Last month’s poll: When it comes to the brain do you believe the saying “use it or lose it”?

Ninety-eight per cent of respondents were correct. The brain can continue to grow and form new connections (synapses) as you age, but the key is to keep your brain active. If you do not, the fragile connections that are not “used” might be lost.

Studies of young children have shown that we are all born with many potential brain connections. If we don’t use them, they get weeded out. Researchers have found that if you help children use as many connections as possible, through sensory stimulation, education, as well as practicing fine and gross motor skills, they actually strengthen and retain more connections and have heavier, denser brains.

“Twenty years ago, it was believed that once neural networks were formed in childhood they would remain fixed and permanent,” explains Dr. Donald Stuss, senior scientist at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute. “Now, through the use of functional imaging technology, we can see the potential of the brain’s rewiring capability at work.”

Our brain’s ability to adapt in this way – known as brain plasticity – does not only occur when we are young. Using imaging technology such as MRI, scientists have studied the brains of adult violin players. They found that as the musicians used their fingers repetitively, stronger and stronger connections in the brain related to this movement were visible.

Since the connections in the brain are like electrical impulses, the more you use them, the stronger the bond between the “wires” (that is, between the many neurons – or brain cells) becomes. In other words, neurons that fire together, stay together.

As we get older, some connections may be lost, but other connections can be formed. As well, scientists have found that the brain has a core of stem cells that can develop new neurons – once thought impossible. The number of new neurons depends on the activity and stimulation.

It’s not just a matter of using your brain, but using it smarter

Being mentally active is good. However, we can do even more. “What we now know is that it’s not just a matter of using your brain, but that using it smarter and more efficiently is even better,” says Dr. Stuss. “For example, when it comes to brain games such as Sudoku, it’s not just a matter of doing them, but learning how to do them better that maximizes our brain functioning.”

While the brain’s ability to adapt is welcome news for anyone concerned about losing their mental fitness, we need to understand that the choices we make about how to live also play a key part in brain health, Dr. Stuss notes. Sleep and physical exercise are on the good side of the ledger, as are a healthy diet, being free of diseases that harm cognition (such as diabetes and hypertension), engaging in intellectually stimulating pursuits, and spending time with friends. Habits to avoid include having too much or too little stress in our lives – the right amount is good – over-consuming alcohol, and smoking.

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