An amusing and informative essay on the brain appeared in a recent (July 29) issue of The New Yorker. Entitled “Mentally Fit: Workouts at the brain gym” by Patricia Marx, the article chronicles her investigation of the “brain fitness” industry. The article is partly behind a paywall, so if you’re not a subscriber you can only read about 20% of the essay, but that’s enough to give you a flavor for where she is going with this.
Although my interest in reading about the brain and neuroscience is fueled by my obsessive need to understand myself through the lens of autism, I find that most of what is written about autism is really pretty bad. So I learn more about autism by reading about general brain functioning and then figuring out how it applies to me or to other autistic people I know, and to other things I’ve read or learned.
This well-written account is a case in point. As it happens, I am currently a subject in a brain study at the TMS Lab of Beth Israel in Boston. This study is similar to one I did four or five years ago with the same researcher, Dr. Lindsay Oberman. My friend John Robison also participated in that study, and he is the one who originally got me interested in the work of the TMS Lab. John has written his own account of what he learned from the study. At the end of that post you will find links to other comments he has made about TMS.
In a nutshell: Study Number One (4-5 years ago) decidedly proved that autistic brains have more neuroplasticity than neurotypical brains. This can be good (ability to process vastly more information, better long-term memory, ability to learn new things, and more) or bad (sensory overload, resistance to change and difficulty with transitions, and more).
Study Number Two (the one currently underway) is an attempt to determine whether autistic brains age differently from neurotypical brains. Specifically, one of the issues being studied (besides looking for changes in plasticity or anything else that is measurable) is whether the superior plasticity of autistic brains naturally protects autistic people from Alzheimer’s. One of the control groups being studied is an age- and gender-matched group of neurotypicals and another is a group of Alzheimer’s patients. As Lindsay explained to me, “the Alzheimer’s brain is the ultimate elastic brain.” (In this context, elastic is the opposite of plastic — an elastic brain is resistant to forming new memories.)
[Disclaimer: I am not a neuroscientist, so my understanding of what is going on in these studies may very well be incomplete. I am simply reporting my interpretation based on conversations I've had over the past several years, as well as reading I've done.]
Back to The New Yorker article: these are the subjects Ms. Marx addresses: neuroplasticity and Alzheimer’s (dementia in general, really, but she mentions Alzheimer’s many times). Specifically, can we (humans) maintain or even improve our neuroplasticity (ability to learn and remember) as we age, and therefore (perhaps) avoid the deterioration associated with dementia, while improving our enjoyment and quality of life?
In the article, the author worries that “…by the advanced age of twenty there is a very good chance that our prefrontal cortex (the brains of the brain, responsible for problem-solving, decision-making, and complex thought) has already begun to shrink.” And thus begins the decline. But, wait, maybe not. I hadn’t heard this particular assertion before (the shrinkage thing), and in fact, from what I have read, my impression is that the prefrontal cortex continues to develop well into our twenties and perhaps even up to age 30 or more. And, from an evolutionary point of view, perhaps that is sufficient. After all, until quite recently (given the lifespan of our species), 30 years was about the life expectancy for human beings. It is only in the last few thousand years, with the advent of agriculture, that our life expectancy has grown, and in the last few hundred years that extension has accelerated. And, perhaps, living longer has given us the luxury of having a few brains around that might take even longer than 30 years to mature. Ahem. Such as autistic brains. This is mostly speculation on my part, of course, but consistent with what I know. As more studies are done, such as the one I am in now, we will learn more.
The balance of the article is quite entertaining and educational. The main conclusion that I take from it is that keeping one’s mind active is hugely important (not the first time we’ve heard this, to be sure), and that it is not sufficient to repeat the same brain exercises ad infinitum. The author makes the point that if one becomes, for example, very adept at doing crossword puzzles, that activity ceases to be stimulating. It instead becomes routine and almost automatic. The key is to take on new and different challenges with some regularity. I find this insight to be extraordinarily comforting, since all my life I have chided myself for being such a dilettante and dabbler. I guess my brain just craves stimulation and I was doing the right thing by it.