’s. We don’t know exactly why, but we believe that the more you use your brain, the more connections you make [among neurons], which provides a ‘cognitive reserve,’ ” she says. “These additional connections mean that it takes longer for symptoms of the disease to show up.” Strengthen your advantage by continuing to take classes, read challenging books and spend time on engaging problems in your work and personal life.
Don’t abuse drugs or alcohol. Long-term drug and alcohol use can kill off brain cells. While people may not see an immediate impact, the real consequences will reveal themselves in time. “We might not notice brain impairment in youth—even if there is damage—because we have a lot [of cognitive reserve], but age-related alterations that make our brains more sluggish make the previous losses more evident,” Smith says. “Someone who abused drugs and alcohol for a long time is likely to show earlier cognitive impairment.”
Eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables. “It’s exactly what your grandmother told you to do, and it’s good advice,” Smith says. “The antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties in colorful fruits and vegetables protect your brain.” Smith’s research has found that blueberries, for example, have high levels of antioxidants, but she adds that a wide variety of nuts, fruits and vegetables are better than a single “superfood.”
Exercise. The brain-body connection is real, Smith says. “Exercise triggers the production of neurotrophic factors in the brain, which help our neurons stay healthy.”
Now you hear it, now you don’t
A treatment to quiet the ever-present buzz of tinnitus may be within reach.
If you’ve ever gone to a loud concert and experienced ringing in your ears in the days that followed, you’re familiar with the irritating and distracting experience of tinnitus. In fact, about 50 million Americans will deal with the condition at some point during their lives.
Hear the warning, loud and clear: Think you couldn’t possibly get tinnitus? Think again. Tinnitus can be induced in mice with the equivalent of a single hour of rock-concert-level noise. Whenever possible, avoid extended exposure to loud noises or wear ear plugs.
But for some, tinnitus is more than a simple, temporary annoyance. Soldiers, for example, who are exposed to a bomb blast, can get immediate and irreversible tinnitus. The ringing or buzzing they hear in their ears—the result of brain cells that have become hyper-sensitive—can be debilitating, says Alexander Galazyuk, Ph.D., associate professor of biomedical sciences. “They may have difficulty sleeping and talking to others,” he says. “They may even contemplate suicide.”
Currently, many tinnitus treatments incorporate psychological counseling to teach those suffering from tinnitus how to live with it, since cures have proved elusive and the side effects of current treatments have been severe.
But Galazyuk says there may be hope. Researchers have known for more than a century that if tinnitus sufferers hear a loud noise for a short period of time—perhaps a minute—that matches the frequency of the ringing or buzzing in their head (determined by a “tinnitus matching” procedure completed by patients who listen to tones beforehand), the tinnitus is often suppressed. “It seems like a miracle,” Galazyuk says. “But that suppression, known as residual inhibition, lasts just a minute or two.”
Galazyuk has closely studied this phenomena, and they have discovered that specific protein molecules found on the membranes of neurons, known as metabotropic glutamate receptors, seem to play a critical role in this mechanism. They’re currently focusing on drugs that target these receptors and suppress tinnitus for longer periods of time. “When we’ve tested these treatments on mice, the suppression of tinnitus seems to last about two hours,” he says.
Further studies may ultimately bring the treatment to humans. “It’s not a cure, but for people who are experiencing severe tinnitus, even suppressing it for 15 minutes would be a big deal,” Galazyuk says.
A user’s guide to a more mindful life
Starting small with mindfulness can reap big benefits.
David Fresco, Ph.D., professor of psychological sciences, has been studying the impact of meditation in his lab and in his personal life for more than 15 years. His NIH-funded project, the Serenity Study, is designed to help people lower their blood pressure through stress management techniques, including mindfulness. (You can get involved here: http://www.serenitystudy.org/.)
He’s also studying a Tibetan form of meditation known as analytic meditation and debate, and he has found early indications that under the right circumstances, the brains of Tibetan monastics “sync up” with another.
We asked him to share recommendations for incorporating mindfulness and meditation practices into daily life, and we’ve organized these ideas in order of commitment level. Start with a single step and ascend to ever higher mastery.
Start here: Pay attention to the details. Even if you can’t carve out time each day to meditate, you can start by simply being present in any given moment, says Fresco. “When you wash the dishes, notice the temperature of the water on your skin and the tickle of the bubbles on your hands. When you eat an orange, savor each bite and notice the juice when you break the skin.”
Then try: 10 minutes a day. Sit on a cushion or chair in a quiet location and set a timer for 10 minutes. In either case, sit up straight in a dignified posture. Breathe naturally and focus on where your breath is most vivid for you: how it feels and what it sounds like, for example. When your mind wanders, return to this focus on your breath. “We don’t know, scientifically, that 10 minutes is enough to measurably relieve anxiety or improve concentration, but some practices designed for consumers start off with a more modest commitment to build a habit,” Fresco says. Just getting started with a practice is important in developing a new habit.
Dig deeper: Well-known practitioners of the field offer accessible books about meditation. Try Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness for Beginners and Wherever You Go, There You Are or Thich Nhat Hanh’s Miracle of Mindfulness and Peace Is Every Step.
Now you’re ready: If you can commit to 45 minutes of meditation, six days a week, for eight weeks, research has shown that that this level of commitment will create physical changes in your brain. “At least two studies have shown that this level of practice leads to improved cellular density in specific regions of the brain that allows people to confront unpleasant or difficult situations in a more sanguine way,” Fresco says.
Learn this way
Finally stop forgetting all the things you want to remember.
Katherine Rawson, Ph.D., professor of psychological sciences, has been fascinated by the ways we learn ever since she worked as a restaurant manager after high school. Part of her job was to teach new employees (who often lasted just 6 months) what they needed to know both quickly and deeply. That work was more challenging than she had imagined.
Today, Rawson studies learning strategies that are both long-lasting and efficient. There are plenty of techniques that work, but they’re often valuable in only the narrowest circumstances. We asked Rawson to share the strategy that is most effective in the widest variety of situations—a one-two punch called “successive relearning.” In a study Rawson and colleague John Dunlosky, Ph.D., published in 2015, students using this technique scored, on average, a full letter grade higher on an exam compared to control subjects.
Whether you’re trying to learn a few helpful phrases for an upcoming trip to a foreign country or helping your kid memorize the quadratic formula, the two steps in successive relearning should help.
Self-test: Just reading your notes over and over isn’t typically an effective learning strategy—especially if you want to make it stick. What does work is a time-tested favorite: flash cards. Foreign language vocabulary, key terms, definitions and formulas are all ideal for flash-card study. And while the technique may seem like nothing more than simple regurgitation, this process is critical in the acquisition of deeper knowledge. “The end goal might not be rote memory, but that doesn’t mean that memory isn’t important,” Rawson says. “Just because you understand something doesn’t mean you’ll remember it later.”
Space it out: A single, hours-long cram session won’t do nearly as much good as spreading three or four shorter study sessions out over the course of a week or two. In these refresher sessions, you’ll have a chance to see how much you remembered—and the repeated sessions will help you cement knowledge into your long-term memory. Even better? The refresher sessions will get shorter each time as you remember more and recall the information more quickly. “Though we don’t know exactly how long you should wait between study sessions, research suggests that waiting at least a few days is better than waiting just a day or two,” Rawson says.
The two steps can seem so deceptively simple that people dismiss them, says Rawson. Instead, they should embrace them. “[This technique] is not a fancy phone app or a game. But a technique doesn’t need to be fancy to be effective. In fact, it will be easier to use,” she says. “And that’s a good thing.”
Erin Peterson is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.