Neuroscientist Dr. Henry Mahnck is an expert in brain plasticity and the CEO of Posit Science, the company behind BrainHQ, a brain training software to improve cognitive performance and reduce the risk of dementia. He is also involved in a new brain health program, aiming to lower dementia risk in the US by combining physical exercise, diet and possible lifestyle changes with brain training.
MedicalExpo e-magazine: What is brain plasticity?
Dr. Henry Mahnck: The ability for the brain to change—to constantly rewire and rebuild itself through learning, experience and practice. What we have been doing with BrainHQ at Posit Science is to build scientifically based, clinically proven, brain training exercises that anyone can do on their computer or phone. The aim is to help rewire the brain by improving the speed and accuracy of information processing, helping people to think faster, focus better and remember more.
Give it a try!
MedicalExpo e-magazine: How do the exercises work?
Dr. Henry Mahnck: We know as we get older that the brain gets “noisier” on the inside. Almost like there is a bit of static because the radio has gone off the channel—and when you have that noise, it is harder to pay attention and remember. By making the information processing in your brain faster and more accurate, the exercises help get this noise out of your brain.
MedicalExpo e-magazine: Can you give us an example?
Dr. Henry Mahnck: We have an auditory speed of processing exercise that presents two whistle sounds. If they are slow and loud, everyone can hear them both, but, as we get older, and our brains get noisier, when the sounds are faster and closer together it can become hard to hear them separately.
This exercise presents the two sounds, and you have to identify them. If you get it right, they get faster and closer together until you get it wrong, and then it gets easier again. If you do that exercise for a couple of minutes a day, a couple of times a week, for a couple of months, the auditory systems in your brain get much faster.
This is important because speech is composed of very fast sounds. For someone to process what someone else says and remember it tomorrow their brain needs to be able to keep track of all the different, incredibly fast sounds.
MedicalExpo e-magazine: What is the new brain health program?
Dr. Henry Mahnck: We have learned so much over the past 20 years about how to change our lives to improve our brain health. The science has come together and shows that around one-third to 40% of dementia cases are preventable due to modifiable risk factors.
We know people who exercise less, eat unhealthily, sleep poorly and smoke are more likely to get dementia. So the idea was to build a community-based brain health program to teach people in a class how to address these areas, while also doing brain training. The National Institute of Health will fund the program.
MedicalExpo e-magazine: Which physical exercises could help prevent dementia?
Dr. Henry Mahnck: The biggest difference is between not exercising at all and doing some exercise. People should find something they like and stick with it, but there is good evidence for aerobic exercise, like walking, running and swimming, as well as for strength training.
MedicalExpo e-magazine: Which foods are brain healthy?
Dr. Henry Mahnck: The dietary advice comes primarily from work done at Rush University on the MIND Diet. This is a modification of Mediterranean diet, which is associated with better heart health.
What is good for the heart is good for the brain. Lowering blood pressure and risk of stroke is also good for brain. Then, in addition to that, the science shows leafy green vegetables and berries are the best kind of fruit and vegetable.
MedicalExpo e-magazine: What other lifestyle changes will you be encouraged in the program?
Dr. Henry Mahnck: It is clear smoking increases risk of dementia and good sleep improves brain health, as does social contact. With alcohol, if you people don’t drink, we say don’t start. If you do drink, then one drink per day is fine but don’t save them up and have them all together!
MedicalExpo e-magazine: When should we start considering our brain health?
Dr. Henry Mahnck: The sooner the better. We should think about our brain health the same way we think of our physical health. But no matter what your history has been, the important thing is to know that you can change your brain health trajectory right now by leading a more brain healthy lifestyle.
No-one is going to eat perfectly and exercise or train their brains every day, but that is fine. We want people to start making small changes now that will pay off in the long term.