3. Healthy Brain Test. Curious About Your Brain? Take the Healthy Brain Test and learn about your risk factors for Alzheimer’s and dementia, and how diet choices, sleep quality, concussion history, and physical exercise can affect your brain health.
The part of your brain that is crucial for self-motivation also serves as a center for understanding the preferences and motivations of other people.
Getting yourself motivated towards achieving a goal, and understanding what other people might want in order to help you achieve your goals often go hand-in-hand.
Recent research by a neuroscience team at Zhejiang University in China points to a specific group of neurons known as the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, or dmPFC, as instrumental to this process:
The dmPFC is integral to the Theory of Mind, defined as the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from one’s own.
Knowing What Others Want
Humans are highly social animals; the ability to estimate others’ preferences in an accurate and reliable manner is typically essential for successful social adaptation and survival.
Since the mental states of others are often much less predictable than those of one’s self, reading the mind of others is an inherently uncertain process. The dmPFC plays a central role in constantly updating a mental “snaphot” of other people, on the basis of incoming information obtained through observation – in other words, using interactions and behavior cues to read someone’s mind with greater accuracy.
In many cases, perceiving the intentions of others can be directly tied to the ability to focus on and clarify your own intentions – the dual role of the dmPFC.
Conditioning Your Brain to Win
In the Zhejiang University study, researchers used optogenetics to directly stimulate the dmPFC in male rats. Optogenetics is the combination of genetics and direct light to control the activity of brain cells.
In the experiment, lower ranking male rats were given a “boost” to their dmPFC through an optogenetic light pulse, making them dominant over the alpha male. Take a look at this video:
This dmPFC power boost lasted long after the experiment, leading to more dominant behavior by previously lower ranking rats. In other words, the winning streak continued.
So how can we replicate this effect in daily life? A large goal is made up of many smaller goals. Focus on the seemingly small goals first, and establish a positive track record.
Free example: Try this working memory test, which asks you to repeat a series of numbers. The Span is set to 8, which can be difficult to achieve at first. Lower the Span to 5 or 6, then work your way up to 10 digits.
Monounsaturated Fatty Acids – a class of nutrients found in olive oils, nuts and avocados – support the brain’s attention networks, and also help cognitive health through improved insulin sensitivity.
Your ability to focus on, and solve problems can be influenced by diet choices, according to a study out of University of Illinois. The study of 99 healthy older adults, recruited through Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana, compared patterns of fatty acid nutrients found in blood samples, functional MRI data that measured the efficiency of brain networks, and results of a general intelligence test.
Monounsaturated Fatty Acids, or MUFAs, are found in olives, avocados, a variety of nuts (almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamias and pecans), and plant-based oils (olive, canola, peanut, and sunflower).
Researchers tracked the MUFA blood serum levels of the study participants, and noted a strong correlation between higher levels of MUFAs and greater general intelligence, which is comprised in part by the dorsal and ventral attention networks:
The dorsal and ventral attention networks refer to a group of cortical regions that support sustained attention and working memory function, both of which are necessary for complex problem solving.
The same reward circuits in our brains that we use for survival also leave humans perpetually vulnerable to addiction.
Our brains are wired for survival.
The human brain is finely tuned to seek out rewards like food, sex, and money, and to avoid painful experiences like being killed by dangerous predators, large and small.
Called the dopamine reward pathway, this brain feedback system provides the motivation to learn and repeat behaviors that give us pleasure, rewards, and safety:
Heroin, and synthetic opioids like Percocet, hydrocodone, and fentanyl essentially hijack the brain’s natural reward system.
Initial exposure to opiates can lead to intense urges to repeat the first experience, triggering an addiction cycle that is very difficult to break. (The same cycle is true for synthetic stimulants like methamphetamine, cocaine, MDMA, etc)
While there are multiple societal costs from addiction, the problem can be crystallized in a single graph.
Death Rates from Opioid Addiction Are Skyrocketing
Deaths from opioid overdose (both legal & illicit sources) is on track to eclipse 70,000 per year in the U.S., based on current trends:
It’s very possible that by 2018, opioid overdose deaths will be greater than deaths from vehicle accidents and firearms combined.
The path from legal use of prescription pain medications to illicit use of pills, heroin, and fentanyl is a well-worn story that happens across every community and social class.
One example out of many is the fatal opioid overdose by the musician Prince in 2016. Prescribed pain medication after hip surgery in 2010, his need for opiates apparently escalated to the use of fentanyl, a narcotic that is 30 times more powerful than heroin.
New Approaches to Addiction are Needed
Prohibition and interdiction of addictive drugs tend to be stop-gap measures that lose effectiveness over time, especially if consumer demand for the drugs rise or simply remains stable.
There is no silver bullet to the problem. But understanding that addiction is deeply intertwined with the human biological drive for survival is a realistic place to start.
Objective education on the addictive potential of any drug, along with realistic alternatives to opioids for pain relief can begin to turn the tide and lower the demand side of the equation.
Some interesting research is being done to find effective, non-drug approaches to pain relief.
Chronic pain can cause a negative feedback loop with the brain, where the brain “learns” to expect a repetition of pain signals, whether or not the source of pain is still present.
Failed strategies for treating Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia are prompting a broad rethink on how to tackle the growing prevalence of these costly brain health problems.
At the BIO International meeting in San Diego last month there were parallel conversations on these two major brain health challenges – with speakers from the BIO Brain Health Track and Digital Health Summer Summit offering interesting views and potential solutions.
Alzheimer’s Disease: Back to Square One?
Nearly 50 million people globally are living with dementia today, and this number is expected to rise to 100 million people by 2040, according to Alzheimer’s Disease International (ADI).
The last drug approved for treating symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease was in 2002. Since then, the pharmaceutical industry has invested billions of dollars in clinical trials to test new compounds that could slow down or stop the disease progression.
All have failed.
The question is then, Why? Having a perfect score in failing indicates a flawed approach to solving the problem and perhaps a flawed understanding of the problem itself.
Both of these approaches attempt to describe the triggers and progression of Alzheimer’s disease, and both are at best incomplete theories, based on the litany of clinical trial blowups tied to these approaches.
The Reality of Combating Alzheimer’s Disease
Alzheimer’s disease isn’t a single disease. It’s a broad neurodegenerative condition that includes damage to the micro-vascular network that supplies blood and nutrients to the brain.
A decade or more from now, we will probably see a multiple therapy approach that takes into account a person’s genetic risks, vascular health risks, environmental risks, along with biomarkers that screen for a range of disease sub-types so that treatment can be personalized for every Alzheimer’s patient.
Curious about your risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease? Take the Healthy Brain Test, and learn more about steps you can take to maintain good brain health.
The Drug Pipeline Marches On
Research and drug trials are continuing, including novel approaches that finally break free from the old theories on what causes Alzheimer’s:
Alzheimer’s Drug Development Pipeline in 2016
Special attention should be paid to the progress of non-amyloid/non-tauopathy candidate drugs.
While the number of drugs in the pipeline is encouraging, keep in mind that most of these candidates will struggle to make it past Phase II, and somewhere between none and a few will successfully be brought to market.