I first became fascinated with the brain and its capacity to change when I was six years old. At the time, I learned about a child who became a well-known artist in our town after losing both of her arms in an accident and learning how to paint with her feet. I vividly remember one of her oil on canvas paintings of an elderly woman: It had detailed drawings of her eyelashes and facial wrinkles and subtle reflections of the light on her hair. I was in awe of how this child’s brain rewired itself in order to give her such precise dexterity in her toes.
While I was in high school, I became even more fascinated by how our galaxy of brain cells works together in harmony. There are 100 billion neurons and trillions of synapses in the brain, with countless numbers of networks and layers of complexity. Yet, we get up, eat, drive, do our work, take care of our responsibilities and go back to sleep, without consciously realizing what those tasks require. Just the right number of neurons must fire in just the right order with just the right frequency, all before returning to their baseline pattern of firing when a task is completed.
I fell in love with trying to figure out how the brain works and how we can enhance our cognitive function. With my passion already instilled, I completed a doctoral degree in neuroscience at Johns Hopkins, obtained a medical degree at Harvard and then, subsequently, returned to Hopkins to complete my neurology training. I became an assistant professor of neurology, wrote books on the subject and conducted extensive research on the specific question of how we can enhance our brain performance. I wanted to figure out how we can rewire the brain, so that it acts younger than its age. After all, our brain has an innate capacity to grow and change; why not use this ability to our advantage and improve our performance at work and at home?
Much of my research focused on the role of diet and nutrition in maintaining and improving brain health. Along with my colleagues at Johns Hopkins, I reviewed results from 5,000 participants, who were monitored for eight years. We discovered that those who had taken antioxidant vitamins E and C outperformed others who took only one, or neither, of these vitamins. At that time, I learned that omega-3 fatty acids have multiple protective benefits for the brain. They reduce inflammation (a key factor in cognitive aging), improve blood flow to the brain, increase the levels of a healing protein in the brain and reduce the aggregation of a toxic protein associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
I worked with one of the most prominent neuroscientists in our country, Professor Kristine Yaffe at UCSF, and reviewed all the literature on the relationship between levels of omega-3 fatty acids and developing Alzheimer’s disease. Our results? We found overwhelming evidence that people who have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, through eating fish and/or taking supplements, were far less likely to acquire this devastating disease. As we published our findings, other scientists found that taking an omega-3 fatty acid called DHA for six months allows your brain to function at a level of someone who is three years younger. Another study showed that people who have low levels of omega-3 fatty acids have smaller brains and are more likely to become demented. With all this scientific evidence, I became a believer that taking an omega-3 supplement is an essential step toward building a healthy and strong brain. My family and I take these supplements daily.
The latest neuroscience research continues to fascinate me. It provides further exciting news for millions of baby boomers and older adults who worry about Alzheimer’s disease. It shows that cognitive decline with aging is due to a number of treatable factors, including diabetes, sleep apnea, insomnia, depression, anxiety, concussion and vitamin deficiencies. The memory parts of the brain—a pair of thumb-size structures near the ears (called hippocampus)—appear to be most vulnerable to the toxic effects of these medical conditions. In fact, hippocampus shrinks with each of these factors in a dose-dependent fashion: The higher severity of each condition is associated with worse atrophy in the hippocampus.
Fortunately, the high malleability of the hippocampus allows it to regrow when the negative risk factors are treated and when the blood flow and oxygen supply to the brain are restored. New research shows that the hippocampus can grow when a person exercises, meditates, learns new information, eats a Mediterranean diet, takes omega-3 supplements, takes care of below-the-neck medical issues and enhances his or her sleep. MRI technologies have allowed researchers to capture this rapid and remarkable growth in the hippocampus, and growth can be seen in as little as three months.
I apply the neuroscience discoveries in my own day-to-day life. I wake up at 5am to join a local “boot camp.” I eat a Mediterranean diet, take omega-3 supplements, tease my neurons by learning new tasks, work to stay calm in stressful conditions, enjoy my family, social and work life, and make sure I sleep seven to eight hours a night. I share my passion in boosting brain health with my patients. My most recent study showed that 84% of my patients gain a statistically significant improvement in their brain performance, and 64% of them reverse the age-related shrinkage in the brain.
I remain fascinated with our brain’s neuroplasticity. My goal is to share my passion with the public and educate them on how they can make simple changes in their lifestyle in order to build a youthful and energized brain for life. We all have the capacity to build and maintain a beautiful brain by the time we reach our 90s. We can all grow our brain at any age, and we do.
--Dr. Majid Fotuhi. Dr. Fotuhi is the chairman and CEO of the Memosyn Neurology Institute, an affiliate staff member at Johns Hopkins Medicine and a frequent lecturer at Harvard Medical School. He received his MD degree from Harvard Medical School and his Ph.D. degree from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Most recently, he led the clinical and scientific programs at the NeurExpand Brain Center. He is the author of The Memory Cure: How to Protect Your Brain Against Memory Loss and Alzheimer's Disease and has had two PBS programs entitled “Conquering Memory Loss” and “Fight Alzheimer’s Early.”