I’m here to introduce you to strategies for growing your brain power, and for adopting strategies for managing your organic brain health. For nearly five decades, I’ve been a leading pioneer in the science of neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to change its anatomical, neurochemical, and functional performance status across the lifespan. Neuroplasticity can enable the brain to change for the better, or for the worse. We know the neurological rules that govern this remarkable process—which has led us to a new understanding of why most individuals functionally deteriorate at an older age and also reveal powerful new strategies for more effectively engaging your brain to restore its functionality. With the proper forms of brain engagement and intensive computer-guided training, you can increase key neurotransmitters controlling brain change; improve the structural integrity of your brain; accelerate, refine, and grow the reliability of the brain’s information processing and recording (remembering); and improve your overall brain health. In other words, we now know how you can AGAIN GROW your brain powers see my book, Soft-Wired.

When I first helped pioneer this research beginning in the 1970s, most mainstream neuroscientists rejected the conclusion that the brain was subject to continuous, large-scale, lifelong brain remodeling. Hundreds of thousands of research reports have subsequently documented the fact of ‘adult’ brain plasticity, and millions of individuals have now benefited from the application of our intensive, highly efficient computer-guided training programs.

More recently, when we tried to explain to the scientific community that using pharmaceuticals to clear amyloid plaques associated with Alzheimer’s disease would and could never really restore cognitive function—that drug trials predicated on this assumption were doomed to fail—this avenue for treatment was still being very aggressively pursued to the tune of billions of dollars. That investment reflects a fundamental lack of understanding of brain plasticity-related science and Alzheimer’s/dementia ‘disease’ origin. Although there is an ongoing presumption that Alzheimer’s disease is a disease, our brain science argues that Alzheimer’s is actually the catastrophic end stage of a long, completely natural, negative-plasticity-driven change progression. A fundamental misunderstanding of the origins of this train wreck explains why more than 450 FDA drug trials searching for a ‘magic bullet’ to treat Alzheimer’s have failed.

I’m joining the Reddit community to try to help you understand that the ways that scientists and doctors have thought about neurological and psychiatric illnesses like Alzheimer’s has been substantially in error. The slow, unrelenting decline in our functional abilities that culminate in those train wrecks that we’ve labelled “Alzheimer’s” or “dementia” or “Parkinson’s” or “schizophrenia” (among dozens of other adult-acquired maladies) are natural change progressions. Importantly, the same scientific studies have clearly shown that these negative progressions are NOT inevitable. We have the power to throw the plasticity switch from ‘decline’ to ‘grow.’ Understanding how to throw that switch is a central topic that I’m opening up for discussion on Reddit! What, exactly, should you be doing, to sustain or even grow your abilities, to successfully manage your organic brain health, to improve your lot in life, and keep yourself safer? My goal on Reddit is to educate you and other citizens about this scientific, economic, and societal revolution that is educating us about better ways to combat—and hopefully defeat— Alzheimer’s and other brain-related catastrophes. Our failure to apply this science in the world is currently devastating elder and other human populations. A medical course correction may be extremely important for you, and for every other older or otherwise-at-risk individual who you care about.

Credentials: I am an Emeritus Professor from the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), have published more than 250 articles in peer-reviewed journals, and been awarded more than 60 US patents. For this work, I have been awarded the Kavli Prize, the highest international honor in neuroscience. I have also received the Russ Prize (highest honor in bioengineering), Ipsen Prize, Zülch Prize, Thomas Alva Edison Patent Award, Purkinje Medal, and membership to the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine.

I will be here all day. My goal is to answer every question, which means I may visit again tomorrow.

Obligatory legal disclaimer: By law, medical information cannot be offered online. All information, content, and material is for informational purposes only and are not intended to serve as a substitute for the consultation, diagnosis, and/or medical treatment of a qualified physician or healthcare provider. What I say here are my own opinions and may not necessarily reflect the views of the brain training companies I have founded.

EDIT: Thanks everyone -- I enjoyed your questions, they were good ones. I will try to get to the ones I didn't answer yet tomorrow.

EDIT: I'm back and ready to answer more questions.

EDIT: I'm signing off for the day. I might be back tomorrow.

EDIT: Back again.

EDIT: See you later, Reddit. This was fun.

Comments: 241 • Responses: 69  • Date: 

suymaster27 karma

Nootropics is a very growing market. What are your thoughts on the use and/or the regulation of nootropics?

MichaelMerzenich5 karma

There are a host of chemical agents people consume with the goal of improving their cognitive function. It’s estimated that the sale of such drugs from improving cognition is a billion dollar a year business in the world. Most of these drugs and supplements induce the actions of natural neurotransmitters and modulate plasticity in ways that impact brain function. The drugs that are used off-label, designed to treat ADHD, are a case in point. A drug like Adderall is a stimulant that has the same general effects as the natural neurotransmitter, norepinephrine. There are about 20 chemical agents overall that are relatively well-known, distributed for sale and studied on some level, that are being sold in the nootropic marketplace. There is a significant body of evidence that at least some of these agents (not all) have positive “performance” or “cognitive” enhancing impacts. On the other hand, they are in a sense mind-altering and one consequence of their use is the downregulation of the processes that produces natural brain-generated transmitters. There are two consequences of this. You need to continue to take the stimulate or the boosting drug and you need to progressively increase the dosing of it to have a stable amplifying effect. When you’re off the stimulant, everything is turned down. Artificially establishing a situation over time in which you must have a stimulant to perform at a high level is a rather questionable life strategy.

We know that you can drive changes in the brain that are equivalent to taking a stimulant drug through an intensive brief period of brain exercise. I’ve earlier described brain exercises that we apply that are specifically designed to upregulate norepinephrine. We’ve shown that if you work at an exercise for a few minutes, before you enter a learning cycle, it accelerates learning rate and increases asymptotic learning achievements across a period of tens of minutes. If you do this everyday for several weeks, the upregulation of the release of the stimulant from the natural processes of the brain appears to be sustained out to the future. The difference? It’s all natural and it operates 24/7.

jumpropeharder16 karma

Good Morning Dr. Merzenich! Thanks for taking the time to do this AMA! My question is about brain health and it's role in education. NPR recently did a story on a school that is beginning to utilize an understanding of neuroplasticity and brain health in the classroom to combat the effects of poverty and chronic stress on the brains of school children and to eventually improve educational outcomes.

The role of neuroscience and plasticity as applied in the traditional model of education seems so limited given what we know about the brain and what we are still learning. Talking about brain health in a school setting feels so taboo. Why do you think that is? What are some ways that we can bring more awareness of neuroplasticity to teachers? And if the principles of neuroplasticity and brain health were implemented in classrooms what might that look like and do you think we would have better educational outcomes? Thanks again for your time!

MichaelMerzenich28 karma

One of the reasons people don’t think about brain health very often is because there has been no medicine to address issues of brain health. The child goes to the doctor, the doctor asks how they are, the child indicates that they’re fine, and the doctor concludes the child has a healthy brain. We also tend to translate brain health in terms of academic performance. The brain is a vascularized physical organ that can be in a sense flabby and in bad organic shape, just like any other organ. So inside every classroom at school, there are almost certain to be children in front of the teacher that have a very unhealthy brain. We know that the brain is degraded in its operations in ways that impact its general health by ongoing high stress in childhood. A child who has to live with high stress is impacted in ways that will frustrate their success in school and in life. A standard approach to this has been to blame the child for their failures and misbehavior. Now that we know so clearly that in fact their failures are substantially due to the neurological injuries that comes from very difficult childhoods there is a moral imperative to help them. Intensive brain-plasticity based restoration is a large part of the answer. I applaud any school site that understands this and undertakes the important task of helping these children to come back to the mainstream. It will be a better world when we identify every child that has this kind of unfortunate history and do whatever we can to help them be one of us.

Posit Science’s research team is conducting studies in very severely Adverse Childhood Experiences Impacted using a combination of meditation related practices, computerized brain training, social attachment related therapy, and life coaching. They’re seeing high success in helping these children in this large cohort. If you’d like to know more about that send me a PM.

Raindrops19844 karma

I'm a teacher. Are there lessons I should teach about brain health to my students (next year I'll be teaching first grade)? Are there activities I should have the kids do to increase brain plasticity?

MichaelMerzenich3 karma

Every first grader, every second grader, and in fact every child in school at every level, should understand that their brain is plastic. The basic lesson is for them to appreciate that however they are doing in school, it can be a lot better, next week, next month, next year because they have a plastic brain. How terrific is it that they are built to change for the better? No child should regard themselves as a probable permanent failure. It’s all about a continuous possibility of progressive advance.

People have tried to formalize these lessons in a variety of ways. There’s an education team in the state of Oregon who have tried to provide lessons to children at different age levels. I’m sure you can find references to their strategies on the web. A research team lead by the Standard psychologist Carol Dweck has conducted important studies on child motivation that have applied brain education strategies to highly effectively motivate children. I know that her team has produced strategies that are available at least to some children of some ages. There are probably other good models out there. For children that really struggle, or are subject to fits of anger or hyper-reactivity, understanding that it is their brain - and not them - that is doing this can be transformative.

The “count to 10” strategy applied in different forms can have marvelous positive impacts in such a child by allowing them to learn to control their fits of anger or upset. One of our collaborators gives a hyper-reactive child a snow globe and when the child goes off the rails, they learn to evert it and wait until all the snow falls to the bottom (because that minute is the time it takes for the storm in their amygdala to pass over the horizon). It’s your amygdala, Billy, says the teaching with a smile. You just have to wait until it quiets down.

Any child of any age will be fascinated by the brain and its complexities and marvels. If you can’t find good information at any of these sources, contact me and I’ll try to help.

punstersquared2 karma

Is there work being done on taking advantage of brain plasticity to heal from specific incidents, i.e., recovering from PTSD as an adult?

MichaelMerzenich2 karma

We’re supporting a trial underway. This has been a subject of intense interest having been stimulated by the large number of war-wounded individuals who have come home to a life of PTSD. There are a half-dozen different brain-plasticity training strategies that are now being evaluated. One class of studies have involved virtual reality training that usually incorporates some form of directly dealing with, and attempting to weaken, that kind of signaling that sets off a PTSD epoch. Others have applied strategies like ours designed to more broadly normalize all of the distorted machinery that contributes to the repetitive, powerful hijacking of the brain by the historical terrors that are the basis of the problem. Many others personalize the intervention with recognition of the complex and very highly-individualized nature of traumatic human experiences. All of these strategies show promise. None have been demonstrated to be a completely reliably solution yet. My belief now is that some combination of strategies – integrated neurological collection with refined trauma-specific coaching – might be the strongest form of treatment that we can apply to help these individuals.

I’ve argued in meetings at the While House and elsewhere that when we train a soldier and teach them to accept the terrible things that they must do “on the job” we should think about training them just as seriously and intensely and carefully when they return home from duty and go back to civilian life. We’ve altered them neurologically through brain plasticity processes to play a role as an imposer of violence and as a witness of its horrors. They have acted in our service doing something that most of us couldn’t do. At the end of this incredibly generous action on our behalf, we have an equal responsibility to help them bring their brain back to normalcy.

Alas, we are not now doing a good job of this. Shame on us.

Astoundsucks13 karma

What do you think about brain training companies like Lumosity?

MichaelMerzenich29 karma

One way to evaluate the claims of the available brain training programs is to look at the underlying research. Independent researchers ( recently published the first systematic review of the science behind commercially available brain-training programs. They identified 18 companies and found that 11 companies had no clinical trials or empirical evidence indicating that they helped with healthy aging. The remaining seven companies were classified into three levels of evidence with the highest level requiring at least two well-designed randomized controlled trials, at least one of which met gold standards. BrainHQ outranked Cognifit, Cogmed, BrainAge2, My Brain Trainer, Dakim, and Lumosity by a large margin, with more than twice the number of highest-standards controlled trials than any other commercial competitor. Lumosity actually came in the bottom bracket of those companies shown to have evidence.

This work clearly demonstrates that when it comes to brain training, not all programs are alike. At the same time this does not mean that there is no value to the training exercises sold by these companies, it simply means that they sell things for which they have limited hard evidence that they actually work.

casually_perturbed6 karma

Are there any domestic type of exercises that you'd endorse? I've heard there's lots of proof that learning a new language helps keep the brain fit. Anything else you'd recommend, besides exercise?

MichaelMerzenich3 karma

See earlier responses, for example:

Language learning is a good form of exercise but only if you take it seriously. The brain only changes for the better when it matters to you. Try every day at whatever you're learning to be just a little bit better at it. And then quite a bit better next month. An advantage of a form of learning in something like language is that the learning is staged and requires cross-modal integration. It requires that you refine your listening, your vocal control, the visual operations that contribute to reading it, and the translations of sound by letter - initially all at a slow rate with high error and ultimately at speed and accuracy, initially as a relatively passive receiver but ultimately in highly-flexible high-speed interaction as a receiver and producer. All of this is very good for your brain.

But of course there are thousands of other things that start simple and become beautiful and sophisticated at speed if you just think about them from that perspective and if you take the mastery of them with some level of seriousness.

SunriseMilkshake5 karma

Just want to give everyone a heads up that Dr. Merzenich is leading the design of BrainHQ, as is stated on their website:

I'm not implying or stating that Dr. Merzenich is advertising or promoting BrainHQ, just saying that it's worth mentioning that he is directly involved with it, and for whatever reason didn't state it in the above reply. My personal opinion is that he likely wanted to mention he is involved, but for whatever reason did not.

MichaelMerzenich3 karma

You’re right, I assumed people would understand that BrainHQ represents an important aspect of my own life’s world. What I realized about 30 years ago is that the translation of our science out to the potential benefit of human populations who struggle had become a moral imperative. I tried my best as a scientist to conduct studies that guided the intelligent and effective translation of brain-plasticity based strategies that I was certain could help. In these efforts, I required that no program claims would be made without supportive research trials. Most of the money in company development was spent in outcomes research. I was permitted by UCSF to found 2 companies (Scientific Learning & Posit Science – BrainHQ) that undertook this translation, without their forcing me to leave my faculty position. I am the first faculty member on the San Francisco campus who was given such permission primarily because I convinced them that this effort was not about personal aggrandizement. Still, of course, I benefit in lots of ways by what these companies do. One way I benefit is by the fact that they give me immense pride in making a life effort to help people that struggle.

Some people think that a commercial effort is a basis of scientific contamination. I believe that if I hid the secrets of our science under a bottle and did not explain that BrainHQ represented my own best attempt to provide a strategy to help, I would be a moral coward.

arthklau10 karma

What is the latest research on reversing short term memory loss? Also in specific ,memory loss from damaged hippocampus. Thank you.

MichaelMerzenich8 karma

Restoration of memory is commonly approached by applying either one of two general strategies. The usual training form is to practice remembering. This approach stems from a long history is cognitive experimental psychology where the natural therapeutic approach has been to address a weakness by practicing in ways that would be imagined to directly overcome it. For memory this means 3 things: practicing to remember longer strings or lists of information, practicing to recall things that you know belong together or that are associated, and learning tricks or strategies or methods to work around your failing memory. All of these strategies have compensatory value but none of them actually fix the fundamental neurological problems that usually apply to an individual with a failure memory. For example, older people lose their memory primarily for 2 reasons. The first is that the brain no longer represents information it's receiving or manipulating in as sharp or salient form. Because information is represented unreliably in a “fuzzy” neurological way it struggles to record it. Recovery of memory requires training that again refines, sharpens, increases the salience of, and recovers the reliability of the representation of the high-speed details of what you have just seen or heard or felt. Secondly, old brains are noisy and that nosiness results in problems of interference for any long sustained operation. It’s important that you train the brain in ways that suppresses and reduces that noisiness. All of these basic contributors to memory failure can be very positively engaged in most individuals by appropriate, intensive exercise. That exercise can come in natural forms or by engaging yourself in the right forms of computerized exercises.

casually_perturbed3 karma

It’s important that you train the brain in ways that suppresses and reduces that noisiness.

I'm not sure that exercise has helped that "noisiness" or my ADD tendencies. Do you endorse meditation as a way to quell this noisiness? I've tried it and my brain's just too noisy to even find the merging ramp on that road.

MichaelMerzenich3 karma

People imagine that physical exercise can accomplish the miracle all on its own, or that dietary supplementation can provide the brain with the right nutrients that all on their own can engender a recovery miracle, or they imagine they can plug in new neurons with stem cells, or stimulate the brain, or do a dozen other things that can restore the brain to health. But actually, for the brain to strengthen and recover its wiring there is no substitute for brain exercise. That’s not to say you shouldn’t eat right, or that you shouldn’t be running or bicycling, or that an important part of the miracle won’t come from meditation or a drug or another important therapy, but that you should just not ignore the central role to be played by brain exercise itself. I’ve discussed what I mean by brain exercise more specifically in a number of areas throughout this thread.

Rockdrummer3579 karma

What are your thoughts on brain nutrition and/or supplementation? I know that DHA (i.e. fish oil) is supposed to be very beneficial. What about other supplements (various choline supplements like Alpha GPC, l-theanine, uridine, etc) or nootropics (racetams and noopept)?

I've also noticed that exercise, specifically of the cardio variety, seems to give me a quite noticeable mental edge for most of the day. Is that just due to the increased alertness from the increased heart rate/circulation, or is there something else going on there? How important is exercise for preventing age-related brain diseases?

MichaelMerzenich7 karma

I’ve answered some of these questions in part in other parts of this thread. I’m not an expert in nutritional supplementation but at the same time there are several supplements, especially with respect to the oil from cold water fish, and have value for contributing to brain health. I’ve earlier pointed out that scientists are now arguing that supplementation that specifically targets chemical distortions that apply for old and otherwise dysfunctional brains seem to have therapeutic value. But at the same time, this is still a very complex work in progress. In the most cold-blooded analyses by public authorities, for example from a recent report from the National Academies of Medicine (of which I am a member), it’s argued that there is no certain evidence that dietary supplementation can offset the progression to dementia ( They stated that the evidence for physical exercise was thin but ultimately recommended it. They identify computer-based training or cognitive training in general as one of the strategies for which there is evidence of an effect. They also recommended the maintenance of cardiovascular health through the reduction of blood-pressure. At the same time, they are too hard-nosed. In the best hands, in the best studies, it is very clear that daily physical exercise and considerations of what you eat and how completely you address your dietary needs as they relate to the health of your brain ought to be in the repertoire of how you live an older life and how you live your life if your brain is struggling. So get out there and move a little. Eat as if what you eat matters and very possibly get thee to the brain gym.

fsalrahmani8 karma

Hey Dr. Merzenich, thanks for doing this AMA! And for all your important work. I've been interested in neuroplasticity for almost a couple of years now. I've also read Dr. Mlodinow's book on the subconscious and how your brain changes memories to create logic in your reality's syntax. I've also read Dr. Langer's book on Mindfulness, where she talks about how you view old age shapes how you age yourself. And as an Electrical Engineering student, I've seen first hand how positive neuroplasticty (via repetitive solving of math problems) can not only increase my intellect, but cognitive functions and general well being.

I would like to know how I can get involved with neuroscientific research on neuroplasticity and the evolution and longevity of the brain, given that I have a background in electrical engineering mostly. But an interest in computer data, analytics, programming, consciousness in nature, and transhumanism.

Also, I would like to to know your views on Elon Musk's recent venture, NeuraLink. Do you see devices that connect your brain to a machine intelligence disruptive in any way to the process of neuroplasticity?

ikillhim4 karma

I would also like to thank you for this AMA, Dr. Merzenich. I'm also interested in neuroplasticity and the brain in general. I have degrees in physics and computer science. But my desire is to get into neuroscience and dedicate my career to understand this absolutely fascinating and perplexing physical system. The plan is to do a degree in bioinformatics, as that is immediately within my reach, then edge myself into neuroscience from that angle somehow.

My question to you is, with this in mind, what resources would you recommend to get a more complete understanding of neuroscience? Especially with regards to neuroplasticity, since this seems to be so key. Would you recommend reading up heavily on biochemistry and work my way up to molecular biology/neuroscience? Or would you recommend going the medicine/biology route through neurology? Is there one or two key books I could read (regarding neuroplasticity)?

I ask since I'm trying to read up on all this, but it takes soo much time, and I don't want to waste it on things that are irrelevant. My goal is to get a deeper understanding of the nervous system, as effectively and with as much enjoyment as possible.

MichaelMerzenich5 karma

You ask a great practical question: should I exploit my acquired abilities and enter neuroscience from the top down? (That is to say from a more theoretical and open perspective down in the direction of increasingly greater organization and functional detail, from the conceptual and theoretical to the detailed chemical and physical process.) Or should I flip the progression and begin at the bottom and progress to the top? (i.e., The elemental processes underlying brain plasticity and ultimately its operation and simple circuits, brain areas, brain systems, and across the wider reaches of the brain with an extension to the principles of experimental psychology and to human neurology, up to theory.) It’s a challenging path. Whichever way you try to progress along it, it’s critical that you end up with an integrative neuroscience perspective that is cross-referenced to psychology and neurology. It’s also critical that you understand, on at least the first level, elemental neuroscience. Then you’re impaired if you don’t extend your understanding to the level of theory. Think 10 years to be really ready to operate with high efficency from the front line. That's doesn’t mean that you can’t be doing very useful things through those 10 years, it’s just that there is a hell of a lot of things to know about. And as time passes, things are not getting any easier.

Good luck with it, pal. I wish I was younger so that I could be on the journey with you again.

As for things to read: you might start with my book, Soft-Wired. It’s very superficial but it’s a start. Go to the website supporting the book for annotations. There are about 3,000 scientific reviews that you can find on PubMed that are directly related to the neurological mechanisms of synaptic plasticity alone. The literature is massive. Fortunately, no scientist will expect you to read all 3,000 reviews because I guarantee you that no world expert on synaptic plasticity has actually read most of them. I view this as a form of scientific masturbation.

MichaelMerzenich3 karma

See reply below for where to get some reading material. Also consider Norman Doidge’s book “The brain that changes itself” on Amazon.

If you communicate with me I will try to provide you with a short list of biomedical engineering programs where there are scientists trying to address neuroplastic-related issues from a neuroscience/psychology/engineering perspective. There’s lots of good work to be done and you seem to be motivated to make a contribution to it. Send me a reminder.

EDIT: The FB team has a bunch of engineers working to accelerate the transfer of information directly from the brain to a device without passing Go or collecting $200. And there’s NeuraLink and its imagined uses for directly linking the brain to devices for everyday practice uses, or to actually accelerating the rate at which the device is part of you and you are part of it. I have mixed feelings about whether this is engineering gone mad or possibly a basis of the still-further empowerment and enrichment of our humanity. If I had to guess, I would probably vote for mad. But I’m an older fellow and perhaps just can’t see the wave. At the same time, the dream that you can substantially accelerate the rate of transmission of information from your brain to your device so that you can operate with that device at much higher speeds seems to me to be impractical because the brain is limited in the speed of its operations by physical and chemical processes that have time constants. Until we evolve new ones, there is a limit to how far those time constants can be driven in an accelerating direction. As for driving plasticity in that accelerated direction, you don’t really need to be wearing an appliance that directly communicates with the tissues of your brain. You can train yourself to reach the max.

At the same time, there’s a big set of practical extensions of direct brain communication devices that apply to the world of neural rehabilitation. The Elon Musk and FB teams’ engineering efforts could be an important development in that sphere. In that special domain, I unequivocally applaud the efforts and am very excited that such heavy investment is being made to put them to practice. The promise is a new class of devices that can help the paralyzed individual move with greater and greater facility. It could help the individual to take care of their most basic biological processes, talk for the individual who can’t talk for himself, and help the individual trapped in a deep well of isolation because of his or her impairments.

PacManFan1236 karma

How do I increase (either temporarily or permanently) my brain plasticity to help me learn new things?

MichaelMerzenich9 karma

There’s a class of exercises that you can do that we know will upregulate the processes that control brain change itself. When we engage a brain to try to improve its faculties we are commonly trying to exercise this “modulatory control” machinery as a prerequisite as getting the most out of a brain training experience. In general, intensive, serious, new-skill learning commands the attention of the machinery that controls learning rate. If you’re a life-long learner, and especially if that learning applies to elaborating your operational skills and abilities it is likely that your brain plasticity / control machinery is in good shape.

Scientists have extensively studied the way this learning machinery is controlled. They’ve directly demonstrated ways to engage it that results in an amplification of its powers. We apply those strategies in specific brain exercises and have shown that when we precede learning by those exercises, learning is faster and asymptotic performance achievements are elevated. If you want to self-assess the status of this machinery consider your basic level of alertness, brightness, sparkiness, and connection with the world. If you’re on the sparky side of life this machinery is probably in pretty good shape.

One last point: a key neuromodulator of change in the brain is dopamine which is associated with pleasure, happiness, and positive good spirits. Generous people, people that are sympathetic to one another, people that are connected to one another with positive good spirits have healthy assets in this sphere. Be one of them.

hashdr6 karma

1) Do the quality of our thoughts also change our brains? Can having positive self talk etc improve our brains?

2) Can I become smarter at 25 given I've been cognitively stagnant for the past 9 years? Is it possible?

MichaelMerzenich14 karma

Can you get smarter at 25? Half of the variance of adaptive intelligence is explained by variance in brain speed. Can your brain speed be accelerated? Not a problem. The right kind of brain exercises on a computer, or the right kind of natural activities, can contribute to an acceleration of the natural processes of your brain at every brain system level. When scientists studying intelligence tried to understand other factors that contributed to adaptive or fluid intelligence, they added 4 or 5 other key factors to that list. Fortunately for you, they are also all plastic. So can you recover your brain power, and make yourself “smarter”? Get to it. I should say that psychologists that study these issues have wrestled with the mutability of intelligence for a long time. There is still a strong body of psychology deniers, sort of like the global warming deniers, that seem to lack a full appreciation of our capacity to change our neurological abilities to change the machinery of our brain, by engaging in the appropriate forms of exercise.

In time, they will get over this.

As for changing your attitude, to change your capabilities; can you talk to yourself and drive yourself into a ditch? Or to improve your performance abilities? Learning and achievement is contextual. If I simply explain to individuals – adults or children – that they have a clear capacity to change their brain for the better, I increase the likelihood that over time, they will be better. If I simply educate children in the fifth grade that their brains are plastic, they will do better in the sixth grade. This is well-established science. Of course, the same applies on the negative side of life. My dear sweet mother-in-law, a master pie maker, began telling herself at about age 70 that she could no longer make a good pie. Pretty soon, she couldn’t. It is a very good idea to live life with a positive attitude.

venomeater695 karma

Hi there! You mention making natural lifestyle changes to maintain brain health. Can you give us some examples of these changes?

MichaelMerzenich8 karma

In my book, Soft-wired, I’ve tried to provide some practical advice about how you might think about adapting your lifestyle so that you’re living your life to the advantage of your brain health. Of course, in this venue I can only provide a few off-hand suggestions. First, think of a life of continuous new learning. Every not-so-many months you should take on some fundamentally new operational domain that enables you to elaborate and enrich your neurological powers. Continuous new learning is a key to keeping your control machinery alive. Maybe you want to learn how to make a pot, play the ukulele, sing in the choir, write a novel, learn Portuguese, master Tiddlywinks. There are ten thousand things that you could begin to do tomorrow that would enrich you neurologically. It’s important that you take on such activities with seriousness of purpose and that you continually advance your ability in the direction of mastery. For activities you’re already fond of, get better at them. Work to become a master of the environment you live in. Pay attention to it again. Connect to it again. Look for the surprises in it again. Be like a child again. Drink in the smells and the beautiful, peculiar and complex objects in front of you. Listen for the natural music in the world as a life habit. When you’re in conversation, really listen. Really connect with the person in front of you. Be socially alive.

Seek positive social engagement. Adopt a generous and giving attitude. The level of your generosity of spirit is an index of the status of the machinery that controls positive brain change within your skull. Happiness expresses neurological power. In your physical activities, seek variety. Live life off the trail and off the road. Walk where every footfall is made with just a little level of uncertainty or insecurity. Avoid stereotypy in thought and in action. Avoid adopting negative habits that can stereotypically drive you into the ditch. I’ve discussed a whole series of these kinds of habits (negative learning habits) in Soft-Wired. Life lived to the advantage of your brain is a lot more fun than the life most people are leading. In the negative learning domain it’s important that your life is not completely dominated by modern technological distraction. Many people are now almost completely buried in their assistive and electronic devices in ways that are continuing to ongoing neurological deprivation. You could say they have a brain that is a master of an unnatural world which is scarcely what your brain was designed for.

You’re worried about sustaining your brain on a level in which its operating with brightness and alertness? Hey, seek brightness and alertness.

DonZamboni4 karma

I recently started a Paleo / Ketogenic diet and while the weight loss has been fantastic, the real amazing part for me has been the mental focus I've recently acquired. Things that I have struggled with work wise for months are suddenly clear. Can you talk about the relationship of the diet to memory and focus?

MichaelMerzenich2 karma

I’m not familiar with the details of the arguments about the influence of a Paleo diet to memory and focus but people I respect have made arguments on a serious level and have related them to both brain and physical health. See Robert Lustig: See Dale Bredesen:

eronious4 karma

If you could choose to study one animal brain, which brain would you choose and why?

MichaelMerzenich13 karma

I have been fascinated by the neurology of some of the world’s stranger creatures. One of my favorites studies I conducted as a young scientist was to try and understand the meaning of the very, very strange brain of that had been described in a burrowing animal in the Pacific Northwest called a mountain beaver (aplodontia). My colleagues and I were able to show that this animal had subsonic hearing. Compressing the air in a box 3x3x3 meters by 1cc was detectable in the animals hearing. It has a massive neurological specialization that processes this information. How does the animal use it? It plugs its burrow with its fat little body. It senses pressure changes from anything else in the burrow and has constructed a burrow in which it can always escape. By this single trick, this rodent with the lowest breeding rate of any rodent has survived unchanged from 70 million years. We humans have no single trick as good as this one. The animal kingdom is absolutely chock-full of neurological marvels like this. Many unknown, and even unsuspecting.

A friend in Australia discovered a second animal that had a brain that looked like just a mountain beaver’s. This animal was detecting minute changes in air pressure but not underground in a dark tunnel. It was located in the tops of the highest trees in the continent of Australia. It’s called the feather-tailed glider (the beloved animal on the Australian penny) and it uses the same incredible faculty to monitor the minute changes in wind current to stay aloft and not fall out of the tree. It’s amazing that these two creatures have such a similar brain.

We are largely abandoning the study of the neurology of interesting creatures like this. Modern science has just lost interest. What a shame.

One last point: my paper on the mountain beaver is the least often cited of the 250-300 peer-reviewed papers I have published in life as a scientist but is one of the papers (as the true nerd that I am) that I am most proud of.

I wish that we knew a lot more about the neurology of lots of creatures in the world because I think that knowing more would contribute to the role we have to play in conserving them on the planet. But my days of studying the brains of animals are long past, with one exception. That is, Homo sapiens, in some ways a primitive species and in some ways an advanced species with a pretty interesting brain. While it’s not nearly as special as most people imagine, Homo have a pretty impressive machine inside their skulls.

justalemontree4 karma

Sorry for bombarding you with questions!

Do different parts of the brain express different levels of plasticity? If yes, what makes some parts more plastic than others?

Also, are NMDA and AMPA receptors absolutely necessary for plasticity? Do non-glutamatergic synapses exhibit plasticity as well?

MichaelMerzenich3 karma

There are very substantial differences across brain system levels in the extent to which plastic change can be induced by engagement or training. The way that the brain can change at any level is controlled by the sources and distributions of inputs to each location on that level. At lowest brain system levels those input distributions are relatively constrained. As you move up in cortical systems, more complex integration over greater representational distances, are in play. At highest-brain levels, connectivity effectively delivers information from almost all sources very broadly all across large functional brain regions. Very complicated integrated products can be represented at the top of brain systems. By contrast, at the entry levels, refinement is on a far more constrained and local scale. Still everything is plastic and as I acquire any ability I’m actually changing everything, at every level, all across engaged brain systems. Think of a simple behavior in which I am distinguishing whether I see the outline of a pear or other fruits. At the top of the brain, I am holding the expectation of a pear -like image as a constant-present memory (“working memory”) which is actually a representation of the expectation of the occurrence of a pear. By that process, everything across the brain system below, from the entry levels of the brain to this highest level, are going to be modified to improve my abilities to distinguish pears from other fruits. I’m going to refine the details on the bottom level, just as I refine the rapid recognition of pears or non-pears. It is the system that is plastically remodeling at every level. An important aspect of this process is the fact that the brain from the top, where things are most flexible, is actually broadly controlling what is permitted to change across the system by holding an ongoing representation of the “right answer” in memory. The brain is continually weighing success and when it identifies an achievement of success it releases those neurotransmitters that enable change at every system-level. The bottom line? The most magnificent plastic changes are expressed on the highest levels of brain systems. But at the same time, in any learning progression, important things are changing at every level, even though at the bottom those changes are far more constrained.

From another perspective, as the brain is engaged in early life, it generates highly reliable “mini-columns” that represent the details of what you see or hear or feel in a highly devolved way. The initial maturation of a reliable analytic machine is a product of coincident input-dependent (Hebbian) plasticity. As the internal coupling in mini-columns grows, the cooperativity of the mini-column produces a more powerfully coordinated output. At the same time, these same changes are also read by brain processes that are contributing to progressive myelination. As these changes occur to confer reliability at the entry level of the brain system, they enable the same process to occur at the next system level. This plastic “maturation” is expressed level-by-level across brain systems. Everything sweeps forward.

Why is the teenage brain still squirrely? In a sense it’s because these changes have not progressed to a level in which it has become reliable and predictable in its operations at the higher brain levels. In this sense, you can think of the areas of the brain that are the most plastic as varying as a function of an individual’s age. Finally as you age, this process rolls backward. The highest level of operation in the brain becomes more plastic again. This time, it is expressing a weakness and not a strength because counterbalancing plasticity has degraded higher-order reliability.

dadbrain4 karma

Within the context of your field of expertise, what thing(s) do you believe/speculate are probably true, but for which there is currently no conclusive evidence?

MichaelMerzenich4 karma

There has been great interest in documenting the influences on brain health contributed from physical aspects of body health. Scientists have compellingly documented aspects of the status of your digestive system and the biome that lives within it as an example of a body-based factor that you could manipulate on the path to improving your brain health. There are a host of other medical sources of advice about how a good body advantages a strong brain. There is remarkably limited evidence about how physical body health influences brain health. That applies even while we know that the brain is making a significant and direct contribution to the modulation of factors that contribute to the health of every physical process and body organ.

We have scanty but dramatic evidence that the healthier the brain, the longer you live because brain health strongly impacts body health. We believe that we can train a brain in ways that strongly impact the status of the autonomic nervous system control. That control provides a primary basis of regulation of the cardiovascular system and of the health of every body organ (e.g., When ANS regulation dies or flat lines, you die. There’s new evidence in animal studies that seem to show that the neuromodulatory processes in the brain increases immune response powers in the body. Of course neurological processes very strongly regulates hormones and hormones have powerful impacts that relate to the health of every body organ. We’ve conducted studies in animals that show we can upregulate the activity of areas in the brainstem that can almost certainly contribute to the regulations and the constituencies of the biome in the gut. People don’t think of the biome to the brain influences as being a two-way street but it is. Lots of people want to argue that you need to sustain your physical fitness to have a happy brain. I argue that you almost certainly need to have a healthy brain on the path to extending the duration of your life on the planet.

hashdr4 karma

For those who can't afford BrainHQ, what other domestic methods do you suggest to make their brains perform better and repel degradation?

MichaelMerzenich5 karma

Please take a look at my response to /u/venomeater69 for natural ways to maintain your organic brain health.

We very much wish we could provide it to every citizen in the world for free and hope that at some point in the future something close to that will be achieved. A BrainHQ subscription costs about $14 a month which is not too many cups of coffee and a person can do a lot in a month. Why not think about a several week long bootcamp once or twice a year where you take full advantage of that relatively small investment. If there is a reason why someone is devoid of resources, write a note to me and I’ll try to help.

Also note that quite a few public libraries now offer BrainHQ for the citizens of their community or town for free. If you’re lucky maybe your library can provide that for you. If not, you might ask them to consider providing that service.

octopoo153 karma

Hi Dr. Merzenich!

Was wondering if you have studied brain plasticity as it relates to hearing loss. There is some interesting research regarding the reorganization of the brain following a hearing loss and following amplification. As far as I know, there is no definitive link between hearing loss and mental decrease but I am taught that a loss may in fact be linked. What is your opinion on this?


MichaelMerzenich3 karma

Actually there is quite compelling evidence that hearing loss, or the chronic tinnitus that is often associated with it, are very significant risk factors for the early onset of dementia. Language listening is obviously one of our most important sources of incoming information and play such a central role in the maintenance of our social cognition powers. As language listening and usage are degraded the higher level machinery that supports our language-related manipulations and thoughts are impacted. In hearing loss, as with almost any other serious vicissitudes, a person should be especially concerned about assuring that their life strategies include some level of natural or regular computer-based brain exercise.

When you lose your hearing, your neurological representations of language necessarily adjust and now in a sense you’re recognizing what you hear with new machinery operating in a new way. If I attempt to correct that hearing by amplifying sound, either by application of a hearing aid or by introduction of a cochlear implant, I enable a correction. However, merely amplifying sound is just stage 1 of recovery. Most people don’t realize that beyond turning on the hearing aid the brain has to make large-scale plastic readjustment to maximize effective hearing aid use. Given the hearing loss, hearing aid or cochlear implant-based correction is a very good idea. With or without that aid, continuous brain training to get the most out of your residual hearing should be a part of your life.

NotQuirkyJustAwkward3 karma

I used to be deep in the whole nutrition/homeopathy cult and now I tend to discount anything that even remotely sounds like woo. So I can't tell you how much it bothers me that every article I've seen on mindfulness meditation shows it produces positive changes in the brain as determined through fMRI studies in illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and chronic pain. Could you elaborate on how a simple exercise of consciously focusing on your breath with a quiet mind is able to change how the brain unconsciously handles business?

MichaelMerzenich4 karma

The brain has evolved strategies to control its state of arousal and alertness, flexibly living from a high-alert to a pensive thoughtful, quiet pre-sleep moment. The ideal brain can move under direct control to deal with high operational powers on either the quiet or the lively, active, noisy sides of life. Many people struggle in controlling their reactivity in managing to operate effectively in a noisy higher-anxiety world. One of my favorite studies of meditation was conducted in a wonderful laboratory at the U of Wisconsin to determine whether or not meditation altered processes that impacted anxiety or arousal in the brain. The initial study indicated that the responses recorded in practiced meditators were no different in control subjects. Surprised by this outcome, the researchers looked at the responses of individuals who sought meditation training. They immediately discovered that their machinery was distorted and sustained their ongoing higher-anxieties. When they were trained their brains were dramatically changed in the normal-ward direction. Because these shifts in neurological engagement are so powerful it’s a great advantage for a brain to be able to move at will to a quiet, uncluttered, thoughtful, highly-focused mode. If you practice this as a habit, you have the power to move from active engagement in the world to the thoughtful quiet moment. And you’re far better off for it. Not every citizen needs to engage in meditation practices but if you’re on the anxious side of life, it might be a very useful aspect of how you think about neurological self-improvement.

We’ve conducted several studies, and are conducting an ongoing study in an aging population, on the separate and integrated benefits of meditation and brain training. Everything to this point indicates that they might have even more value together. A holistic approach might be greater than the sum of the parts in at least many individuals.

abraxsis3 karma

Is there a level of plasticity that can occur outside the brain? For example, given enough time (even if longer than a typical human life span) could a paraplegic reroute certain functions via peripheral nerves to reconnect below the point of injury? I know in cases of heart blockages there is often evidence of angiogenesis trying to route blood around the blockages. Anything like this in the neural arena?

MichaelMerzenich7 karma

Of course plasticity is occurring on a substantial level within the spinal code and brainstem, that is to say below the forebrain itself. And peripheral nerves and sensory organs do have some level of regenerative power. It’s possible that some level of rerouting can occur but I can think of no illustration on a scale equivalent like that recorded in the tissues of the brain itself. I’ve long believed that it’s an understudied scientific issue. For example, we know that the quality of information from sensory receptors in the skin and internal organs progressively deteriorates as they die off at older ages. Is this die off use-dependent? Could we be doing things that better sustain them? We also know that we can recovery the integrity of the autonomic nervous system by brain exercises. Here we can see strong effects in the physical body expressed by changes in the power of actions recorded of course far outside the brain. These are not the kinds of things people have considered plastic but they clearly are.

jambig33 karma

How can I know if I'm at risk for Alzheimer's?

In my mid 30s now, and noticing I'm not remembering things as well as I used to. Not sure if this is just a normal part of aging. I've done a commercial genetic test (23andMe), which was negative for increased Alzheimer’s risk, but my understanding is that Alzheimer’s is not strongly linked genetics anyway. Is there anything else I can do to get a sense for my current brain health, and potentially spot early warning signs of dementia?

MichaelMerzenich6 karma

Almost everybody is at risk for Alzheimer’s Disease. Or to put it in another way, risk is defined by (A) genetics (B) several hundred known vicissitudes that add to your risk of onset, (C) how you live your life in relation to the health of your brain. In the last case, how do you think you stack up? If you’re like 99% of the people in the world, you don’t really know what your brain is asking you to do to sustain its health and functionality. Genetics IS important and can clearly put you in a higher risk population but genetics is rarely definitive. We know that people in very high risk populations CAN sail through to the end of a long life without falling over the cliff.

Everyone should be monitoring their brain health from at least the middle of life onward. Calibrate yourself. One way to do this is to go to and complete exercises in the speed and attention categories. See how your performance relates to other individuals of your age. More generally, you can assess your speed of operations in any task that challenges you to recognize and respond to things at high speed. If you’re fast afoot, things are probably pretty ok inside. If you’re not, think about changing your approach to life with an ongoing consideration of brain health. I offer advice about this in a book I wrote called Soft Wired which you can find on Amazon. You need to adopt a life of continuous new learning. You need to challenge your brain to improve the very elementally faculties that control the speed, accuracy, and reliability of its operations. Even if you’re very slow and losing it, the brain is usually capable of relatively strong, even dramatic, restoration. I believe that recovery of speed with sustained accuracy is a pretty strong biomarker of recovered organic brain health.

Final point: If you have confirmation that you carry the APOe4 marker, take brain health exercises especially seriously. You should be working everyday deploying strategies designed to sustain the elaborated, healthy, high-speed operation of your brain.

Ivelostmyreputation3 karma

I apologize if this is somewhat broad, but could you discuss the role of neurotrophic factors in plasticity and adult neurogenesis?

MichaelMerzenich3 karma

Neurtrophins are key enablers of plasticity and sustained brain health. Measures of neurotrophins are canaries in the coalmine for determining the physical and functional status of your brain health. In almost every clinical indication, in which people are neurologically and psychiatrically struggling, the production of these “growth factors” is downregulated. And in condition after condition, that relatively consistent finding has led to the hypothesis that that downregulation is central to all kinds of neurological weaknesses and diseases. Healthy brains make more neurotrophins. When we exercise the brain extensively, we need upregulation of neurotrophins and once it’s upregulated we see that its production is sustained over the longer term. Neurotrophins are one of the primary chemical indices we use – on that long list of chemical and physical changes in brains – to demonstrate that we have driven the brain in a positive brain-health-recovery direction.

I could of course talk about this in a lot more depth in a nerdy extension in neuroscience. If you’re interested in that ask me a follow-up question privately.

aecht3 karma

Two questions. First, what is your opinion of nature vs. nuture? Do you think we all start out with tabula rasa, or are some of our quirks pre-determined? Second (and arguably more important) question, are you a 49ers or Raiders fan? Thank you very much for your time

MichaelMerzenich6 karma

That’s a complicated issue. Of course many books have been written about this. All of your refined abilities, all of those things that define the operational person that you are have evolved in your brain by change within the course of your lifetime. On the other hand, we all inherit strengths and weaknesses that tie us to our ancestors in a broad general sense. We all operate as humans with behavioral characteristics that apply to our species of course. And humans come in lots of detailed genetic varieties. At the same time, all of those characteristics that really matter to us are pretty much elaborated, refined, put in place by the brain changing itself as a function of our experiences across the span of our lives.

I have enjoyed watching the Raiders win right up until the time they decided to move to Las Vegas. That’s when I temporarily jumped off the ship.

IamBili2 karma

What is your professional opinion, and your personal opinion, about this little corner of reddit called r/Tulpas?

MichaelMerzenich2 karma

Isn’t the brain wonderful in its ability to create powerful and elaborate constructions that seem “real”? Hey, that’s all it does. Do you think the world out in front of you, with it’s bright and dull colors, is “real”? It is in the sense that our sensory organs provide us with, if not linear, at least systematic reconstruction of its physical dimensions and qualities. In every other respect, it is a neurological fiction. One of the greatest of its fictions is you. Isn’t it also great that it can attach you so strongly to the other fictional characters that you love (of course they have a physical atomic reality)? Do you want to create another one that has no physical atomic reality? That’s OK by me.

Brain plasticity applies to “mental actions” just as well as it applies to your operations in interaction with the physical world. When I rehearse my part in life’s drama I am changing by brain of course. Just as I change it I systematically improve my ability to use a tool or master a craft. It’s all plastic.

starkshouse2 karma

In terms of brain plasticity, what features must an artificially intelligent neural network be capable of to model the brains capability to adapt to the stimulus or environment with such efficiency?

MichaelMerzenich3 karma

You ask a deep question that is difficult to answer in a few lines. It is difficult for us to know how open the simulation of the characteristics of an operational brain might be with a retention of its fundamental, almost unbelievable, powers. One class have thought about it and have attempted to construct artificially intelligent machines that operate very much like brains, with similar component processors and areas and devolution of actions. If you think about artificial intelligence as to produce a machine, that is equivalent to the human brain and its operational powers, then you can define a set of governing principles on a systems organization level that would need to be in place to make the machine work like the human brain. I view the models created by individuals like Jeff Hawkins at Numenta as representing an attempt to produce a machine in this form. At the same time, I have a strong personal suspicion that we could define the governing principles through some complex series of equations that someone could write down on a chalkboard and duplicate its powers in alternate ways. It is a little like imagining whether an evolved intelligence on another planet might have exactly the same form. But perhaps, in detail, outcomes substantially different detailed solutions, on the path to develop its evolutionary powers.

Great fun to think about! No clear answers here, pal. Maybe you are the individual who will sort it all out.

audrikr2 karma

Does your work in neuroplasticity extend to the idea of changing from a "talent" to a "growth" mindset, or is it more concerned with actual medical conditions like Alzheimer's? If it does extend that far, do you have any advice?

MichaelMerzenich2 karma

Neuroplasticity has created within your skull that person that is you by massive schedules of change up to this point in your life. It has provided you with a machine that is the basis of you and that is absolutely unique in the world because it has been created through quadrillions of moments of change. You are incredibly highly specialized in all kinds of ways. There has never been anyone else in the world in its long history exactly like you and there will never be another. Still, you are a work in progress. Do you want to change what you are? Or how you operate? Or what you’re good at? Go for it. Dramatic transformation can often be achieved at any age. Many individuals squander this great human gift.

Many people seem to be endowed with special talents or abilities. It’s difficult to sort out the contributions on the path to special talent that come from life’s experiences from variations in genetics. But one thing that is certain is that high achievement in any domain is dependent on a heavy level of directed practice. That directed practice is all about changing, strengthening, refining, and increasing the power of that machine controlling those special abilities. No great artist, no great athlete, no great inventor arrives at that position of high achievement without a long history of progressive history of refinement and growth in their power. You distinguish growth from talent. I say talent is a product of growth. Growth is a requisite of talent.

ThecatcherandtheY2 karma

Dr. Merzenich, At the age of 19 I contracted viral Encephlomyelitis from a presumed enteroviral source. It was a long and ardorous healing process, and I can tell it made changes to my memory. My visual memory seems to be taking over for the pneumonic memory. (I now recall test material better by "reading the words in the textbook again in my minds eye" during tests, as opposed to word memorization, which mine has deteriorated.)

My question is, can neuroplasticity be jump started by inflammatory challenges such as encephalitis?

MichaelMerzenich3 karma

We have studied brains that have suffered diffuse broad damage in an attempt to try and understand plastic changes associated with brain poisoning (e.g., PCBs, antipsychotic meds, antidepressants, chemotherapeutic meds, heavy metals, and brain infections like meningitis, encephalitis, cerebral malaria, tick diseases, et alia). We’ve also supported training studies conducted in a number of these populations including large trials in Canada and in the U.S. in individuals that have brains affected by HIV/AIDS, brains treated with chemotherapeutic drugs, and brains altered by very diffuse head injury (e.g., as occurs in professional contract-sports athletes). In all such instances, as has been well documented, almost every aspect of brain function is degraded by the infection or poison, although there is some differentiation by condition as a function of the specific drug, poison, viral or bacterial agent. Virtually every change that is expressed negatively can be improved by reengagement. It’s all plastic. These changes are best documented in breast cancer survivors where the “brain fog” induced by chemo has been described in controlled trials as almost completely overcome by intensive training. Importantly, in the largest and most controlled by these trials, the women who participated actually continued to improve substantially to achieve above-normal performance in a non-training period after an initial intense training epoch. Scientists have also recorded strong recovery of function in individuals whose brains have been broadly impacted by HIV/AIDS infections. In these and other studies, imaging and brain recording measures confirm a substantial physical restoration of brain health in these damaged-brain individuals.

It should be noted that when you have a history of brain infection or brain poisoning, that’s another of a long list of unfortunate set of happenstances that should focus some of your attention on brain health pretty much for the rest of your life.

Beto19892 karma

I collaborate with an organization that works on the social and job inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities. I am a computer programmer and I am in charge of the IT workshop. I would like to know if games like puzzles, Labyrinths or finding the differences between two images can be useful to keep their brains more agile or they just get better at those games. Do you have any other suggestion on how to use IT to help people with intellectual disabilities? Thank you very much and sorry if I make any grammar mistakes or something I wrote doesn't make sense. I'm not an English native speaker.

MichaelMerzenich2 karma

The evidence indicates that these forms of brain exercise have limited generalized value. On the one hand, a brain that is operating with strong effective feedforward information to the levels of the brain where you manipulate that information through the “executive control” processes must of course elaborate those control processes by brain exercise. Anyone can achieve that by practicing a particular form of problem-solving by looking and practicing strategies for ultimate thinking, by practicing strategies that rapidly change a frame of reference, or by adapting to changing rules, etc. In all of those complex operational abilities the brain-plasticity acquired skills do not broadly generalize to other abilities. In a sense, the most elemental aspects of processing, when they are improved, have bigger generalized impact because they affect EVERY higher-order process. For example, if I very accurately resolve information received by listening, representing it now in a crystal-clear, highly-salient way though progressive training, then every use of that information at every higher brain level will be more effective. And in fact, that elementary speed of operation will impact the speed and accuracy of every higher process. So now in any complex brain operation making use of that information, measurable empowerment has occurred.

As scientists have thought about this historically, it has been very natural to focus on training to the fault. “Eddie can’t solve problems,” the scientist says, so “Eddie need to practice problem-solving.” What Eddie really needs to practice is the construction of the foundation skills that underlie problem-solving. Those skills and abilities are not nearly so self-evident. Please contact me if you would like more explanation about how you might address the training of those more elemental abilities.

joyousheart772 karma

For years, I have diligently recorded my night dreams in order to try to interpret them and learn from them, especially with regard to the emotions they reveal; what is your belief, experience and approach to the use of night dreams in changing emotional patterns in the brain?

MichaelMerzenich5 karma

We know two things happen in sleep. By one process you are reinforcing changes that have occurred in experience in learning from the previous day in ways that reinforce a permanent record. But in dreaming sleep you’re probably primarily taking out the garbage for events that occurred in the previous day that are being removed or weakened from the permanent record (i.e., strengthening the good things and weakening what’s not valuable to save). Understand that this is an interpretation on my part of a complex scientific literature. On my part, I prefer to look at my sometimes-troubling dreaming as amusing and I hope they simply mean that somebody is doing a good job of taking out the trash.

marynx2 karma

How much do you think that genetics play a role in the overall brain functions? I know people that smoked , drank and ate extremely unhealthy diets for most of their lives . They still do that and they are doing pretty well (keep in mind they are over 50 years of age) .No symptoms of Alzheimer's or Parkinson's , no strokes or heart problems.

Another question I got for you is why clearing amyloid plaques would not restore cognitive functions? Wouldn't BDNF and NGF injections (plus brain exercise) help partially restore these functions once (or at least create new ones which can relieve some of the damage done by the disease) all amyloid plaques got cleared?

Also... There has been a ton of research focused on psychedelics ultimately. Do you think LSD got any potential in helping with brain plasticity? Maybe combined with specific brain exercises?

MichaelMerzenich3 karma

A brain full of amyloid plaques has undergone massive physical change. Large numbers of neurons have died, there has been a great degree of connectional simplification with the highest of brain levels substantially offline, the machinery for controlling brain change and sustaining brain health is grossly dysfunctional, and the physical brain has shrunken ultimately dramatically. In many failed drug trials, scientists have sought ways to get rid of amyloid plaques, believing that they are an active source of disruption. But actually, once expressed most of the damage is done. The only possibility of substantial recovery of function would require the regeneration, regrowth, and restoration of recovery of all of that lost connectivity. Moreover, now it must be achieved with sparser, dis-elaborated, constituent neuronal populations. A massive amount of corrective change must be made. That’s why any truly informed integrative neuroscientist knew well in advance that the drug trials targeting amyloid bodies designed to erase them or stop their formation would not change the performance characteristics of the already-damaged brain. The notion that you would wake up after taking a drug in significantly better shape is ridiculous. 450 times drug companies have staked their fortunes on drugs that do something like this in AD-infected brains. The current success rate in these trials is 0/450.

Something is wrong in Denmark.

You’ve initially asked about genetics and their importance, and of course they are important. Good genes are a good thing. Bad genes are unlucky, of course. People with good genes still often end up in the home. People with lots against them often live longer, better, more successful, and healthier lives. Because your brain is plastic, whether you have good genes are not and because brain use related to brain health is under your control, YOUR actions make all the difference. Your job, regardless of how you think the likely power of your genetics, is to make the most out of your life (your brain) in any event. Too many people sit back and say “I have good genes” even while their brain is slowly going to hell. Too many people mope “I have bad genes” even while they could be doing a lot to make their life next year a very much better one.

A final brief point: yes, upregulating BDNF and engaging the brain is an emphasized strategy for recovery. At the same time, training itself results in BDNF upregulation. You probably don’t really have to take the shot.

Kyzzyxx2 karma

I agree with you 99% (I don't believe anything 100%, even that I am sitting here typing this). Here is my experience why:

I smoke pot and back on a day in 1983 I started thinking about how often I smoke weed and then fall asleep. I started thinking about how much money I was wasting, and every other con, to getting high and then falling asleep. It bugged me all day. It was like the worst case of a song being stuck in your head. I couldn't stop thinking about that singular issue. After that day forward, whenever I smoke pot, I would get hyper. I would have a tremendous drive to get up and do something. Falling asleep was not possible.

That experience has taught me how to use plasticity as a tool for rewiring my brain, pretty much, at will. You mention the "power to throw the plasticity switch from ‘decline’ to ‘grow.’" I contend that it is more than just a general on/off switch, and that it is an actual process anyone can learn to use to,essentially, re-program their brain at will. Do you have any experience with similar scenarios like this during your research and/or have you considered this as a possibility and/or what is your experience with it, if so?

Keep pushing on!

Followup: After several years it started to decline. After a couple decades it got to the point where I didn't fall asleep, but I would not get hyper either. After another couple decades it is just now starting to get to the point where I can fall asleep while high, but that could also be cause I am just getting old.

EDIT: This AMA deserves a lot more attention than it is getting

MichaelMerzenich2 karma

I enjoyed reading your personal narrative. I’m not certain that I could provide any deep scientific interpretation of what you have established to be a valuable level of neurological control. Sounds like the basis of an interesting experiment!

On some level, you’ve conditioned your responses in a way that established a strong new level of control, presumably broadly expressed across your brain. We all have within us the capability of changing brain states relatively rapidly from the quiet to the active, from the active to the calm. You have obviously sorted out how to achieve this at will. Way to go.

SupaMonkee1 karma

What are you thoughts on tinnitus and brain plasticity?

MichaelMerzenich2 karma

Most people don’t realize that 1 in 10 of their fellow citizens has to live with chronic tinnitus and that for several million Americans tinnitus is a source of almost-continuous distress. Most people don’t realize that something as seemingly innocuous as ringing of your ears can destroy a life, degrade performance on the job, disrupt sleep, drive emotional and psychiatric changes, and accelerate a progression to dementia. Most people don’t realize that a large proportion of individuals who serve in the military or who are working life as police officers, are at especially high risk for tinnitus onset.

Trials have been conducted by an independent scientist, Jay Picarillo, from Wash U using our listening training programs. About half of the trained people have better control over their tinnitus and those individuals expressed strong gratitude for having established that control even while the magnitude of the tinnitus was unaffected. Because they can put it out of mind at will, they can live and sleep with it and this is a great relief to them. Although almost all say they would do it again, there is a subclass that showed little or no benefit from this intensive training. We are now revising our training strategies because we think we should be able to impact it more powerfully and help more people escape from the clutches of tinnitus.

I’m also excited by studies being led by a former fellow of mine (Michael Kilgard at UT-Dallas) who has been amplifying learning strategies to try and drive stronger and faster brain-plasticity based changes in tinnitus suffers. Maybe he’ll come up with the true answer. In any event he and we know that this population represents a very important target for brain-plasticity based therapeutics. If there is nothing else for you to do with your present tinnitus, do what Dr. Picarillo did in his outcome trial. Do 40 hours of training on the Auditory Intensive training suite. There’s about a 50/50 chance that it will make a big difference in improving your control of the ringing or noises. These scientists showed that even individuals that did not have significant benefits in establishing better control of their tinnitus had at least modest improvement in brain connectivity which were in a normalizing (albeit, still far from perfect) direction.

Here are the details of the paper:

jo_annev1 karma

Thank you for this AMA and for your work, and for your perseverance in getting this information known throughout the years.

I have sleep apnea (I am not the stereotypical person that has it) and almost died from empyema as a baby (I suspect they all may have an effect on my brain). My memory is noticibly worse the last few years and I'm in my 50's.

I am my mother's sole caregiver (her dementia is getting much worse and she is often angry). I would like the chance at a better life after. I'm upset and scared, I really had hopes for more education, etc., in the future, but worry this is all slipping away.

I tried BrainHQ last night but even the free parts won't load on my older phone. I can't afford a new phone nor the paid part of the program.

PLEASE tell me other courses of action--other similar programs more accessible to me, supplements, and other activities. I am just starting to feel like I'm worth it and am interested in improving myself and giving myself a better future. I am trying to take better care of myself and improve my brain.

What are all of the things I can and should do, please?

Many thanks in advance!!

serotoninlover1 karma

In your opinion, what is the best medical approach for repairing complex neural circuits(in the CNS)? The one that's most deserving of research. Can you elaborate on neural precursor transplants and the role of NOGO in this scenario? Also, do we know the mechanism of how newly generated neurones(from the dentate gyrus) are able to be integrated i in the surrounding neuronal circuitry?

Thank you for this AMA

MichaelMerzenich2 karma

There is long standing dream that damaged brains, or very abnormally developing brains, can be positively modified by neuro tissue transplantation or by promoting new cell growth in dead or damaged or underperforming tissue. There os a long list of studies that demonstrate the feasibility of such transplantation and that indicate that they can have positive restorative impacts. Once implanted in their new environments, plasticity processes can contribute to their incorporation into the neurological machinery that has received them to some extent. Of course, complete restoration of functionality necessarily requires that they are engaged in natural, or programmed behaviors, that drive them in a renormalized status. Put another way, transplantation alone can never be effective. Plasticity processes have to come into play to make the transplanted tissue useful and to incorporate it as an agent in normal brain function. There has been a long, slow, painful process involved in reducing these strategies to practice in ways that significantly impact wounded human brains. Still, one has the believe that these strategies will be a part of our medical future for restoring functionality in brains that have lost critical brain tissue.


Hi Dr Merzenich, im asking myself how much information a human brain can handle? and what happens when it reach the limit if there is one.

Greetings from spain

MichaelMerzenich2 karma

You remind me of a famous cartoon of a child sitting at the front of his class, raising his hand, with the caption: “Mr. Shultz? I think my brain is full”.

I don’t think you’re in any danger of overfilling your own cerebral vessel.

Seriously, you have an enormous capacity for acquiring new skills and abilities and for loading your neurological encyclopedia with massive amounts of information. I strongly suggest that you take on these personally empowering activities with the greatest of earnestness.

mvandeu0001 karma

Hello Dr. Merzenich. Can neural feedback sessions correct ASD and ADHD symptoms in adolescents? What is your view of the Qeeg as a valid test for understanding what aspects of the brain need treatment?

MichaelMerzenich1 karma

The scientific reviews about the clinical uses of biofeedback for individuals with ADHD and ASD are mixed. Some reviews strongly support arguments about its effectiveness; an equally large number emphasis its lack of impacts in these and other subject populations. In my view, it is still somewhat of an art form; in the hands of an enlightened practitioner, it may be very beneficial. But how do you know that your child has been delivered to an enlightened practitioner? That remains a problem.

On the one hand, it would appear that in the right hands, biofeedback strategies can improve the control abilities that relate to ADHD. Things are a little more obscure for ASD, and it is more difficult to talk about it because the expressions of deficits in the ASD cohort are so dramatically variable. Biofeedback specialists have begun to use elementary strategies to map strengths of connectivity in brain systems as a source of insight for clinical manipulation (qEEG). It is too early to evaluate the practical utility of this integrated approach. At the same time, hypothetically, looking at connectivity maps is a not unreasonable initial strategy for generating a first-level understanding of neurological strengths and weaknesses. These strategies are rapidly evolving in application, and are likely to be more widely and intensively used in the immediate future.

joyousheart771 karma

Do you largely concur with Dr. Sarno’s work regarding the brain and pain? If not, why not? To drill down a bit, some of us who have applied his insights about the brain and have experienced much less pain for months will inexplicably relapse into pain and then get stuck, unable to successfully apply the principles that seemed to work earlier; do you have any insights or suggestions to address this dilemma from a neuroplasticity perspective?

MichaelMerzenich3 karma

As you know Dr. Sarno was a controversial physician who argued that chronic pain was powerfully contributed to by an anxious demeanor or personality. That it could be an exaggerated outcome of uncontrolled or unrepressed anxieties or worries. This perspective stems from studies that began to emerge in the second World War that strongly argued that pain is powerfully modulated by context. For example, severe wounding on the battle field could be a good thing if it translated into survival and going home to your family. The same wound in a homeland factory could be devastating where job loss meant deep family troubles. The wounded soldier didn’t hurt nearly so much as the wounded civilian. We know that there are powerful processes in the brain / plastic processes that can contribute to and sustain pain genesis or that can contribute to pain suppression. Dr. Sarno probably exaggerated the cure-all nature of this therapies but it’s generally that this class of therapy helps many people and that the help can be transformational.

Chronic pain has a plasticity-based origin. When a painful source of information comes from the body, roaring activity from the source of the pain degrades the representation of innocuous inputs from that body region. The machinery of the brain is unstable and oscillates and that oscillatory activity is sine qua non with pain. When it’s there, you hurt. When it’s not there, you don't. This degradation can actually be amplified. It can grow by continuously reliving and reimagining it (i.e., practiced suffering) to extend beyond the insult itself by plastic changes that arise in the brain. It can clearly be related to the anxiety and other factors emphasized by Dr. Sarno. Through growth the pain can achieve a life of its own long after the source of the pain has been eliminated. In my view, Dr. Sarno was a little reckless, perhaps, but he was also quite a bit ahead of his time.

noizewerk1 karma

You mention that the brain has several stages of change during the course of a lifespan. I have seen imaging videos of a dramatic pruning process occurring during the teenage years that is a natural function of every human brain. Jung mentioned the midlife of a person is a peak moment for embracing elements of themselves neglected through the first half of their life, typically instigated by a sense of dissatisfaction. What other essential stages are there if any, and how might they be managed effectively?

MichaelMerzenich3 karma

I do not think of brain development as staged. I think of it as continuous and progressive from the beginning of around the third trimester in the womb to the date of death. What occurs in a teenage/young adult brain is a late stage of progressive, advancing change where the brain finally has the power to command control of the “highest” levels of operation. Once it engages these highest levels it changes their operations in ways that confer reliability and control. And one expression of those changes is “pruning”. Of course in different individuals the timing of these changes can be very different. Many brains arrive at this relatively complete state of personal evolution at a young age. Others never get there.

In the development of your neurological powers, the brain plastically organizes itself on the basis of the strength of correlation of local activities. It first has the power to organize cerebral-cortical systems where information first enters the cerebral cortex but it has to strengthen and refine through plastic remodeling the way it represents the information in detail before it can effectively engage machinery at the next higher brain level. It plasticity changes in ways that increases its reliability and that increases the power of its cooperative actions level by level by level until it reaches a peak performance epoch. In most brains, this is sometimes in the third decade of life. It’s continuous process. The process continues past that third decade in a more highly variable way as a function of how you live your older life. Most individuals move from a growth period to a progressively declining functional epoch that extends roughly from the 30th birthday to when they die. Because the brain is continuously plastic this does not have to happen. Continuing growth is possible. Sustaining those high levels close to the end of life is achievable. The brain does not have to go backward in the direction it come from so that as you age you are more like the baby that came into the world long back in your personal history.

Franz321 karma

Can a neurological condition like ASD impact neuroplasticity (or vice versa)? If so, how?

MichaelMerzenich1 karma

Scientists have extensively studied the genetic bases of ASD and they have shown that it can involve aspects of the plasticity processes themselves. Because the genetics of origin of ASD are so complicated it is not at all clear that this is always the case but we know that it can apply in some ASD individuals. At the same time, ASD individuals have very plastic brains. Plasticity is the brain’s big trick and it takes a lot to completely block or frustrate it. We’ve trained tens of thousands of individuals in the ASD spectrum using our computer-based training strategies and we’ve been repeatedly struck by their capacity to learn, advance, and improve in their operational abilities for the better. Sometimes these changes are completely transformative. They’re almost always helpful. There aren’t very many brains in the world in which plasticity cannot by engaged to change a life very much for the better.

You can send me a note for more details if you have a specific subclass of ASD in mind.

Edit: added last sentence.

taspts1 karma

I do my own neurorehab using physical activity and using my own system for biofeedback (Heart Rate, skin respons, Blood glycos,muscle control) and I notice a correlation between having a sharp mind and getting better muscle control or not being able to think and no power to the muscles.

Basically I use existing physical activities with a different low load profile short duration, pacing, Heart Rate zone and daily repetition combined with extreme loading that forces shutdown muscles to engage.

Does it exits "neuro plastic" research that evaluate best practice physical training methods ?

My ANS function is effected and my sensory brain / vision/hearing is a limiting factor. Adjusted physical activity reduces pain and stiffness for me. How can physical activity/training replace computer based for brain plasticity training?

MichaelMerzenich3 karma

I strongly believe that time best spend from a brain perspective are exercises in which you’re increasing the power of the brain to control your physical actions. The brain’s role in your physical life is as a master controller of moving and acting. The more you can elaborate those powers while you’re engaging yourself physically, the better. A more common physical exercise strategy is to pound on aerobics with exercise machines that actually promote stereotypical actions and control. Unfortunately, you’re repeating the same cycle of movements over and over. It’s better to master highly flexible control because that’s the form of engagement, command, and control that you brain was actually designed for. You want to engage your body at every speed and position possible. Go off-trail biking or skiing, walk barefoot across an uneven landscape, play a net game that increases in speed and difficulty. Any exercise form in which your movements begin slow and ultimately become fast and elaborated will help. At the same time, physical exercise does not provide all of the brain exercise that you need.

People that have substantial visual or auditory impairment are limited in the capacity to change their brain for the better, just like people who can’t control their actions. Every individual who finds themselves in this situation has to take brain exercises especially seriously. It’s wonderful that you instinctively understand this and are acting upon it on the basis of that understanding. Keep it up.

P.S. If you tell me a little bit more about the nature of your visual and auditory impairment then I may be able to provide additional information.

wallesis1 karma

What do you think of neuroprotective mechanisms following injury to the brain? Be it a concussion, stroke, or cardiac arrest, there have been studies showing a delayed onset of symptoms, approximately a day or two after injury. How do you think the brain is responding to this? Or, why do you think this delay happens? Sorry if this is too broad. Thanks!

MichaelMerzenich2 karma

When you have a concussive injury, or a stroke, or often when you have a heart attack or heart failure, or spend a period in the ICU of a day or more and you suffer from delirium, these are commonly expressed by a compromise of the blood-brain barrier. The blood-brain barrier seals off the brain compartment from the blood compartment, which is important for brain function in two ways. First, chemical agents from blood change the excitability of brain tissues, and thereby disable them functionally. They radically increase the noisiness of the brain and the brain rapidly adjusts to this change by plastically changing its speed of operations. In all of these conditions, brain slowing is the signature aspect of the incurred impairments. It has to slow down to sustain control. A break in the blood brain barrier also enables the passage of infectious agents from blood to directly enter brain tissue. The brain responds by walling off viruses and bacteria, with amyloid – a natural brain chemical which helps protect the brain. Unfortunately, by that protection, it creates an inclusion called an amyloid body, which is a forerunner—an expression – of impending Alzheimer’s disease. This is why all of these conditions increase the risk of an earlier onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Basically, especially in older brains, they initiate the processes that put it into play. It is very important that you do whatever you can to sustain the integrity of your blood brain barrier!

We are conducting trials at Vanderbilt University in which we are trying to help people who have a scheduled serious surgical procedure in which we anticipate a likely compromise of their blood-brain barrier. We know that the barrier is plastic, and we know that we can probably increase its resilience to breakdown when it is put through the strings of a long and elaborate surgical operation. We will know soon whether we can decrease the probability of its compromise as a consequence of an individual going through this body and brain altering experience. We have also been applying training in individuals that have suffered from concussion and stroke as well as individuals who have been through a period of delirium in ICU, with one of our objectives being the restoration of the integrity of the blood brain barrier.

When most people think about brain remodeling or brain recovery conferred by intensive training, they think about it in neurological terms. It turns out that something is different about a relationship between the vascular supply to the tissue to the brain and the brain tissues themselves is also plastic, and can be very positively impacted by the right forms of intensive training. In an individual that is struggling because of such a history, the training has a dual purpose: a recovering high speed, high accuracy performance characteristics, and restoring this very special vascular to brain tissue relationship.

the_schmeez1 karma

My grandpa has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's/ Dementia. It has been tearing me up because I live so far away that I can rarely get down to see him. Because of that, he doesn't see my wife and I that often. He recognizes her but not me. Is there anything that I can do to help him?

Also, how is it that he can recognize my wife who he has known for 7 years but not me, who he has known my whole life, 27 years?

MichaelMerzenich2 karma

The usual case in Alzheimer’s disease is to lose the memory of people in reverse order of their appearance in life. In my case, my mother with Alzheimer’s disease, lost her memory of her youngest child first, and the oldest child last. However, as in your case, there was a wonderful exception to this. I remember about a year before my mother died, sitting with her, holding her hand, in the middle of a conversation in which she had not the slightest idea who I was. She looked over my shoulder, directly into the face of my wife Dianne, and asked with a quizzical smile, “Didn’t you marry one of my sons?” I am convinced that she remembered my wife because she had such a deep affection for her. Perhaps that unexpected ability to remember has a similar explanation in your own lives.

sheeplysheepus1 karma

In the early days of your research, the accepted idea was that the brain was static and that the only change in structure and function that occurred during mid-late life was degeneration. What was some of the early evidence and findings that led to the acceptance of the idea of neuroplasticity? What made you go against the largely accepted school of thought?

MichaelMerzenich3 karma

First of all, there were prior studies conducted primarily in the domain of physiological psychology that argued contrary to the predominant view that the brain was continuously plastic. They just weren’t taken very seriously by the neuroscientific mainstream. My transformation came from two sources: a research team that I lead at the University of California contributed to the invention of a device called the cochlear implant and we realized in its application that what can appear to be an almost miraculous recovery in listening ability must be attributed to brain remodeling. These devices shocked the sector of the hearing range that normally only represents highest frequency sounds with only a very crude simulation of the normal patterns of input representing intelligible speech. Not surprisingly, the speech that most individuals initially heard was very degraded. In time, a miracle occurred. They heard everything. And, they described what they heard as sounding completely natural, just as it sounded before they lost their hearing. This was not a miracle accounted for by our engineering. The brain did it by changing itself to account for this recovered power.

In parallel, we were conducting studies on the basic organization of great sensory systems of the brain and very early on showed that the changes that occurred following damage to a peripheral nerve innervating the hand manifested powerful adult brain remodeling. We quite quickly showed that we could drive such changes very easily by manipulating inputs from the skin, or by training in an animal of any age. That led us to conduct studies in which we trained animals to define the rules that govern plastic change. We saw that plasticity was rule-based, and following those rules, we could change the brain positively or negatively in performance and in its operational powers at will.

After a long series of studies designed to optimize this level of control, we have looked for models in which we could translate this science out into the world, to the benefit of struggling human populations. Initial focus was on children that struggle in their language abilities, and struggled to learn to read, and struggle in their cognitive development in school. Up to this point, we have trained more than 6 million such children in American public schools. Our interest then turned to individuals in the adult world, in adult populations, who acquire problems in life, expressed as psychiatric illness, or neurological injury or illness. Because everyone’s brain is plastic, every individual that struggles on planet earth can improve their functional abilities and brain health through appropriate forms of intensive brain remodeling.

Finally, it is not just about the struggling. It is about every one of us. It is about every individual making the most out of life. About working to improve their operational performance abilities; on the job, in life, in the things that matter to them. It includes you.

aVeryTinySmallSnake1 karma

Dr. Merzenich, thank you for doing this AMA and offering your knowledge to those of us with questions. What are some practices, in your scientific opinion, that the average person could do to combat the future possibility of Alzheimer's, as well as cultivate life long brain health from an early age? Also, a bit more of a generic question, what is the biggest breakthrough you personally have discovered and how did it change/affect your research? Also also, would it ever be within the realm of possibility to obtain an autographed copy of one of your books, Soft Wired?

MichaelMerzenich3 karma

Like most professors, I was recently asked to summarize my primary research achievements over the course of my life. I identified the most important as the discovery that in plasticity processes, when you gauge the brain following well-understood plasticity rules, everything changes positively. In practice, we discovered that changing everything requires two different forms of engagement. In the same way, by following those rules, I can throw the switch in the other direction, and everything changes negatively. By simply modifying intensive training strategies, I can drive brain health broadly, in every measured dimension in a positive or alternatively in a negative direction. The training programs that we applied therapeutically in our intensive computerized training strategies are obviously designed to throw that switch up. What should you do to live life to the advantage of your brain? Use it! In ways that continually elaborate, grow, and strengthen your performance abilities. Think of a life of continuous new learning—and in new learning, I don’t mean just continuous book learning, but rather continuous skill learning and acquisition. Challenge yourself. Remember that the brain only changes in ways which matter to it.
You want to exercise brain abilities at speed, in fact, you want to master their performance at any speed in rich and elaborative ways, in all of the domains that apply for a powerful brain. It is important for you to understand that high performance requires refined operational capacities at every functional level. Your brain must very accurately resolve the details of incoming information—from the skin, ears, eyes, olfaction and taste. It’s resolving powers are highly plastic, and can be refined by intensive practice habits and use. One useful way to achieve this is by engaging in exercises or games or activities that challenge you to improve your elemental faculties. From what is initially a relatively undemanding performance level, to ultimately a very highly demanding performance level or achievement. So, moving across the continuum of performance domains that carry from crude amateur level to sophisticated level; be it mental, let’s say chess--or physical, like ping pong-- or multimodal, like activities in different languages, or in music – there are many ways in which you can elaborate your brain and mental power and abilities over the span of your life. Most of all, never just rest on your laurels and imagine that all will be well if you just take it easy. Life from the perspective of brain health is meant to be just a little bit challenging. I strongly recommend that you don’t give up on it and allow your brain to fall into a state of disrepair, then ruin.

Edit: Sure, I'll send you an autographed copy. PM your mailing address.

CsillaKC1 karma

Can you comment on how your findings could help improve brains of those with some form of addition? (alcohol, drug, video games,...) Given some research indicates their ability to reason diminishes. thank you

MichaelMerzenich2 karma

There are three aspects of related science in play that I can comment about. First, we know that a brain that has not evolved highly stable operations puts its owner at high risk for onset of a serious addiction. For example, children that have multiple adverse childhood experiences are delayed in their development and are left with brains that are commonly attentionally impaired. They struggle to control the child’s impulses. They struggle to suppress inappropriate responding. If a child in their early life has four categories of adverse childhood experiences against them, as shown by the Kaiser Health Initiative Research, they are 15 times more likely to develop a serious addiction as a teenager or young adult. So, the first line of attack in addressing issues of addiction are to strengthen those brains in ways that reduce the probability that addiction will be in such a child’s future. Second, we have been training individuals in small studies with ongoing addictions of alcohol or drugs and we now know that we can plastically drive changes in the brain that can plausibly help in recovery. For example, we have preliminarily shown that we can reduce craving for the addicted substance. It should be understood that we do not view brain training alone as likely to be effective in addiction related therapy because we think other life coaching and other cognitive and social therapeutic strategies almost certainly have to come into play.

Finally, the chronic addict has neurological changes that arise in their brain as a consequence of the addiction. Those changes weaken an individual operationally in elementary and in complex higher order processes. For example, ultimately, they slow down the brain and impair the individual’s cognitive and other abilities. Ultimately, they distort the machinery that contributes centrally to the individual’s sense of well-being and happiness. Things that should be central in the individual’s life and affections (like their marriage partner, or their child, or the natural beauties of life) can be weak as rewarding or stimulating sources of experience for them. And, the rebalancing and recovery of the rewards of these abilities is a very valuable aspect of recovery.

Scientists have shown that improvements in cognitive status resulting from therapy, directly predict that the person will stay off the drug or the alcohol once they leave the clinic and recovery of their attachment to the people that are at the core of their lives. Again, brain training and exercise in the appropriate forms can contribute to the recovery of these lost or degraded faculties.

robinmood1 karma

Thank you, sir, for this amazing post. What can be done regarding anger? Is this an inherited characteristic?

MichaelMerzenich3 karma

Anger is out of the immediate realm of my expertise. We commonly measure responses that relate to anger in individuals that we are trying to help. In general, we know that uncontrolled anger responses and expressions of hyper-reactivity emerge from the emotional control machinery of the brain, from the amygdala and the structures that feed it. This machinery can be quieted by specific forms of training. We apply that training, for example, in “wild children”, who cannot be sustained in a conventional home or foster care home because of their inherent strong emotional instability. “Mad all the time” or maybe more correctly, “upset all the time”, can describe many such children. In studies that we have supported in Australia, for example, the trainees are children who, because they have been in more than five foster care homes in the previous year, have been taken from them to live in a group facility where they can be minded 24 hours a day because of their ongoing, almost complete lack of personal control. Even in these extreme cases, these children’s brains can be plastically changed to get them past this completely self-defeating epoch in their life, in the great majority of cases.

What does it take to do that? First, we apply the kind of calming strategies that are commonly expressed within the science of meditation. Children are trained to understand that their brain is responsible and is highjacking them when they have an angry, out of control episode. That they simply must wait until it passes, until the brain storm, in their amygdala, moves out over the horizon again. Children are also trained in ways that are designed to positively reconnect them to other people, and to more accurately interpret where other people are coming from emotionally, that commonly lead to their misinterpretations that lead to their anger responses. I know this is probably not a very direct answer to your question about your own anger and the way it arises within you, but what I know for sure is that your angry moments are also subject to plastic modification. That you, too, can learn to wait until the storm passes. That you, too, can change your brain, and how you interpret the actions of others that reduce the probability that you respond inappropriately so often.

One last point. If, at some point in life, I poke my finger in your eye every so often, you might be inclined later in life to a bit more prone to be angry every once in a while. It’s very possible that in your early life, maybe without you knowing it, someone was poking a finger in your eye pretty regularly. It doesn’t actually have to be an outside agency, because you can often do the poking. When a child goes to school and is bullied or doesn’t do well in school, or feels inadequate or friendless, they can be poking their own eye. Something like this in your life might be the true origin of the moments of anger that are expressed later in life. Thank goodness you have a plastic brain, because if you live your whole life without doing something about it, shame on you!

assnate1 karma

You don't literally mean the eye poking, do you?

MichaelMerzenich2 karma

No, I do not literally mean eye-poking. I mean generating high-level stress in your life by their actions. Maybe they’re bullying you, maybe they’re abusing you, maybe they’re punishing you when it's not fair, maybe you know or believe the teacher thinks you’re a little loser, maybe no one wants to be your friend, maybe your mom wishes you weren’t underfoot, maybe things are really going badly almost everyday in the home you live in. All of things fall within my eye-poking category.

JDSwinn1 karma

Hi, Dr Merzenich. I am a student practitioner of The Anat Baniel Method. I have heard you speak a couple of times. The last time I heard you speak, you were talking about reversing the negative brain changes that come with age. At the end of your lecture you said something to the effect of - What can change in the brain? Everything. - I was very encouraged, particularly because I have a 3 year old with an intellectual disability, due to a chromosomal deletion (5p minus syndrome). My question to you is, do you think that it is possible for a child with a genetic syndrome's brain to make the same type of changes, to the point where there is no longer an intellectual disability? Many thanks.

MichaelMerzenich3 karma

We have been interested in this specific deletion syndrome because it is of a not-infrequent occurrence, and because the expressions of ASD that arise from it are so dramatically variable. We have actually used computerized assessments to evaluate nearly 50 different elemental neurological faculties in children with this deletion to try to create a profile that was intended to describe what is common to all of these kids. What we see, in fact, is extraordinary diversity in the expression of deficits in this very intriguing child population. They raise the question: how can the same genetic deletion result in differences in phenotype that result in relatively mild to relatively severe cognitive impacts – a child that may be very “autistic” to only relatively mildly impacted?

There is an underlying related second question, and that is that we know that autism is strongly inherited; more than 70% of children with ASD with an identical twin, share ASD with that twin; but on the other hand, around 30% do not. So, how can it be that two genetically identical individuals with a strongly inherited disease, can differ so dramatically? One child, strongly negatively impacted; the second, primarily merely language delayed and impaired? This is a question that has interested my colleagues and I for a very long time. We have tried to address it in two ways. The first thing that we have tried to ask is, do these children have brains that have the normal capacities for improvement or change that apply for non-ASD children? While the plasticity control processes may differ in some ways, we have repeatedly seen that the brains of these children are highly plastic – just as in any other kid.

Second, we try to understand what the basis might be for the expression of a strong negative phenotype in one child genetically equivalent to a second child in which the phenotypic ASD is weak. To study this, we created an animal model whose brain is struggling in the listening domain, a core common deficit in ASD, and then we ask, “what environmental factors can very substantially add to the struggling brain of this inherently impaired child? We examined a total of 6 factors that were chosen, because we believe they have all grown in modern cultural environments across the last 35-40 years. You could say that what we are really trying to understand is not just what accounts for the variation in the penetrance in impacts in different genetically identical individuals, but also what could account for a clear, unequivocal increase in the percentage of children across the last 30-40 years identified as ASD. Our factors include: (1) poisoning the infant with a breakdown product from flame-retardant chemicals (the fluorinated equivalence of PCBs), (2) heavy exposure in the third trimester to repeated ultrasound examinations of the fetal head and brain, (3) perinatal exposure to heavy metals, (4) rapid cord clamping that results in inadequate delivery of hemoglobin from placental tissues into the infant and later to oxygen deprivation in the developing brain (5) exposure to continuous noise in the postnatal environment, as contrasted with raising the newborn infant in quiet, and (6) exposure of the mother to SSRIs. Every one of these added burdens contributed very significantly to the impairments that had been initiated by the initial insult. Put another way, a whole series of environmental factors are probably contributing to strength of ASD expression and to the increased probability that it is going to be a part of the child’s life.

For your child, the water is already over the dam. Whatever may have contributed to the child’s present neurological performance abilities is established and in place, which may mean that your child is off to a little more struggling beginning in life for nobody’s fault than was absolutely necessary. But, that child’s brain, like every other kid in the spectrum, is just beginning in life to organize itself and its powers. And, fantastic things can potentially come from it. Your job is to do everything you can to grow its powers and to help that child be somebody who is very special.

A final note, I admire Anat Baniel and the therapeutic strategies implemented by the Anat Baniel Method. You and I know that this provides another important source of insight to you in understanding how to help your kid.

SaltyLittleBitch1 karma

Do you have any recommended reading on the subject of damage to the brain, where another area of the brain has taken over the responsibilities of the damaged area, leading to interesting and unique ways in which plasticity can lead to improvements in cognition? Recently read 'the brain that changes itself' by Norman Doige and it had a great section about this, I'm just wondering if there is more?

MichaelMerzenich3 karma

My reading in this area has primarily focused on peer-reviewed journal articles and upon the scientific reviews of neuroscientists and neurologists that focus on studies of the remodeling of the physically damaged brain. Because I haven’t read very deeply, or extensively, across the literature for the general public I’m not sure what to advise you to read. Of course with any brain injury where tissue is lost, whatever that brain tissue contributed to normal function, is also lost. And functional recovery will be dependent upon brain remodeling in which that brain function is recovered by alternative neurological strategies. The brain has an amazing ability to reestablish function through plasticity processes, even in individuals where physical destruction may have occurred on a large scale. In detail, the ways it adjusts are incredibly complicated and vary because wounding of brains can occur in almost an infinite variety of forms and locations. If you know someone, or care about someone, who has suffered from a brain injury, you can usually find information about neurological adjustment in the face of that specific class or location of injury in available sources on the web. Start there. If you do not find an answer to your satisfaction, write to me and I’ll try to help.

nimonian1 karma

There is a saying in academia that 'mathematics is a young man's game'. This is disheartening to many researchers who reach 30 without proving something important, and evidence seems to suggest that most of the best theorems in mathematics were proven by people younger than 30. Is this just a remarkable coincidence, or is something going on here? Maybe it is not related to cognitive ability, per se, but a willingness to take on a daring and seemingly hopeless task and keep at it for up to a decade. I'd be interested in your take on this phenomenon.

MichaelMerzenich5 karma

I would like to address your wonderful question just a little bit hypothetically. So, as I integrate information and I advance my powers in thinking outside the box, it is an advantage not to know too much. It is an advantage to have a certain level of intrinsic unreliability. Because, in a sense, the more I drive structured representation in my brain, the more I imbed the rules of formulaic mathematics, the more constrained I am for engendering the truly original solution. In a sense, the older brain always bears the weight of its experiences, which can be constraining and limiting. We have a tendency to think that the more we know, the more original we will be. Actually, knowing a little from an isolated position (like, for example, working in the patent office, and not in the university laboratory) can be a big advantage. I have noticed that over the years, some of the most original scientific thought has come from the more surprising places where people have the advantage of a level of intellectual obscurity. On the other hand, you can go to a scientific meeting in my country and in my discipline, and find a thousand people who hold the same, virtually identical, scientific religious convictions.

I think mathematics might present a special problem in this respect, because it commands the mastery of symbolic manipulation that is rule based, that ultimately makes a hide bound creature out of an originally very open minded individual. I really don’t know any way to get over deeply established hide-boundedness. On the other hand, your brain is plastic. It is possible for old dogs to learn new tricks.

Broketographer1 karma

I had a TBI in 2010 and suffered from anterograde and retrograde amnesia. Any tips for exercising a damaged brain that the speech/occupational therapists may have missed?

MichaelMerzenich6 karma

Without meaning to sound too commercial, I would like you to go to BrainHQ and very heavily exercise yourself initially in categories of brain speed and attention. By heavy exercise, I mean try to spend at least 20-30 minutes a day at mastering exercises in its training repertoire. So, let me just go on from this point. After you have spent a total of 25-30 hours in the attention and brain speed exercise categories, open up your training with the focus on the modes where you have had the greatest neurological losses to the other exercise suites in BrainHQ. For example, if you are plagued by struggles in the listening and language domain, you obviously want to focus your exercises – to remaster to the best of your ability – accurate listening/language abilities. If there are stronger problems expressed in your visual behaviors or in your social or emotional cognitive control, or in your executive control abilities, you should obviously differentially emphasize them in your training. Train to affect. That is to say, when your abilities have been restored so that you are competitive again with other individuals of your age and the wider human race (which you can calibrate on BrainHQ), you should be in pretty good shape.

In parallel with any efforts you make on a computer, or as a substitution for them, think about how you can enrich your everyday life to improve your degraded faculties. You can practice your listening and language abilities, and your ability to accurately record information from listening to every conversation or every listening experience in the world, if you just have the mindset that you are going to make the most of every practice opportunity. The same goes for every other dimension that you can identify that you associate with degraded or lost ability. You can also often benefit greatly from engaging in the right kind of progressive games or exercise. If I wanted to increase my powers of accurate high speed recognition in the visual domain, I would be advantaged by aggressively working on the solution of difficult jigsaw puzzles. Sounds childish, I know, but done earnestly, it can be expected to have significant value. If I wanted to improve the accuracy which I translate high speed visual translation and movement into responsive action, it may be hard to beat advantages of seriously undertaking and mastering of a game like ping pong. Sounds childish, I know, but it is a very good form of brain exercise. I may decide from my struggles in executive control that there may be value in trying to figure out how many words I can try to spell represented to me in the Boggle array in a limited period of time. Sounds childish, I know, but driving your brain to operate at high speed with deliberate attempt in a closely focused and sustained activity like this has neurological value. You should be thinking about all of those many ways that you can drive improvements in your brain power that will bring you back closer to being your old self again. You are on the right track. Keep it up. In all likelihood, you can be in every respect not just your old self again but why not better still?

100percentintheditch1 karma

What is your opinion of Dr. Wyss-Coray's (and other's) work that suggests circulating factors within the blood affect age-related impairments in neuroplasticity?

Also, do you have any advice for current neuroscience graduate students? What do you think it will take to be successful in the field, given the high competition for funding and positions?

MichaelMerzenich1 karma

Dr. Wyss-Coray is one of a small number of scientists studying the potential rejuvenative value of changes in blood chemistry, that is to say changes in contributions in agents in blood from the body, that may positively impact brain health status. He has argued, for example (bringing to mind that old science fiction tale) that transfusions of blood from a young individual to an old one might contribute to the positive brain health of the old guy or gal. Is there any plausible basis for such a claim?

Actually, scientists have been studying chemical alterations that affect neurological status for a long time, and have attempted to use corrective chemical strategies to improve neurological performance with significant success. The intriguing current studies of Dr. Dale Bredesen from the Buck Center at UCSF are a case-in-point. He has shown that by identifying a broad array of chemical weaknesses, then compensating for those weaknesses by dietary and other strategies, can result in significant improvements in some individuals in their neurological health and functional status. That includes, as Dr. Wyss-Coray argues, individuals that fall within the mild cognitive impairment (or Alzheimer’s disease) spectrum.

We have been working with scientists like Dr. Bredesen to try and define the possible integrative value of combining chemical supplementation with progressive intensive brain remodeling. It is possible that this represents the primary future strategy for keeping people safe against catastrophic near-end-of-life neurodegenerative disease.

24752421 karma

Hi Dr. Merzenich, do you have any experience with hemifacial spasm?

MichaelMerzenich2 karma

Since the predominant hypothesis of origin seems to lie in the facial nerve (a nerve enervating the muscle of the face and not the brain) there is relatively little that I could say about it except that any widespread engagement of those muscles will result in a very powerful feedback from sensory receptors from muscles, skin and other tissues in the face to the brainstem (which could contribute to generating an enduring problem). I’m uncertain as to whether or not there might be a brain plasticity-related strategy to impact it but it’s not impossible to think there might be.

If I were you I would have someone stimulate the surface of my face (as I was blindfolded) and see if I could accurately reconstruct the locations of felt stimuli on the effected as well on the unaffected side. If you can’t, have that person help you with a 20-minute daily training session and see if you can improve your sensory feedback from the face. It’s possible that any weakening from that highly correlated activity fed back to the brain from skin and muscles could be on a path to at least limited improvement and generation of these strong co-contracting events. Of course you might also find that such an exercise is valueless. In which case, sorry for bringing it up.

todayIact1 karma

What modulates brain plasticity?

MichaelMerzenich3 karma

The modulation or control of brain plasticity is a subject of thousands of scientific reports. There is a control system deep in the brain that releases chemical modulators – we call them modulatory neurotransmitters. Included on this list are the transmitters norepinephrine, acetylcholine, serotonin, dopamine, and endogenous opioids – along with two or three other minor players. Modulators are engaged as a function of behavioral context; you can think of them as having enabling power for plasticity. Or, they are released as a function of performance success – you could think of those as having “confirming power”. For example, norepinephrine broadly increases the excitability of responses across the cerebral cortex for those momentary times when it is released. When I am challenged to solve a problem, or challenged because something surprising has just occurred, its level of expression goes up. You could think of it as turning up the lights in the brain in ways that contribute to getting the answer right.

The neurotransmitter acetylcholine plays a different, crucial role. Acetylcholine is also released during moments of close attention – it actually increases the excitability of all of those things that are close to something I expect to occur, or something I am listening or searching for, or sensing to occur in my feelings. It actually allows the brain to change, to find a new solution, because the brain can actually engage the processes that can allow a substitution of what inputs dominate neural responses at each affected location. You can think of it as opening up the repertoire in the domain of possible change; once it is turned on, it gives you about two minutes to go through a behavioral cycle with the possibility of changing its effectively engaged neurons for the ones that were most valuable to improving behavioral performance.

Dopamine, another key neurotransmitter, is released as a function of the occurrence of a reward, or as the brain informs itself that it has responded correctly or made a correct judgment (a “self-recognized reward”), or by the expectation of a reward. That is to say, as soon as the brain expects you get the answer right, you get that rush of pleasure that tells you, “way to go!” – even before you respond to indicate that you know the right answer. Dopamine does two critical things: it modulates enduring change. Dopamine release does another wonderful thing; dopamine related processes actually change rapidly from having an initial positive plastic effect to having an immediately following negative plastic effect. What it is doing is strengthening all of those activities that contributed to performance success, then it takes the next moment in time to weaken everything connectionally that did not contribute. So, there is a positive and negative effect, which taken together, amplifies the power of change.

Serotonin and endogenous opioids and other modulators are also in play, but explaining their specific roles would take another page, or two…or three. I recommend Wikipedia.

In the meantime, think about the marvels of owning a brain that controls its own evolution and change. What do these modulatory neurotransmitters do in sum? They turn on your plasticity machine when something important is about to happen (or has just happened). They open up the machinery for broad change, just for those learning moments when change can be important or valuable to you. They evaluate the success of your behavioral “try” – if it is a good one, they save all of those changes that contribute to its success, and by doing that progressively and iteratively, they give you the power of master controller for even very complex activities. All of this occurs with the brain operating on the basis of enabling change that it interprets to be in its own best interest. What a machine you possess. What a wondrous thing. I sure hope you have a healthy one. I sure hope you are taking good care of your very own most powerful organ.

Grego0011 karma

How important is the 21 day rule? Does it significantly affect the learning process? Can you stop and then retake again after a while, or will the effectiveness be seriously reduce? Thank you for such a great work through the years.

MichaelMerzenich2 karma

The 21 day rule is a kind of myth. The notion is that if you do anything 21 days in a row, you have developed an ingrained habit that will be with you for the duration of your life. Not true, of course. Whether you return to repeat some behavior or not is very much a function of the power it carries for rewarding you for that behavioral cycle. Sometimes, embedding a bad or good habit can be rapid. Sometimes, it is never acquired with any real reliability, because enduring change is so powerfully modulated as a function of behavioral context and the reward systems of the brain.

So, if I do something 21 or 2100 days in a row, that doesn’t matter very much to me as it requires no particular skill or practice. Nothing changes in the brain because it doesn’t have to to perform the skill. On the other hand, if I make it harder – just enough harder – so that it commands my full attention, and/or if I reward myself by giving myself $5 every time I get it right, I can embed what I have learned and change my brain in an enduring way for an awfully long time through a very short period of practice. Put another way, how many people of my age can remember where they were and what they were doing at the time they heard that President Kennedy was assassinated? From that single event so emotionally powerful for almost every American citizen. Our brains pumped chemicals, in such a powerful form, that it is embedded in our memory forever. My episodic recollection of hearing the news is almost vivid now as it was 56 years ago when it occurred. On the other hand, a billion things have occurred in my life from that time to now that go virtually unrecorded, because no chemical was released, or because the release was so puny as to sustain a permanent record.

OpticalFlatulence1 karma

How much does personal willpower take into account for brain plasticity and recovery after a traumatic brain injury?

MichaelMerzenich2 karma

When the brain is injured, there is often an important secondary consequence beyond the immediate performance losses that people do not think about very much. That is a weakening of your spirits that are such a necessary part of rehabilitation based recovery. This occurs because there is a strong feedback from all over your brain back to the brain centers that control your good spirits. Commonly, when people suffer traumatic brain injury, because this feedback from the damaged regions of the brain is weakened, the chemicals in the brain that control what should be a good attitude are down regulated and the patient simply doesn’t feel like doing anything on the path to recovery or self-improvement. Once you are in a wound-based funk like this, it can be very difficult to crawl out of the hole.

We have specifically developed strategies in training that very heavily engage the machinery that controls your baseline level of alertness or arousal. By exercising it, we know that we can increase your brightness and increase your positive wellness to engage in activities that are so critical for your self-repair. The BrainHQ exercise called “Freeze Frame” is especially directly designed to increase your basic brightness, alertness, savour-fare. Recovering this machinery has, of course, three additional purposes. First, it directly recovers the power of those processes that control positive plastic change. Increasing their power directly amplifies learning rate and achievement. Secondly, the very same machinery contributes importantly to the regulation of sleep. Sleep is almost always disturbed in an individual with a wounded brain and its re-regulation is an important contributor to the overall recovery of brain health. Third, obviously, that same machinery contributing to your bright and positive spirits is an important contributor to your mood. People with wounded brains are commonly in very big need of improvement in their mood, for the sake of all of the people that love them and have to live with them…

joyousheart771 karma

My father died from Alzheimer’s. Per your intriguing intro, will you help us understand how to throw the switch? What, exactly, should we be doing to sustain or even grow our abilities, to successfully manage our organic brain health, to improve our lot in life, and keep ourselves safer? Thank you!

MichaelMerzenich4 karma

We’ve conducted series of studies in animal models in which we’ve studied brains near the end of the animal’s life and contracted a long list of physical, chemical, and functional brain assets to the status of those assets in the brains of young adult animals in their “prime of life”. In those studies we’ve asked: “What’s different?” The answer: everything. Then we ask, “What’s stronger in an old brain?” Answer: nothing. Old brains are less reliable. They’re slower, less intact, less well-served by the vasculature of the brain. They’re less responsive to immunological challenge. They disconnect, simplify, chemically degrade, reduce in sophistication, dis-elaborate, and lose attentional control. Then we ask, “How many of these assets that distinguish very old brain from prime of life brains can be overcome by brain training?” The answer is all of them.

What do I need to do to drive these changes? Do I have a brain that looks like it’s approaching the cliff?

First of all, calibrate yourself. I recommend considering your brain speed as an index of your brain health, just as it provides an index of an animal’s brain health. When the brain is operating at speed with high reliability it means that your positive switch is still on. If you’re problem-solving and if you’re fast in mental operations then you’ve sustained your competitive edge. If you recognize any slowing at all and if your grandchild can now whoop you at a game then you probably need some serious brain work. If your situation is still relatively positive you can accomplish keeping yourself in a safe position by adopting natural lifestyle changes. If your situation is a little more questionable you might consider engaging in progressive computerized exercises designed to drive your brain speed and accuracy back to a youthful performance level. Fortunately, these elemental abilities are plastic and strong rejuvenation is commonly achievable. I don’t want to be too promotional but another simple thing you could do is visit and compare your performance to others in your age group.

In the ACTIVE trial computerized brain exercises focused on processing accuracy at speed were applied in a controlled trial conducted more 15 years ago. At the beginning of the trial the average age was around 74. Individuals who trained for 10 hours at the trial outset, then an additional 2-4 hours a year later and an additional 2-4 two years after that had strong improvement in everyday life. They were more active in their communities and had only around half as many driving accidents. They were significantly less likely to develop senior depression and significantly more likely to sustain effective control of their everyday lives. Ten years after training initiation and 7 years after the last “dose” of brain training (they only received 14-18 hours overall), scientists asked: “What happened to these people? What was their fate?” The answer: 48% fewer had developed dementia than in the random-assigned control population. While these studies are preliminary they’re consistent with our perspective that recovering and sustaining high-speed high-accuracy performance in a brain is a very good thing for all concerned. My guess is that this includes you.

P.S. on BrainHQ the exercise used in the ACTIVE trial is called “Double Decision”. This task was developed by Karlene Ball from UMB and Daniel Roenker UWK.

magraymond1 karma

My question: Do you have any suggestions on how I could further pursue this line of research in a credible and safe way? I believe it is a good example of neural plasticity.

I inadvertently developed a relatively simple, sensory-based, self-hypnotic strategy to help me regulate my mood. The strategy seemed to have a very positive effect so I then experimented with different applications. Of course, the outcomes described below may be examples of coincidental cause and effect, but if not, they may be worth investigating further.

Stress Reduction, mood alterations.

Restless leg syndrome elimination.

Minor pain relief - myself and others.

Targeted memory recall reduction.

Allergic Reaction Reversal within minutes.

In an attempt to reduce bags under my eyes, I ended up with extremely huge bags, as well as, black eyes. I had to take the week off of work until my face became presentable.

Credentials: My professional background has focused on research into memory / behavioural support and enhancement systems for people with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder to help them better transition from adolescence into adulthood. Maggie

MichaelMerzenich2 karma

People have attempted to address the issues you raise using a variety of alternate training strategies. A challenge that you have is to demonstrate that your method is comparably superior to those strategies. The world now seems to require that a random assigned control trial provide the basis for therapeutic claims for new treatment strategies like those you appear to be working on.

For example, studies using meditation related practices have described improvements in some of those things on your therapeutic list—as have studies applying some of our own computerized brain training approaches. I do not mean to discourage you from further pursuing these therapeutic questions, because perhaps something very good could come from them.

SunshinePegasus1 karma

Hi Mike! I use BrainHQ myself and read some article that Tom Brady does too. What's he like?

MichaelMerzenich2 karma

That’s a good question. Tom Brady is a remarkable human being. When I went home from meeting him at one point my wife, Diane, told me she thought I had a man crush. I’m in the office of his training center in Foxboro and he’s a little late to come to the meeting. He comes in, all strapping 6’4” of him and says he’s a little winded because he finishes his 3 hour exercise program every morning by completing 10 table jumps. I ask “Tom, what is a table jump?” He replies “I stand next to a table and jump onto it and jump back onto the ground again.” I ask, “Tom, how high is the table?” “It’s just like your dining room table”, says Tom. I look up at him and say to myself Holy Sh**. Needless to say, he’s a rather remarkable physical specimen.

Tom used our programs initially in efforts to recover his full powers after all that head banging. And he quickly discovered that they improved his game play. He said he saw the field more completely and responded with greater accuracy and speed. It might be noted that over this period he actually accelerated the time it took to make a decision and release the ball with high accuracy. No one in football is faster or more accurate at decision making in the complex visual environment that he operates in than Mr. Brady. This is despite the fact that he is the oldest professional quarterback in harness still playing. Tom also told us about another surprising effect of his brain training. He said that for every game, Coach Belichick, gave him a list of the plays that would be called against that week’s opponent. More than 100 plays required that he remember and repeat 8 two-syllable word sequences that differed for each play. He said that in almost every game before brain training he made mistakes in delivering those instructions verbally to his teammates. He’d go over to the sideline and Coach Belichick would yell at him because he screwed up the play. He said that with brain training, that occurred lots less often.

Tom is one of a number of highest-level athletes that have used BrainHQ both to help them restore and sustain their brain health and help them improve their highest level performance abilities. It’s surprising in a way that it has taken so long for professional athletes to realize that a critical way they can improve their play, to bring it to even a higher level, is to improve the operational powers of the machine that controls all their actions that they carry around inside their head.

It’s wrong to think of brain training as being limited to help people who struggle. Brain plasticity provides a basis for any individual to be better at any ability that is really important to them, on the job, in their hobbies, or in the management of their lives.

Jared_Roach1 karma

Do crosswords work as well as the exercises in BrainHQ? Intuitively, it seems like directly engaging in exercises that are seemingly the most mentally difficult would be the best brain training exercises. Maybe things like crossword or logic puzzles, or games like Chess/Go, or vigorous debate, or some of the video games kids play these days. And yet, Double Decision seems so tame, simple, easy. It is hard to believe it is more effective at preserving cognition than some other tasks.

Also, like Arun, I am curious about dance. I know some geriatricians recommend to their at-risk Alzheimer's patients that they remain socially engaged by doing things like dancing or going to bridge clubs. Is there evidence to support such recommendations?

MichaelMerzenich2 karma

Actually, when we’ve done control trials in which we evaluate the effectiveness of brain exercises like Double Decision, in a number of studies we’ve used progressively more challenging crossword or other puzzles completed on a computer or phone as the active control task. Alas, it has little or no recordable neurological or performance benefits, except one: getting better at crossword puzzles. I might point out that I’ve completed the NYT crossword puzzle every morning for quite a few years and generally am very concerned about how long it takes me to complete it. You might be happy to know that this morning, I completed a Thursday puzzle 17 minutes faster than my average and I was really proud of myself. But alas, no benefit, except that it puts me in a good mood. Of course if I had been 17 minutes slower than the average I might be grouchier.

We’ve also used a wide variety of other computer games and control tasks and see strong differential benefits of BrainHQ over their use.

So the question is: what daily activities could matter? Your geriatrician is right about dancing. Progressive improvement in dancing is an example of an activity that adds value to your neurological life from 2 directions. First, it involves complex new learning in which you are complexly translating new information from the body, vision, audition, and memory into actions. You’re wakening up your learning brain. You’re elaborating your movements and their neurological control. You’re exercising complex sequential memory in a variety of ways that are healthy for your brain. Secondly, dancing is a social experience usually played out in the social arena where you are exercising your social cognition and control -- that machinery that is so close to the heart of the person you are. The more fun you have dancing around the floor, the healthier that core machinery is.

If you think Double Decision is always easy, perhaps you haven’t reached the highest levels. I find those to be pretty difficult. On the other hand, maybe you’re a lot swifter than I am in which case, way to go.

Twitstein1 karma

Hi Michael, what's your take on consciousness? Do you think that just chemistry and brain matter = life?

MichaelMerzenich3 karma

Beginning about 30 years ago, scientists began describing activities that they argue correlate with conscious awareness. When they’re there, you’re aware. When they’re not, you’re not. Still, no one has clearly explained the basis of this spark except in these correlative phenomenological ways. What IS that little moment of awareness, exactly? They don’t know and neither do I. I await a clear explanation from science.

We do know that the conscious self almost certainly arises in the brain as a product of brain plasticity. For every sensation, for every perception, for every action, the brain is associating those sensations, perceptions, and actions to the other things that belong with them in the context of the world. The brain is plastically growing those associations as a basis for creating the model of the world that you have constructed. For every sensation, perception, or action, the brain is also making a second association and that’s an association to their source. Their source is you, YOURSELF. You are a product of a massive schedule of self-association that establishes you as a principle actor on the stage.

Scientists have shown that you actually have multiple self-identities. Millions of inputs from the surface of your body results in the creation of an embodied self, that you identify as bounded by the limits of your skin. If you think about you as an observer of the world and you said “what are you?” You would locate yourself immediately behind your eyes because self-references are associated with all of those millions of moments in which you have drunken information about that world in front of your eyes. In the same way, cognitive psychologists have argued that you have created maybe 4, or 5, or 6 of these self-referenced entities. What a wonderful thing this is. In our life time we create, through brain plasticity processes, not only the operational person but also a strong, resilient central actor that is orchestrating so beautifully our intentional use of this most remarkable of machines.

EN-CO-D1 karma

Hello Dr. Merzenich, I saw your AMA on the Nootropics subreddit and saw that you aren't answering any questions over there so I wanted to ask the question that u/Faelostacia asked: can a personality be forgotten then redeveloped from scratch?

I suppose it would be different scenarios if it was forgotten as a result of brain damage or pathology vs willfully attempting to forget one's personality (would something like that even be possible? It's just a random thought that occurred to me).

Thanks a lot for your time; I've really enjoyed all the answers so far.

MichaelMerzenich3 karma

There are many examples of individuals who have changed their lives operationally across a relatively narrow window over the course of their lives. Any individual can undertake a transformation if they think that transformation is called for. Of course, we know these transformations commonly occur in life when circumstances change – e.g., an individual falling from the tower of high success to abject failure or an individual who moves away from home for the first time as an independent agent and grows in all sorts of ways in a new richer or social environment. You have the power to change the person you are because every aspect of that person is a work in progress. If you do set out to be a better, or stronger, or more effective person, then you should think of the process as a progression. It’s not about putting on new clothes your changing your hairstyle. It might require 2 or 3 or 4 or 5 years of effort. Still, if you are really determined then you could do it.