How to Reverse Brain Atrophy

brain atrophy

As we age, our brains shrink in size due to loss of neural tissue. The term for this is ‘atrophy’, and it can be seen on MRI scans. Surprisingly, you don’t have to be old to have atrophy. In fact, the process of brain shrinkage probably begins in your 20s, and gets progressively more severe decade by decade.

Genetics and lifestyle factors primarily determine the rate at which your brain atrophies.

If you’ve been bummed out because your MRI shows significant atrophy, there is hope. To some extent, it can be reversed.

I was very excited to see a study published which indicated that exercise training increased brain volume. Specifically, this one study showed that moderate intensity aerobic exercise 3 days/week for year led to a 2% increase in hippocampal volume! This is very good news, since the hippocampus is felt to be the memory engine of the brain.

  • moderate intensity exercise for this study was defined as: walking for 40 minutes per session. Participants wore heart rate monitors and were encouraged to walk in their target heart rate zone, which in this study was 60-75% of the maximum heart rate.

After a bit of digging around, I found another study which showed aerobic exercise training increased brain volume of gray and white matter in the prefrontal cortex. This region of the brain, separate from the hippocampus as discussed above, plays a very important role in concentration, judgement, problem solving ability, social behavior. [more information about the prefrontal cortex can be found here]



Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011 Feb 15;108(7):3017-22.

J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci (2006) 61 (11): 1166-1170




Mildly Elevated Blood Pressure

white matter disease changes small vessel chronic ischemic

High Blood Pressure, also known as Hypertension (HTN), is very, very bad for brain health.  It is a common condition that ruins the plumbing. Patients with a history of HTN typically have numerous lesions in their brain. These lesions commonly show up on MRI scans and are called ‘white matter lesions’, or ‘small vessel disease’, or ‘chronic ischemic change’.  Neurologists commonly find themselves explaining these MRI findings to patients. All of these terms basically mean the brain has suffered numerous small strokes. The longer you’ve had HTN, and the poorer controlled it has been, the more lesions you’ll probably have.

Of course, having a brain riddled with holes and looking like swiss cheese can’t be good. And what we find is that the more of these lesions you have, the more likely you are to have cognitive impairment.

Amazingly, I remember reading a recent article that suggested for every handful of white matter lesions seen on MRI [chronic ischemic changes, small vessel changes seen], there were hundreds if not thousands more present only detetable via microscope. This is an astounding piece of information.

Importantly, we are now learning that even mildly elevated blood pressure- in the normal range- can also be associated with these lesions. New lines of evidence suggest that low range pre-hypertension 120-129/80-84 probably is bad for your brain and ups your risk of small strokes accumulating over time.


Neurology March 12, 2014

Cholesterol ratio and Alzheimer’s

Having higher levels of “good cholesterol” HDL and lower levels of “bad cholesterol” LDL correlates with lower amounts of Alzheimer’s pathology in the brain [amyloid plaque].

Cholesterol measurements are important because they correlate with blood vessel health. As we reviewed earlier, keeping your pipes clean is incredibly important.

Since diet impacts your cholesterol level, this is yet another way you may modify your risk for getting Alzheimer’s disease.

From a recent JAMA article

Can Alzheimer’s symptoms be helped?


Above, a picture of a brain cell [source]

To an extent, Yes.

A key factor in this process involves plasticity- the brain’s innate ability to create new connections & rewire itself. At all ages, the brain remains plastic. It is highest during childhood, and diminishes as you get older. Plasticity is present to some extent, however, at all stages of life.

If we focus on increasing plasticity, Alzheimer’s symptoms can be improved. Especially if we can simultaneously diminish the rate of brain deterioration that is part of Alzheimer’s.

Scientists are hard at work uncovering the pathways that govern plasticity. Recently, a team has identified an important protein that plays a role: Reelin.  This protein has amazingly been shown to rescue the cognitive deficits in an Alzheimer’s animal model. [Here is a link to the study in Nature Communications]


Importantly, there is something you can do right now to safely, naturally, boost brain plasticity. It would be the trillion dollar drug if pharmaceutical companies could bottle it: Aerobic Exercise. While there are hundreds of studies that support this statement, here is one highly cited source: Exercise: a behavioral intervention to enhance brain health and plasticity.



Importance of Food Before Conception

diet baby brain development

“There is no escape-we pay for the violence of our ancestors”.- Frank Herbert, Dune

What a child eats will determine the health and strength of his or her brain as an adult.

What a mom eats during the 9 months of pregnancy will have a significant effect upon fetal brain development, which in turn plays a major role in shaping adult brain health and ability.

What a mom eats in the year before she conceives will also shape her child’s future adult brain.

And, surprisingly, we now have evidence that what the dad eats before conception also plays a very important role in shaping the child’s future intelligence & health.

You should realize it’s not just what you eat: tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs/toxins used by mom or dad before conception are bound to have a very negative influence on development!

Reference: “Low paternal dietary folate alters the mouse sperm epigenome and is associated with negative pregnancy outcomes,” by R. Lambrot, C.Xu, S. Saint-Phar, G. Chountalos, T. Cohen, M. Paquet, M. Suderman, M. Hallett, and S. Kimmins in Nature Communications, 2013.


Carbohydrates, Blood Glucose, and Memory function

carbs memory learning

Most neurologists will readily attest to how bad diabetes is for the brain. Long-standing diabetics with poorly controlled (i.e, high) blood sugars invariably have significant cognitive impairment.  Their brains are usually filled with lesions easily detected on MRI scans. Diabetics are at higher risk for Alzheimer disease and vascular dementia.

What we are now learning, however, is that elevated blood sugars IN THE NON-DIABETIC range also damages the brain and impairs cognitive function.

A new study published in Neurology 2013; 81:1746-1752 indicates that even if you don’t have diabetes, chronically elevated blood sugar levels is associated with:

  • poorer memory function and learning ability
  • decreased hippocampal volume and microstructure (hippocampus =memory engine of the brain)

What primarily increases your blood sugar levels? Carbohydrates. Things like bread, pasta, cereal, soft drinks, fruits, cookies, candies, etc..

It is becoming apparent that we need to carefully watch not just how many sweets we eat, but also the quantity of bread, rice, cereal, pasta, and fruit if we wish to improve memory function and keep our hippocampus healthy!


Higher Education Protects Brain Against Alzheimer’s Disease


Research strongly suggests that the more schooling you go through, the more you protect your brain later in life against Alzheimer’s disease & Dementia.

This concept is known as Cognitive Reserve.

Those who have gone through higher education have higher amounts of Cognitive Reserve. It is likely that a lifetime of continual learning and education builds up your Cognitive Reserve.

Cognitive Reserve helps to mask the negative affects of hits/insults/injuries/degeneration that build up in all our brains as we age.

PET scanners can now measure the amount of Alzheimer’s pathology in your brain (beta amyloid). Research suggests that those who have gone through higher education (higher amounts of cognitive reserve) are more likely to have normal cognitive profiles even though their brain is filled with Alzheimer pathology (beta amyloid).

So what are you waiting for? Start building your Cognitive Reserve today!




Sitting for too long


Students spend hours sitting when they read, study for exams, and write papers.

Many desk jobs basically entail 9 to 5 sitting.

Are you aware that sitting for too long may double your risk of dying?

Importantly, several studies suggest that sitting for long periods is associated with cardiovascular disease.  One of the tenets of keeping your brain sharp and healthy is keeping your vascular system healthy; i.e. keeping your blood vessels clear and open.

Think this won’t apply to you because you exercise regularly? Interestingly, the evidence suggests that even 30 minutes of exercise/day on most days of the week DOES NOT counteract the harmful effects of excessive sitting. In other words you can not reverse the harmful vascular effects of sitting for prolonged periods by simply exercising at the end of the day (or the morning prior!).

So remember to take frequent breaks and briefly exercise your large muscles! And if you can do some of your work or study while standing that will probably also help!


Sedentary behavior and cardiovascular disease: a review of prospective studies

Too Much Sitting is Hazardous to your Health

The Power of Good Plumbing


One of the key concepts for preserving intelligence and brain health as you get older is:

Keep the pipes open.

In other words, make sure the blood vessels that feed the brain don’t get clogged and narrowed; i.e. atherosclerotic.

Blood = Life.  The more clogged your vessels, the more you will choke and slowly kill your brain cells. A seemingly simple concept that very few truly appreciate.

Luckily, there are many dietary & lifestyle measures you can take to not only prevent this from happening, but to also partially reverse the process.

In the future, we’ll delve into these in more detail.

Your Brain on Alcohol


As you can see, the alcoholic brain on the right is massively shrunken due to brain cell loss.

While visiting Chicago recently, was reminded just how much alcohol is a part of young people’s lives. As you drive through Wrigleyville, Downtown, Lincoln Park, Andersonville you can’t help but notice bars are everywhere. Unfortunately, when many students drink, they do it to excess- i.e., they binge. What I wish I could tell all students is that an overwhelming amount of research clearly indicates binge drinking is very bad for your brain and will seriously impair your ability to learn and get good grades- both in the short and long term. From a 2007 study that appeared in the European Journal of Neuroscience:

These findings indicate that binge pattern exposure to ethanol during adolescence induces brain damage by inflammatory processes and causes long-lasting neurobehavioural consequences.

Here’s the conclusions from another study looking at binge drinking in young adults [Reference 2 below]:

…differences can be seen in mood and cognitive performance between those that binge drink and those that do not

And it’s not just college students. According to the National Institutes of Health, almost 1 out of 10 Americans meet standard diagnostic criteria for an alcohol use disorder.

Another important bit of alcohol-brain atrophy research comes from Carol Ann Paul (of Wellesley College) and colleagues. They looked at MRI brain scans of 1839 people aged 34 to 88, and their findings (presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s 59th Annual Meeting in Boston May 2007) indicate the more you chronically drink, the more your brain volume decreases. The results held true even for moderate drinkers.

According to Carol:

There is a continuous negative correlation between alcohol consumption and total brain volume. It seems that there is not a beneficial effect of even small amounts of alcohol on brain volume.

Later on I’ll post how alcohol knocks the teenage brain off its growth trajectory.


Reference 1: Paul CA et al. “The Effect of Alcohol Consumption on Total BrainVolume: The Framingham Heart Study.” Abstract P05.030, presented May 2.

Reference 2: Townshend JM, Duka T. Binge Drinking, cognitive performance and mood in a population of young social drinkers. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2005 Mar;29(3):317-25