Cant remember what you ate for breakfast this morning, or where
you put your car keys? Often blank on your mother-in-laws name?
Not to worry. These are probably not signs of Alzheimers disease.
Yet aging Baby Boomersthose born between 1946 and 1964do face
a future in which they will experience a natural deterioration in their
ability to recollect the past. But the games not over yet. Researchers
such as Dr. Gary Small at the University of California at Los Angeles
(UCLA) have evidence that a few simple life changes may help.
ABILITY Magazines editor-in-chief Chet Cooper and ABILITYs
health editor E. Thomas Chappell, MD, met with Dr. Small recently. As
they entered his waiting room on UCLAs medical campus, they spied
his hot-selling memory enhancer Brain Games, now widely available in stores,
on a table. On
the drive over the two interviewers had passed the time through LA traffic
listening to Dr. Smalls The Healthy Brain Kit audio CD, made
in collaboration with noted natural health guru Andrew Weil, MD. On the
CD, Dr. Small demonstrates the memory trick for name and face association
with the following example: listeners could remember his name by associating
Gary with the city of Gary, Indiana, and then Small with a mental image
of that state shrinking. So Cooper and Chappell jokingly asked for Dr.
Indiana Shrinking, and then settled in for a conversation about
aging and memory.
Chet Cooper: What
can one do to improve memory?
Dr. Gary Small: Preliminary
research suggests that rather simple lifestyle changes, such as eating
five small meals a day to maintain levels of blood sugar, as well as regularly
using relaxation techniques, may enhance memory.
Dr. Tom Chappell:
What are some ways youve been able to show this scientifically?
Small: Well, one way
is to look for improvement on a memory-skills test, for example. We test
people before they make a lifestyle change and then test them again several
Cooper: We noticed
your office is next to an imaging center. What types of imaging are you
Small: Imaging refers
to various diagnostic scans of the brain. These scans might be performed
with a PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scanner or a special MRI (Magnetic
Resonance Imaging) scanner.
Cooper: What role
does this technology play in your research?
Small: These special
types of brain scans show increases and decreases in activity in different
areas of the brain. After just weeks of certain lifestyle changes, our
research indicates improved efficiency in those areas of the brain known
to control memory.
else can you do for patients using this type of imaging?
Small: We just published
a paper in the New England Journal of Medicine on a brain-scan
technology we invented that helps us see changes in the brains of patients
Chappell: If there
is currently no cure for Alzheimers, why is it important to be able
to show it on a diagnostic image?
Small: Research on
Alzheimers has come a long way in recent years. Its not hard
to imagine potential cures on the horizon. The way weve diagnosed
the disease up to now has been by noting characteristic symptoms in a
patient, such as atypical behavior and memory loss. One might imagine
that this is not a highly reliable way to be certain of the diagnosis.
But now we can we add to that an imaging technologyin this case
a brain scanwhich can give us more reliable information if a large
group of patients diagnosed with Alzheimers are also found to have
decreased function in a certain area of the brain.
We could also use
this technology to scan new patients, and if theyre found to have
decreased function in this same brain area, it would more strongly suggest
that they truly do have Alzheimers, making it easier to confirm
a diagnosis. Similarly, brain imaging can help us navigate the challenges
of understanding brain function as it relates to memory. For example,
if a new drug is being tested on Alzheimers patients and their symptoms
improve, it would also be helpful to see signs of improved function on
their brain scans.
Chappell: One of
the interesting things about your research is that you often look at memory
in people who have not yet developed what doctors would consider diagnosable
memory problems. What else can you tell us about the research you recently
published in The New England Journal of Medicine?
Small: We did a study
where we gave people memory tasks while they were having their brain scans.
These were people who are aging Baby Boomers with normal memory performance.
We found that if they carried a gene called APOE-4which is associated
with increased risk for Alzheimerstheir brains had to work
harder to do the same memory task compared to a similar person without
the gene. Not only that, but the people whose brains worked harder had
more memory problems a few years later, even if they did not develop Alzheimers.
Its really cutting-edge, high-tech research... So, thats my
day job. (laughs)
Cooper: And what
can you tell us about your moonlighting gigs, like your work on The Healthy
Brain Kit and Brain Games?
Small: I think those
projects get me more involved in reaching out to a larger audience, trying
to translate science into a language that is more understandable to everybody.
Its also somewhat of a family affairmy wife has been very
helpful with her ability as a professional writer. I think Im a
better writer for having worked with her, and shes a better scientist.
Chappell: So how
do you turn a scientific theory into a product that will be as catchy
and marketable as Brain Games?
Small: Brain Games
was actually someone elses idea based on our work. They wanted to
create a hand-held game that not only helps people improve their memories,
but is also fun to play. You can build up your memory skills and train
without straining your brain, and you can set the level of difficulty
where you want it.
Cooper: How are
the sales going?
Small: Pretty well.
The game just came out last month, and people like it. Its supposed
to be for Baby Boomers, but I cant get it away from my 12-year-old
son. Brain Games II is under development now, and Im excited about
that because its not only going to have the mental aerobics of Brain
Games, but also tips about stress reduction and diet. It should help people
with the 14-day program, so that they can really jump-start their longevity
and brain health.
exercise, physical exercise, diet, stress reductionit seems that
improving ones memory is multi-faceted. What other factors might
Small: We just submitted
a grant application to the NIH (National Institutes of Health) to study
whether memory training plus Tai Chi has a better impact on memory scores
and brain function than just memory training alone. Were also interested
in how inflammation and immune function relate to memory. We know that
cardiovascular conditioning and stress reduction will boost the immune
system... continued in ABILITY Magazine
Volume 2007 Issue 2