May 27, 2010

Exercising our brain power

Posted in Between Us column, Health at 7:08 pm by dinaheng

When it comes to the brain, conventional medicine is getting smarter about how to treat injuries and prevent future problems with memory loss.

I recently had the chance to attend a couple of UCLA Extension lectures featuring talks by Dr. Neil Martin, Chair of Neurosurgery at UCLA Medical Center, and Joshua Grill, Ph.D., director of the Katherine and Benjamin Kagan Alzheimer’s Disease Treatment Development Program at the Mary S. Easton Center for Alzheimer’s Disease Research at UCLA.

Both sessions were informative, and since I’d never have the patience to go through medical school, it was fascinating to get a glimpse of the technology being used and  research being done today.

Martin’s presentation included photos of customized operating rooms, which feature multiple flat panels and computers that can do 3D reconstruction of the body to see exactly where tumors are, so that surgeons can make the most minimally invasive incisions.

Robots are helping physicians to evaluate patients long distance when the doctor can’t be at the patient’s bedside. Researchers are working on a brain tumor vaccine, using tumor bio-markers to fight cancer with a patient’s own immune system.

“We have a hospital command and control center where software sorts patients by severity of illness, and how quickly they’re changing,” Martin said. “This allows specialists to be sent to the most critical beds asap.”

Most of us hope never to be inside an operating room as a patient, but it’s amazing to see how much information is available to surgeons in today’s operating environment. And yet, despite all the technical advances, there are still diseases whose treatment eludes us.

An estimated 5.4 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, a number that is expected to triple by 2050 because more people are living longer. Since 65 is generally the age of onset for Alzheimer’s, the longer you live, the more at risk you are for getting the disease.

While we may think that memory loss is just part of getting older, dementia is not a normal part of aging, Grill shared. Mental impairment comes from biological causes like Parkinson’s disease, Creutzfeld-Jacob disease and Alzheimer’s disease.

Yes, there are normal changes in memory as we age — slower thinking, difficulty paying attention, needing more memory cues and sensory decline — but thankfully, not all of us will deal with the kinds of problems that impair daily activities as we grow older.

Grill’s advice for the prevention of dementia:

* Eat healthy foods;

* Exercise;

* Wear a helmet during applicable sports to protect the brain from head trauma, and

* As you age, continue to exercise your brain and develop a strong social network.

In other words, keep challenging your intellect and make a lot of friends.

Surprisingly, Grill says it’s hard to get people into clinical trials, perhaps because the trials are investigational in nature and have no guarantee of benefits. Plus, the criteria for eligible participants is often narrow, in order to analyze and prove results.

“For example, if a person’s had a stroke and has Alzheimer’s disease, the stroke, or drugs taken for other conditions, might prevent us from seeing the effects of the treatment being studied,” Grill says. “Every study is different, so if someone’s interested in being in a clinical trial, we’ll try to find one they can participate in.”

Grill notes that with evolution, the cerebral cortex has grown in size over time, but the human skull has not kept pace, so the cortex had to fold over itself to fit in the skull.

“The cerebral cortex is the part of the brain that gives us innate human characteristics of emotion, language, creativity, and knowing right from wrong,” Grill says.

Like the cerebral cortex in the skull, technology has grown rapidly, but the human capacity for dealing with data overload has not. We run to stay abreast of e-mails, entertain ourselves with video games instead of live conversation, and avoid human interaction by letting keyboards speak for us.

We change our lives to “take advantage” of technical advances, but I wonder sometimes whether technology is taking more in control than we are.

As medical science moves forward on that technical front, I really hope our cerebral cortexes are figuring out how to increase our emotional intelligence, and grow in our humanity as well.

After all, as they say, a brain is a terrible thing to waste.

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