Saturday, May 3, 2008

The next big thing: Neuroplastics

You remember the line in “The Graduate” when a friend of Dustin Hoffman’s parents pulled him aside and revealed the next big thing: “Plastics.”

Well, the next big thing today may be: “Neuroplastics.” This is the field of medicine that explores the ability of the brain to improve itself through activity or mental exercise.

“The idea that the brain can change its own structure and function through thought and activity is, I believe, the most important alteration in our view of the brain since we first sketched out its anatomy and the workings of its basic component, the neuron,” writes Dr. Norman Doidge in his book, The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science..

“The neuroplastic revolution has implications for, among other things, our understanding of how love, sex, grief, relationships, learning, addictions, culture, technology and psychotherapies change our brains,” Dr. Doidge writes.

Today’s New York Times has a related story: “Exercise Your Brain or Else You’ll … Uh…” The lead actor in the story: ELDR magazine editor David Bunnell, who recounts his techniques for maintaining the acuity of his own brain.

“Mr. Bunnell now does regular brain calisthenics, largely avoiding expensive software in favor of simpler solutions,” says the Times article. “He works at memorizing the numbers that swirl around his daily life – credit cards, PINs and phone numbers – and devises mnemonics for remembering people’s names. ‘Smart people find new ways to exercise their brains that don’t involve buying software or taking expensive workshops,’ he said.”

A growing industry is turning out brain health products – both dietary supplements and computer-based products such as math and memory exercises, cognitive assessment and training and other “neurosoftware” programs.

My favorite brain exercises are crossword puzzles and the “Scramble” word game. I’ve tackled sodoku but so far with little success. But I haven’t given up yet.

Now where did I put this morning’s puzzle page?