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Archive for August, 2016

How to Build a better brain

Friday, August 26th, 2016

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Experts — Posted 04/02/16

Brain expert Dr Jenny Brockis explains why we should do Sudoku and learn languages – and why the best thinking comes from a calm, rested brain.

We’ve been talking about the need for greater physical health for decades. We know how important healthy eating and exercise are – but until recently, better brain health hasn’t been included in the equation. The primary reason is that our understanding of the human brain is still very much in its infancy.

Fortunately we now have a wealth of neuroscientific information available to us at this critical time when the burden of multiple chronic medical conditions in a rapidly ageing population, along with spiralling levels of stress, anxiety and depression, desperately need sorting out.

There are a number of lifestyle elements that contribute to brain fitness: good food, exercise, enough sleep, mental challenge and stress management. If you have a healthy brain, you start to think better. It’s easier to stay focused, keep things in perspective, stay positive and be more mindful.

Brain fitness is crucial to health and wellbeing across the trajectory of our lifespan. That means if we teach our kids how to build healthier brains they will grow into brain healthy adults.

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“Brain fitness is about continuing to learn new things that with practice we can get better at. Learning a new language, picking up a musical instrument or signing up for a photography class are all great ways to stretch your mental muscle.”

How to keep your brain strong

Healthy food is important for nourishing your brain, and regular exercise keeps your brain fit as well as your body. Along with these healthy habits, there are some strategies you can use to reduce the effects of stress and brain overload, and to keep your neural connections strong.

Here are some things to try:

1. Reduce stress

Look for ways to manage stress levels by practising relaxation and taking time out. Tai chi, yoga, pilates and meditation are perfect ways to de-stress your day.

2. Create some breathing space

We need time to think, to pause and reflect. So switch off from all that technology regularly and give your brain a break. A 15 minute session to still your mind is all it takes – turn off your phone, close the door and just be.

3. Stretch your mental muscle

Practise being a five-year-old. Be curious about the world, ask questions, explore and try out new activities, especially those you don’t think you will necessarily be any good at. The more effort we apply to our learning the stronger those new neural connections will be. Many of us carry limiting self-beliefs: “I’m no good at (insert here – art, maths, dancing, etc)”. But if you feel drawn to trying something, give it a go anyway – you might surprise yourself.

Brain fitness is about continuing to learn new things that with practice we can get better at. Learning a new language, picking up a musical instrument or signing up for a photography class are all great ways to stretch your mental muscle. And the best thing is, the more we use that muscle the stronger it gets.

4. Connect with people

Staying connected and engaged with our world has been shown to be vital to our health and wellbeing on both a physical and mental level. Joining a club or volunteering are two ways we can widen our group of contacts.

A young man is sitting on a sofa with a cat and is reading a big book

A young man is sitting on a sofa with a cat and is reading a big book

“Break up your work session into blocks of 25 to 90 minutes, and take regular brain breaks of 15 to 20 minutes in between.”

The brain in focus

Much of my work is centred around the “science of high performance thinking.” A high performance brain is a brain that is operating to its true capacity. It’s not about being the best – just your best. It’s about the idea that if we look after our brain, and use it in the way it was designed to operate, we get more done, at a higher level and with fewer mistakes. This leads us to feel less stressed and enjoy a greater sense of achievement and happiness.

Here are three things about brain performance that might surprise you:

1. Multitasking is the one brain function that gets worse with practice

We multitask because we think we can, we think we’re good at it and we think it will save us time and energy. Sadly, this is wrong on all levels.

The brain is designed to be able to focus on only one thing at a time. While we can divide our attention and undertake lots of activities simultaneously, only one can really have our full focus. Trying to multi task exhausts our brain, causes us to make more mistakes, reduces memory, and causes us to take longer to finish our work.

2. We’re not designed for long periods of focus

When we’re working, studying, or focusing on a big task, it’s tempting to think we should switch our brain into overdrive and keep going all day long. But like everything else, our brain needs regular breaks to allow our subconscious to consolidate our thoughts, prioritise what needs to be kept for long-term memory and reboot our mental energy levels.

So what should we do instead? Break up your work session into blocks of 25 to 90 minutes, and take regular brain breaks of 15 to 20 minutes in between.

3. Our best thinking comes from a rested brain

Getting enough good quality, uninterrupted sleep each night is essential for better brain health and function. Our brain is very active at night – doing important tasks like laying down long term memory, deepening our understanding of what we have learnt, as well as loosening up those synaptic connections no longer required. Understandably, it needs some solid quiet time to get this done.

We also need sleep for better mood and emotional regulation. We only have to deal with a cranky, sleep deprived two-year-old to know how true that is!

Plus, sleeping is the time we take out the brain’s trash. Our brain is highly metabolically active and builds up a considerable amount of waste each day. Sleep allows our brain to give itself a good flush each night, so we’re good to go next morning.

Jenny’s latest book, Future Brain, is available now. Learn more about brain health at drjennybrockis.com

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Henry Sapiecha

Ginger-derived nanoparticles attack the roots of inflammatory bowel disease

Monday, August 22nd, 2016

ginger-root image www.newcures.info

Ginger-derived nanoparticles have exhibited impressive therapeutic effects in mice

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Ginger has a long and rich history when it comes to improving our wellbeing. Its medical use can be traced back thousands of years as a natural remedy for things like diarrhea and upset stomachs, but still today the thick, knotted root continues to reveal some hidden talents. Researchers have taken fresh ginger and converted it into a nanoparticle that exhibits real potential to treat these kinds of symptoms in one of their more chronic forms, inflammatory bowel disease, and might even help fight cancer, too.

The discovery was the result of a collaboration between researchers at the Atlanta Veterans Affairs Medical Center and Georgia State University. Based on previous research highlighting the anti-inflammatory properties of the plant, the team set out to further explore the potential for ginger to treat conditions relating to the digestive tract.

The research began with a fresh ginger root purchased at a farmer’s market, which the team ground up in a typical kitchen blender. But the process was a little more complicated from that point, with the team using super-high-speed centrifugation and ultrasonic dispersion to break the ginger apart into tiny particles, each measuring around 230 nanometers across.

These particles were administered orally to lab mice, where they were drawn to the colon and soaked up by cells in the lining of the intestines. This is the region where inflammatory bowel disease occurs, and the researchers observed that the particles reduced both short-term and long-term inflammation, and even prevented cancer that arises as a result.

Furthermore, the researchers found that the ginger-derived nanoparticles, or GDNPs, improved intestinal repair by increasing the survival and spread of cells making up the colon lining. At the same time, they hampered the production of proteins that give rise to inflammation and boosted those that fight it.

The team believes that these therapeutic effects come from the high amounts of fatty molecules, or lipids, in the particles, which are a consequence of the natural lipids found in the ginger plant. One of these lipids is phosphatidic acid, which plays an important role in the construction of cell membranes, but the researchers say that their particles also retain other important ginger compounds called 6-gingerol and 6-shogaol, which have been shown to fight oxidation, inflammation, and cancer.

The particles appeared to be non-toxic in the mice and the researchers say that in humans they may provide a more targeted treatment of the colon than simply delivering ginger as a herb or supplement. This more precise approach means it could be delivered in lower doses and therefore avoid unnecessary or unwanted side effects.

Among the challenges in turning these GDNPs into a drug, Didier Merlin, leader of the research team explains, is the need to pinpoint the precise mechanisms by which they produce these effects.

“To find the natural components that are responsible for the anti-inflammatory effects of GDNPs, this will be an important step to develop GDNPs into a drug,” he tells New Atlas.

The research was published in the journal Biomaterials.

Source: Atlanta Veterans Affairs Medical Center

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Henry Sapiecha

Tiny “Neural Dust” Sensors Could One Day Control Prostheses or Treat Disease

Friday, August 19th, 2016
These devices could last inside the human body indefinitely, monitoring and controlling nerve and muscle impulses

neural-dust-uc-berkeley-sensor-on-fingertip image www.newcures.info

They’re tiny, wireless, battery-less sensors no larger than a piece of sand. But in the future, these “neural dust” sensors could be used to power prosthetics, monitor organ health and track the progression of tumors.

A team of engineers and neuroscientists at the University of California, Berkeley have been working on the technology for half a decade. They’ve now managed to implant the sensors inside rats, where they monitor nerve and muscle impulses via ultrasound. Their research appears in the journal Neuron.

“There’s a lot of exciting things that this opens the door to,” says Michel Maharbiz, a professor of engineering and one of the study’s two main authors.

The neural dust sensors developed by Maharbiz and his co-author, neuroscientist Jose Carmena, consist of a piezoelectric crystal (that produces a voltage in response to physical pressure) connected to a simple electronic circuit, all mounted on a tiny polymer board. A change in the nerve or muscle fiber surrounding the sensor changes the vibrations of the crystal. These fluctuations, which can be captured by ultrasound, give researchers a sense of what might be going on deep within the body.

diagram-uc-berkeley-sensor-nerves image www.newcures.info

Building interfaces to record or stimulate the nervous system that will also last inside the body for decades has been a long-standing puzzle, Maharbiz says. Many implants degrade after a year or two. Some require wires that protrude from the skin. Others simply don’t work efficiently. Historically, scientists have used radio frequency to communicate with medical implants. This is fine for larger implants, says Maharbiz. But for tiny implants like the neural dust, radio waves are too large to work efficiently. So the team instead tried ultrasound, which turns out to work much better.

Moving forward, the team is experimenting with building neural dust sensors out of a variety of different materials safe for use in the human body. They’re also trying to make the sensors much smaller, small enough to actually fit inside nerves. So far, the sensors have been used in the peripheral nervous system and in muscles, but, if shrunken, they could potentially be implanted directly into the central nervous system or the brain.

rat-diagram-uc-berkeley sensor image www.newcures.info

Neural dust implanted in a rat (UC Berkeley)

Minor surgery was needed to get the sensors inside the rats. The team is currently working with microsurgeons to see what kinds of laparoscopic or endoscopic technologies might be best for implanting the devices in a minimally invasive way.

It may be years before the technology is ready for human testing, Maharbiz says. But down the road, the neural dust has potential to be used to power prosthetics via nerve impulses. A paralyzed person could theoretically control a computer or an amputee could power a robot hand using the sensors. The neural dust could also be used to track health data, such as oxygen levels, pH or the presence of certain chemical compounds, or to monitor organ function. In cancer patients, sensors implanted near tumors could monitor their growth on an ongoing basis.

“It’s a new frontier,” Maharbiz says. “There’s just an amazing amount you can do.”

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Henry Sapiecha