Memory Lane with Dr. Small vantage mobility ad

Can’t remember what you ate for breakfast this morning, or where you put your car keys? Often blank on your mother-in-law’s name? Not to worry. These are probably not signs of Alzheimer’s disease. Yet aging Baby Boomers—those born between 1946 and 1964—do face a future in which they will experience a natural deterioration in their ability to recollect the past. But the game’s 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 Magazine’s editor-in-chief Chet Cooper and ABILITY’s health editor E. Thomas Chappell, MD, met with Dr. Small recently. As they entered his waiting room on UCLA’s 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. Small’s 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 you’ve 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 weeks after.

Cooper: We noticed your office is next to an imaging center. What types of imaging are you using?

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.

Chappell: What 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 with Alzheimer’s.

Chappell: If there is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s, why is it important to be able to show it on a diagnostic image?

Small: Research on Alzheimer’s has come a long way in recent years. It’s not hard to imagine potential cures on the horizon. The way we’ve 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 technology—in this case a brain scan—which can give us more reliable information if a large group of patients diagnosed with Alzheimer’s 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 they’re found to have decreased function in this same brain area, it would more strongly suggest that they truly do have Alzheimer’s, 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 Alzheimer’s 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-4—which is associated with increased risk for Alzheimer’s—their 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 Alzheimer’s. It’s really cutting-edge, high-tech research... So, that’s 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. It’s also somewhat of a family affair—my wife has been very helpful with her ability as a professional writer. I think I’m a better writer for having worked with her, and she’s 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 else’s 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. It’s supposed to be for Baby Boomers, but I can’t get it away from my 12-year-old son. Brain Games II is under development now, and I’m excited about that because it’s 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.

Chappell: Brain exercise, physical exercise, diet, stress reduction—it seems that improving one’s memory is multi-faceted. What other factors might affect memory?

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. We’re 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

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Excerpts from the Holly Robinson Peete issue: (Volume 2007 Issue 2)

Holly Robinson Peete — Interview

Chris Burke — From Actor to Rock Star

Bob Woodruff: In an Instant Book Excerpt

Walter Reed Army Medical Center Between Iraq and a Hard Place

Memory Lane — Dr. Small and Exercise your Brain

Conference in Qatar: Shafallah Center for Children

Stephen Mikailoglu — In Memory

Windmills — Leveling The Employment Playing Field

An Operation for Alzheimer's — Omentum Transfers

ABILITY Magazine
Articles in the Holly Robinson Peete issue; Senator Harkin Letter—Community Based Services; Flash Action—Cool Web Games for Kids; Humor Therapy; Days Gone Bye Bye; Headlines—Segway Suit, Woodruff, Accessible Taxicabs and more; George Covington—Sorry Tail; Allen Rucker—The New: Recycled; Baby Boomers and Hearing Loss—Book Excerpt; Beyond Special Ed—Disability Legal Rights Center; Bob Woodruff—Back From Iraq Excerpt; Conference in Qatar—Shafallah Center for Children with Special Needs; An Operation for Alzheimer's—Omentum Transfers; Troubles at Walter Reed—A Disturbing Report; Selma's House—North CArolina's First ABILITY House; Windmills—Leveling the Employment Playing Field; ABILITY's Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences...subscribe

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