Brain Health,
Sci + Society,

#014: Judith Horstman Explores the Aging Brain and Scientific Advancements

May 12, 2013

In this week’s episode, Jesse gets into far-ranging neurology discussions with Judith Horstman.  Ms. Horstman is the author of multiple Scientific American Guides, including Healthy Brain Aging, Love Sex and the Brain, and the book this interview discusses most, Brave New Brain.

Judith is a fascinating woman and still razor-sharp as a 73-year-old journalist, writing on the subjects of brain science and prevention of the age-related neurological decline.  She practices what she preaches, and shares just a bit of her wealth of knowledge with Jesse and the Smart Drug Smarts community this week.

Is Eight Solid Hours of Sleep Per Night Necessary?

Much of Judith Horstman’s interest and writing concerns research and scientific advancements in protecting the brain against aging and repairing neurological wear-and-tear.  While her focus is generally on extending the vital lifespan of the brain, this episode gets into a discussion on pre-emptive “upgrades” to the brain’s cognitive performance – and Judith’s concerns about the potential dangers of drugs and other approaches that haven’t been fully tested.

She brings up the point than many “smart” drugs are more wakefulness enhancers than actual IQ-boosters, and makes a clear distinction between the two. She continues by saying that some of the research for her books has indicated that the typical notion that we must get eight hours of solid sleep during the night is a fallacy.  Historians indicate that getting bi-phasic sleep in increments of four hours or so might be more natural: going to sleep as the sun goes down, waking up in the middle of the night for some relaxing, discussions or sex, then returning to sleep until sunrise.  This anachronistic way of sleeping was killed off by the increasing ease of indoor lighting and move away from pastoralism to a more city-based existence.

Judith’s advice to those concerned about waking up in the middle of the night and not being able to fall back asleep?  Get over it; this isn’t an ailment whatsoever, it’s a normal sleep cycle that should be embraced instead of dreaded.  She also vouches for the power of 20-minute naps throughout the day.

Exercise and the Power to Change Your Jeans… or Genes

As an alternative to smart drugs and more “medical” approaches to optimizing your brain function, Ms. Horstman recommends exercise as a highly effective (and tested-for-millennia) approach.  Exercise naturally achieves many of the things we are looking for in smart drugs and supplements – increased oxygenated and glucose-infused blood flow to the brain, as well as a release of dopamine, norepinephrine and endorphins.

Also affected by exercise, is your body’s system of epigenetics, which controls which sections of your genome are going to be expressed at any given moment.  (If your DNA is a recipe book, epigenetics are the cook who decides what’s on today’s menu.)  Epigenetics create a huge series of feedback loops between the body’s intracellular processes and its macroscopic environment – both affecting and being affected by things like diet, exercise, exposure to sun, and mental challenges.  The old model of “DNA as a blueprint” is being replaced by “DNA as a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book,” where everything you do, think and feel within your environment has the ability to alter your genomic expression.  And these feedback-loops are active throughout your lifetime, meaning it is never too early – or too late – to make a positive change.

Judith also brings up research she has discussed with scientists that could allow the human brain to have artificial (silicon-based) memory enhancement.  To get the full story on this, tune in to this week’s episode.

This Week in Neuroscience: Monkey Business and Chronological Ordering of Events

A scientific study using macaque monkeys has serendipitously found what appear to be “timekeeper neurons” at least two key areas of monkey brains – with every reason to expect there might be similar neurons in other areas as well.  This sheds light on a long-standing neuroscientist head-scratcher: How is the sense of time chronology stored in the brain?  How do we know which of our memories happened in which order?

These timekeeper cells appear to be involved, and give a partial mechanism for how different events are paced, at least in regards to short-term memory.  The “sense” of time is a tricky subject because, as one scientist points out, we have receptors for sight, smell, touch and sound… but not for time.  Time is a construct created purely within our brains.

The implications of these findings may have potential for helping Parkinson’s Disease sufferers, since many factors of that ailment relate to the improper timing of muscle neurons firing during movement.  Improving the health of the brain’s timekeeper neurons could significantly improve motor coordination, if bad timing is part of the root cause, as is currently believed.

Read the full article here.

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