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Neurons are key to a successful resolution

Published 9:45am Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Column: Pothole Prairie, by Tim Engstrom

The time to make resolutions for the new year is coming up. Americans make an effort at something, usually related to better health, and too often we fail.

This year, I encourage resolution makers to think about it differently. Think in terms of how the brain operates.

I’m no expert on brains, but I’ve read quite a lot of stories and resources lately about how brains operate. There has been a good deal of government-funded research into brains, particularly to figure out what causes Alzheimer’s and other brain-related diseases. Did you know that researchers believe the vascular system’s relationship with the brain is the leading culprit for loss of brain cells affecting memory? Take care of our blood vessels, huh? Exercise, people!

The reason people tend to form habits is because the neurons in our brains for those behaviors are well-developed. The habits we wish we had are less developed. It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks, right? When we change behaviors, we attempt to use well-developed neurons less and less-developed neurons more.

My source? Just about everything I’ve read says this.

If a person complains, they encourage development of neuron pathways, which in turn leads to more complaints. It’s a cycle. Change the attitude, encourage the pathways that affect positive behavior, find a new view on life.

Snack between meals? That only encourages more snacking between meals. Don’t want to go to the gym? That only discourages the get-up-and-go neurons.

One October 2012 story from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology news office describes new research on kicking habits. It turns out that even though habits seem automatic, the cortex still maintains control over them. What that means is we have the ability to form new habits over old ones, and the researchers found that the cortex actually favors new habits over old ones.

A September 2013 story on Yahoo! Health by the editors of Men’s Health says research shows the connection between a fit body and a quick mind. Sitting on the couch drains memory and brain function. The story quotes a doctor of Alzheimer’s prevention, who says: “Your body produces brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which gets your brain cells to spout branches. Your neurons are communicating more effectively as a result of the activity.”

The other three things the article said were bad for the brain are: A. high blood sugar (eating too much food and not exercising) B. drinking too much (alcoholics also are five times as likely to develop dementia), and C. belly fat (apparently, belly fat secretes a compound that causes inflammation, which harms blood vessels in the brain and heart).

The most recent news on brains is about marijuana use among teenagers.

This from NBC News: “Research released Monday in the journal Schizophrenia Bulletin showed the brains of young heavy marijuana users were altered in so-called sub-cortical regions — primitive structures that are part of the memory and reasoning circuits. And young people with such alterations performed worse on memory tests than non-using controls, despite the fact that the heavy users had not indulged for more than two years, on average, before the testing.”

It goes on to say that adults who smoked pot regularly as teens had more cognitive problems, such as one called “neuropsychological decline,” than non-users, even if the users had stopped long before the study.

In other words, smoke pot as a teenager, damage the brain for life.

“We see that adolescents are at a very vulnerable stage neurodevelopmentally,” said Matthew Smith, who led the research team at Northwestern University.

Scientists for years have known that the brain offers natural rewards, such as the neurotransmitter dopamine or the endorphins produced in the pituitary gland, for positive behavior. I don’t exactly understand how these work, as most of the brain content I have read is about neurons, but I do know that someone who exercises quite often gets more of these rewards. We’ve probably heard of runner’s high. The body likes these natural rewards, and they are much better for health than marijuana, alcohol and other drugs.

Now that I’ve got you thinking about your brain, perhaps that will shape the way you approach your resolutions for 2014. Work on developing the right neurons.


Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every Tuesday.