Slow Walking, Slow Mind?

What is the pace of your usual walk? Brisk and peppy, or slow-paced? Turns out that the gait of your walk provides reams of information to onlookers and health practitioners about your age – and brain health.

Physicians have long used walking speed as a marker for cognitive capacity in older people, since gait is linked to the central nervous system. But perhaps more interestingly, you don’t have to be a senior for walking pace to play a significant part in your overall health. 

New research suggests that even people in their 40s who walk slowly are more likely to have slower functioning brains. 

A new Duke University study is the first to suggest that the gait health analysis might work for younger people as well as seniors, reports The data comes from a long-term study that followed approximately 900 New Zealanders from their birth in the 1970s to their 45th birthdays. The study tested participant walking speed and examined their physical health in addition to brain function.

Significantly, the slower walkers tended to display signs of accelerated aging – specifically in their lungs, teeth, and immune systems, as the researchers had expected. But surprisingly, MRI scans of the slow walkers’ brains looked notably older than the brains of the regular paced walkers. 

Adding insult in injury, strangers who were asked to assess the age of the participants from photos of their faces said the slow walkers even looked older.

Researchers from Duke University conclude that these results suggest that, “A slow walk is a warning sign of brain decline decades before old age sets in.”

What does your brain convey about your overall health? From patterns of forgetfulness to repetitive thoughts, anxiety to inability to sleep, your brain’s optimum functioning is the key to your health – no matter what your age.

If there is something about your brain health you’d like to discuss with us, come talk with us. Our consultations are free and always confidential.

Persistent Bullying Can Damage Adolescent Brains

Bullying adversely affects millions of young children and adolescents. All too often, the effects last years and sometimes, even decades. The problem is so widespread, it has been recognized as a global health challenge by the World Health Organization and The United Nations.

Bullying is defined as repeated and intentional verbal, physical, and anti-social behavior that intimidates, harms or marginalizes someone perceived as smaller, weaker, or less powerful. Among younger children, common forms of bullying include abusive language and physical harm. But this overt behavior tends to grow subtler with age. Adolescent bullies tend to routinely exclude, insult, and mock their targets. 

Among the more than 3.2 million American students who experience bullying every year, 10 to 15 percent will experience chronic bullying. Experiencing persistent peer victimization is associated with lower academic achievement, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, self-harm, and even suicidal thoughts.

So what does the adolescent brain look like after persistent bullying?

Recent adolescent brain research has focused on bullying’s impact on the brain and our stress response system. A paper published in Molecular Psychiatry showed that trauma and stress stemming from chronic bullying seems to affect the structure of the brain. 

Neuroimaging (MRI) data was collected from 682 European youths over eight years tracking adolescents to find out how bullying was associated with structural brain changes. 

Research found that participants who experienced chronic bullying had significant decreases in brain volume of two regions involved in movement and learning. Study participants also experienced higher levels of generalized anxiety. 

In these studies, “toxic” stress and the stress hormone cortisol appeared to alter brain development by impairing cognitive development. The body’s stress response – the release of cortisol — is activated when danger such as bullying is detected. Following an initial release of adrenaline, if danger (bullying) continues to be perceived, the adrenal glands continue to release cortisol into the bloodstream. The researchers are unsure of the exact mechanisms that link cortisol levels and cognitive functioning, but hypothesize that too much cortisol may have toxic effects on parts of the brain that are important for learning to occur. Depending on the child, the child’s age, and the level of stress from bullying, some of this brain change was long lasting (multiple months and even years), and some was shorter in duration.

Researchers conclude that chronic stress — such as experiencing persistent bullying — could absolutely have a negative effect on memory, cognition, sleep, appetite and other functions when continually on alert and not allowed to repair – especially in adolescents, whose brains are still growing and developing.

If your child is experiencing persistent bullying, it is important to get help with the lingering fears, depression and possible long-term brain function changes. INDY Neurofeedback can use brain mapping to determine which areas of the brain may be affected. Then, using neurofeedback, we can provide non-medical intervention to help your child become calmer, more focused, and better able to concentrate.

Have a question about bullying and the brain? Call or email us at INDY Neurofeedback.

Protect Your Brain by Lowering Your BMI

Losing a few pounds may help you stay sharp, according to a recent U.S. study published in the journal Neurology

The University of Miami Miller School of Medicine study looked at just under 1,300 adults, checking weight, BMI (body mass index), inflammation, and dementia. 

The lead study author found that having a higher BMI and waist circumference was associated with having a thinner cortex, which has been known to result in worse cognition later in life. BMI is a useful measure of calculating obesity levels. Using your height and weight, your BMI is an estimate of body fat and a good gauge of your risk for diseases that tend to occur with more body fat. 

In general, the higher your BMI, the higher your risk for certain diseases such as heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, gallstones, breathing problems, and certain cancers. We can now add the tendency toward dementia to that list.

Researchers suspect that chronic inflammation caused by obesity may play a role in brain cortex thinning. If so, this discovery provides yet another reason to maintain a healthy weight.

“Dementia is a growing problem in the U.S. and European countries, and as of yet, there are no curative therapies,” says Leanne O’Neil, owner of INDY Neurofeedback. “So focusing on risk factors that can be modified, such as being overweight, is a proactive way to help.” 

At INDY Neurofeedback, we help our clients achieve and maintain good brain health. Eating right, exercising daily, getting proper sleep, and sustaining a healthy weight are things you can start now to help your brain health for years to come.

Your Dog Can Understand Word Meaning, Not Just Intonation

Thanks to behavioral science and the fMRI, we now know that dogs are able to understand the actual words their owners use — not just voice intonation, as previously thought.

Until a recent study was published in Science magazine, most dog owners thought that no matter what words they used, they could convince their dog that it was being praised if they used an affectionate tone. But this new canine brain study indicates that dog owners have likely been underestimating their dogs’ comprehension skills. 

The dog brain study from Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest revealed that dogs do not rely exclusively on tone when they listen to human speech. Many dogs are able to recognize the meaning of frequently used words.

Behavioral scientists used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to examine patterns of brain activity in 13 specially trained dogs as they listened to their trainer speaking either words of praise or neutral words. 

The two types of commonly used Hungarian phrases were selected. Importantly, the dogs heard the two common phrases delivered in both a praising and neutral tone on multiple occasions. According to the study, “This was absolutely critical for disentangling any distinct effects that word content and intonation might have on the canine brain. Indeed, the setup led to several interesting discoveries, including fascinating similarities in the ways speech is processed in the dog and human brain.”

fMRI scans revealed that words of praise triggered particularly strong activations in the dogs’ left hemispheres. It did not matter whether they were delivered as praise or in an entirely neutral tone. Researchers believe that dog brains are capable of extracting the arbitrary symbolic content that humans assign to words, and have learned their special significance.

Researchers also found that reading intonation in human speech was found in the opposite hemisphere, the right side of the dog’s brain – just as it is in human brains. Right-side brain regions, which normally process auditory information, responded to neutral and praising tones of delivery with different levels of activation regardless of actual word content.

“This anatomical contrast of word meaning and intonation in the canine brain is strikingly similar to what we know about the brains of humans,” remarked Leanne O’Neil of INDY Neurofeedback. “We’ve known since the turn of the 19th century that humans with damage to part of the left hemisphere could be fluent in speech but lack comprehension. They also had difficulty understanding the meaning of others’ speech. More recently, researchers have discovered that those with certain types of right hemisphere damage can understand the meaning of words, but struggle to interpret people’s emotional states — or humor — which are usually expressed by tone. So it’s interesting to discover that the two hemispheres of dog brains appear to be similarly specialized for interpreting communications.” 

It turns out that dogs use tone to assess the possibility of hearing some rewarding content, but integrate both sources of information to ultimately decide whether they are indeed being praised. This effect doesn’t seem to be too different from what happens in the human brain when we assess whether or not something we are taking in is pleasant. We do this for example, when we evaluate how much we like a particular piece of music.

The similarities between how canine and human brains interpret speech by integrating word meaning and intonation probably dates back to the dawn of canine domestication. 

In the process of selecting dogs with characteristics that made them better companions for us, we inevitably also selected for brains that process communications in a similar way to ours. 

After all, similarly tuned brains are probably better suited for connecting with each other. Another reason dogs are our best friends.