Recently I attended the morning presentations at the 22nd annual New York City Mental Health Research Symposium, organized by Brain Awareness Week partner NARSAD: The Brain and Behavior Research Fund. An extraordinarily well-organized and well-moderated event (when you plan public programs, these are things you notice), the symposium brought together NARSAD awardees and research partners for a day of presentations dedicated to cutting edge research on psychiatric illnesses.
At the end of a morning of talks by researchers working to get to the core of complex illnesses such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, Dana Alliance member Robert C. Malenka, M.D., Ph.D., took the stage to remind us that none of those findings would be possible without basic neuroscience research, which aims to better understand how the brain works.
In five slides spanning fifteen minutes, Dr. Malenka gave an overview of one of the brain’s most fundamental processes—synaptic transmission—and reminded the audience of its key role in illuminating the pathophysiology of mental illness, among many other areas. He discussed how the neurobiology of the brain is modified based on experience (this is the process known as “plasticity”), and how we are who we are because our experiences—positive and negative—have changed the physical structure of our brains.
No matter how many times this process is explained to me, it never ceases to amaze. My sense was that much of the audience—who were very well-versed in basic neuroscience, judging by their questions during the Q&A periods following each talk—felt the same way, or perhaps felt a bit of refreshment in returning to the basics for a moment and marveling at the complexity of the human brain’s most basic processes.
My favorite part came during the Q&A following Dr. Malenka’s talk, when he was asked about the influence of age on synaptic plasticity. This is the topic at the core of the Alliance’s Staying Sharp program, so I was so pleased when his answer was, in a nutshell: “Use it or lose it.” He spoke about how scientists now know that we don’t necessarily have to lose plasticity as we age, so long as we keep our brains active. As we outline in our Staying Sharp program, this includes engaging in mental exercise, maintaining strong social ties, and maintaining vascular health through regular exercise, good nutrition, and keeping risk factors such as cholesterol, blood pressure, and weight in check.
For those who are already “using it” by engaging in mental exercises such as word crosses or Sudoku, here’s an encouraging anecdote: As I stood in line to use the restroom during the morning break, the mother of one of the presenters was in line on my left. “It’s amazing how much I am learning about my son today,” she began. “I had no idea of all the accolades he’s received—he never tells me anything!”
“When did you begin to understand how much potential your son had?” the woman to my right asked.
Without missing a beat the proud mother responded: “As a little boy he was always doing puzzles.”