Keep the brain young. A book explains how to do it

Keep the brain young. A book explains how to do it

The consumption of drugs and legal supplements (natural or synthetic) is widespread, widespread, much more than one could imagine. The investigation by Johann Rossi Mason

"Brain without limits" leaves its mark. A feeling halfway between anxiety and wonder. It was published by the Edizioni Code, Johann Rossi Mason, a scientific journalist specializing in neuroscience and psychology. A job that lasted for years. The result is the first Italian investigation into brain enhancement. We had a long talk with Johann. We asked her to give us some additional reading keys and, above all, some advice to start training our brains before she gives in under the inexorable blows of time that passes. He gave us quite a bit

"Brain enhancement", a much discussed topic that we hear about now more and more often. Can you help us frame the phenomenon?
In universities around the world, 7 to 25% of students walk the corridors with a laptop, a notepad and a highlighter in one hand, a blister pack of tablets in the other: Adderall, Ritalin, Modafinil and dozens of other drugs promise to increase learning ability, improve grades and curricula, publish more and better. In 2006, a group of Harvard professors carried out for the first time a survey on the use of nootropic substances, ie active on the nervous system and able to increase cognitive abilities. They find that their use is closely linked to the academic world. In 2008, new research published in the Journal of the American College of Health reveals that the use of drugs in healthy subjects affects between 8 and 34% of university students, who use them off-label, ie out of indication, and obviously without medical prescription. But those who believe that they are a shortcut are wrong: they do not make people smarter, because those who do not commit themselves cannot aspire to improve the curriculum only with a pill. They serve to study and work more and better. No magic wand. Those who are not intelligent or unwilling to spend time on books will have no benefit.

What exactly are nootropic substances?
Those described in the book are natural or synthetic legal medications or supplements used by healthy individuals to improve certain brain functions. Nothing to do with drugs (illegal) or recreational substances for the "buzz". Who uses nootropics is lucid and wants to stay it. Look for concentration. There are also those who take the drug trying to recover in a week what they didn't do in a quarter. But that's not how it works, they are the same ones that mix more drugs to get an even greater effect and then end up in the hospital because of the side effects given by the interactions.

Green tea, ginseng, turmeric but also transcranial magnetic stimulation techniques: what does it actually mean to enhance one's cognitive abilities?
Our brain is a plastic structure, which works like a muscle, if stressed it increases its plasticity and capacity. If solicited constantly, it improves its performance, but doing it is a long and tiring job. Cognitive enhancers are substances that act in most cases on neurotransmitters and increase their availability in intersynaptic spaces, ie the contact spaces between one neuron and another, where communications take place. It's like putting an additive in an already performing engine. Obviously, depending on the substances, it is possible to have more or less sudden results: natural supplements, often used at high doses and in combination with each other – the so-called "stacks" – need time to give results because they must reach a plasma peak. The drugs, which are born to treat diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, dementia, attention deficit disorder and hyperactivity, narcolepsy, have concentrations such as to cause almost immediate effects, but they may present side effects such as headache, nausea, digestive disorders, restlessness, and in some cases the risk of dependence if used for prolonged periods. This is the case of methamphetamine salts marketed as a drug for the attention disorder. The issue is delicate because if a side effect against the benefit of treating a disease can be acceptable, the risk is less justifiable for a healthy person to take it to study. In the Nature survey most of those who answered the questionnaire, as many as 69%, believe
that the use of cognitive enhancement drugs should also be allowed in healthy subjects for non-medical reasons and that mild side effects are an acceptable risk. Of course, we are talking about a selected audience, which is part of an academic elite and of intellectuals with an open attitude on some topics. But one wonders: if they are also administered to children and have proved safe in the studies necessary for their placing on the market, why should the correct and indicated doses not be suitable even for adults, provided they are informed of the indications and side effects? I personally maintain a very liberal attitude.

Frenzy and tight rhythms, continuous pressure and competitiveness. All this translates into stress, the need to fund one's mental energies. Everything passes from the brain in short
Exactly and remember that emotions also pass from the brain and not just cognition. So working on your psychological and mental balance, for example through deep meditation techniques, so-called mindfulness, can help you achieve your goals even without using substances that put the turbo.

I won't deny you that in some passages your book has troubled me a little. But I caught a side effect: less super-mystic, more human. We work up to seventy years. Thus, there is a need to keep oneself mentally active for longer than a few decades ago. In this sense the concept of "keeping young" the brain sounds better
Contrary to what has been represented in the cinema, for example in the film Limitless, drugs do not make superhuman, only better performing and not all in the same way. There are also subjects that do not respond to these substances. But your question is interesting: in the last 50-60 we have gained 15 years in terms of longevity. Think of our grandmothers: at 50 they were at the end of their existence, they were grandmothers and sometimes they worked. Today Charlize Theron, Monica Bellucci, Sharon Stone and I are 50 years old. The company has changed completely. We affirm ourselves and have children later, we have inaugurated a fourth and a fifth age during which we have resources and energy to spend also on the market. Often we women have younger companions but we are sexually desirable, in full of careers and with a life expectancy of at least 30 years that we want to live in health not only physical but especially mental. Those who think that nootropics are required only by ambitious students or professors seeking the Nobel are wrong. In fact, all these adults are afraid of losing shots under the constant threat of boys who, in addition to fresh neurons, boast quick skills and styles of thinking, shaped as they are by neural networks, video games and smartphones, devices that from the cradle them have made them capable of new forms of thought, creativity and imagination. Many of these are adults born in the previous millennium, belonging to an uncertain and changeable labor market, which makes them more aggressive, determined and sometimes desperate. Thus, even fifty-year-olds approaching drugs are afraid of losing ground. It is said that Professor Anjan Chatterjee, one of the leading experts on the subject, visited a famous Philadelphia lawyer, terrified because he could not remember some names and begged him to prescribe something for her memory. The thing that people fear most about old age is not only physical ailments but dementia and loss of lucidity. It is the ability to reason and the memory that make us active in society and it is in this sector that companies are orienting their research by studying drugs and remedies that can drive away the specter of Alzheimer's disease.

In your inquiry book you also trace the dimensions of the phenomenon: we discover that it is Europe that holds the record for the greatest increase in the use of stimulants with brain-boosting effect, while in the United States over 30% of the population uses them. And in Italy?
There is no data relating to Italy and for this reason we have decided to launch an investigation, an online survey to investigate the phenomenon in our country. You can participate through this link or by connecting to the Brain site without limits. Obviously the questionnaire is completely anonymous to protect the privacy of those who decide to participate.

How is the market for these substances regulated?
Then, all the drugs are subject to a medical prescription and therefore in the healthy they are used "off label" or "out of indication". So a doctor can prescribe them but in case something happens, he takes all the responsibility because he has acted in a shady area. Others are subject to prescription with a strict Therapeutic Plan (such as ADHD drugs). Obtaining them legally is therefore very difficult. We know that people abroad pretend the symptoms but in this way a diagnosis is also "attacked". Essentially people often resort to the black market of people who provide them or to online pharmacies often in India or other countries. The risk is that what comes at best is an ineffective sugar tablet while at worst it contains other drugs or contaminants. There are also pharmacies that ship from abroad but require an official prescription. The supplement market is even more smoky: since drugs are not active ingredients are not subject to strict regulation for approval and it is difficult to trace both the quantity and quality of what is in the individual tablets. Although possession is not illegal, buying Modafinil on the black market in the UK can cost two years in prison. In 2016 alone, 9,610 illegal drug sales sites were closed. In short, the risks are many.

Also in your book you describe the effects (and contraindications) of natural substances that in some way have the same effects. Let's talk about caffeine, ginseng, turmeric. Can you give us a taste of what your studies have highlighted?
Coffee, tea, ginseng, guarana are substances that stimulate the nervous system known and used for millennia with the specific purpose of having greater mental clarity and fighting fatigue. Scientific research has also discovered other substances and some have chemically synthesized them. Just think for example that ketamine is created for medical use as an operating room anesthetic and then finds its recreational use for the ability to determine altered mental states and give extra body experiences. While ecstasy circulating in nightclubs and lysergic acid, LSD, are now being studied as antidepressant remedies. The world of pharmacology is particularly intriguing and full of surprises and basically teaches us that it is not the single substance that does good or bad but the use that is made of it (and the quantities in this are decisive). If you think about it, we all live using technological and non-technological aids: computers, smartphones, databases, glasses, Omega-3 supplements. Those who take seven or eight coffees a day are not stigmatized, yet even caffeine stimulates the nervous system. And who smokes thirty cigarettes to concentrate during long study sessions?

Is there a way to train body and mind without resorting to drugs? Put differently: are there things we can do (and not do) to recharge the brain and memory in view of present and future daily challenges?
Of course yes, but the road is obviously longer and more difficult. The golden rule of a correct lifestyle is valid, first and foremost a healthy diet that is calories in terms of calories. A 2014 study showed that after three months of reduced caloric regimen, all participants had reported a significant decrease in indicators: old age, diabetes, cancer, inflammation, and of course a decrease in weight. So what we put in the dish is decisive and can have an influence on cognition: we need vitamins, iron and of course the very precious Omega-3, in particular EPA and DHA, which are present in all cell membranes and represent the main structural fats of brain organ. They are so decisive that the increase in volume of the human brain is attributed to their introduction into the prehistoric diet, through seafood and oilseeds. Physical exercise always and in any case. Moderate aerobic exercise has positive effects on body and brain health, in particular it improves plasticity thanks to the activity of a particular neurotransmitter, GABA.

All very interesting. While we're at it: is there anything else we can do to slow down the effects of time passing over our brains?
Interests, curiosity: we can solve puzzles (if more complex is better), use the left hand more often (I am used to eating with the non-dominant hand), write with both hands simultaneously (very difficult) and silence one of the senses, for example, covering the eyes, ears or nose, blocking the hands. Do it as a game and resist as much as possible, the brain will be forced to take action to compensate for the lack of stimuli and information, and it will do so by mobilizing resources that were inactive. Test your sensory abilities: for example, get blindfolded and then try to recognize the smells of food, spices, plants, etc. Strive to reverse your hypothesis, a formidable practice that trains the ability to put yourself in others' shoes. Tickle your imagination and creativity: invent a fairy tale a day. Drink a lot of water: body and cells are 40-50% water; even a mild water deficit has consequences on the general balance, and the brain suffers in the same way. Learn to breathe deeply: inhale, hold and exhale, counting slowly up to six for each phase. Write down your favorite phrases and those that are inspirational, walk in the green as often as possible.

Help me find an ending
"Society must face the growing demand for cognitive enhancement and the answer must start from the rejection of the idea that the term enhancement has a negative connotation," said Martha Farah and Michael Gazzaniga in their article in Nature. And I agree with them.

Category: Health
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