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Why you want to supercharge your brain


In 1848, Phineas Gage was working in railway construction when he suffered a brain injury.

JAMES GOODWIN: Before the accident, he was personable, well-mannered, great with people.

MARTÍNEZ: That's James Goodwin, who writes about Phineas Gage in his book "Supercharge Your Brain."

An iron bar tore through Gage's left cheek. Now, he survived, but he was never the same.

GOODWIN: After the accident, he became irascible, profane, argumentative and aggressive. And his doctor came to the conclusion that, in fact, these changes had been the result of the loss of brain tissue.

MARTÍNEZ: It's a case that James Goodwin says changed our understanding of the brain. Now, I asked him for his advice for anyone who might experience brain trauma.

GOODWIN: I think the first thing I would say is take all possible steps to avoid blows to the head. You show me a case of concussion and I will show you a damaged brain. Now, over the years, these points of damage may be very small. I remember my father was a boxer. He eventually got dementia. And when they did a scan of his brain, there were hundreds of little tiny white marks in the gray matter. They were the scars from the many injuries from blows to the head.

So you need to remember, if you're in a high-risk profession or occupation, that every blow to the head is going to build up over time. Some people can get away with this, but the general rule is you show me a concussion, I will show you a change in personality. It might be small, but it will be there.

MARTÍNEZ: But for a professional athlete, James, or a police officer or a - or someone that is saving lives, that might be part of the job. They can't stop their work.

GOODWIN: Then in that case, you've got to do everything else possible to maintain the health of your brain because the brain is fairly resilient - I don't want to paint a black picture here - so that it can sustain levels of damage. But if you keep it in tiptop condition and you follow all the rules about brain health, then you stand a much better chance of getting through this without those injuries having an effect.

MARTÍNEZ: What are some of those rules to keeping your brain tiptop? I remember my dad used to do a crossword puzzle every single day. And he was convinced, James - convinced - that doing a crossword puzzle in pen every day from the newspaper would keep his brain sharp. Was he just imagining that?

GOODWIN: Well, the brain game industry has convinced a lot of people the same as your father. What I would say is that it raises the level of arousal in the brain. It's rewarding and highly satisfying, and both those will contribute to good brain health.

But actually, there are other activities which are better. We call them cognitive stimulating activities. All of them have one thing in common, and that is you learn something new. If you're on an old game or a crossword and you're in the comfort zone and nothing's changing very much, then that won't have the same effect as if you're learning new things.

MARTÍNEZ: Or maybe getting better at something, too, because it sounds like that stimulates the brain - getting better at something.

GOODWIN: Actually, you're absolutely right. It's the progress that you make that protects the brain because it makes the brain develop new connections - what we call synapses. And as long as you're doing that, it's going to rejuvenate the brain.

MARTÍNEZ: I've got to call my dad immediately after this interview, James, and tell him to put his pen down.

How about oral hygiene? Because I don't know if many people will make that connection between oral hygiene and brain maintenance.

GOODWIN: Oh, that's a really important question. What we know is that one of the big sites of inflammation in the body is the mouth. That's because there are huge numbers of bacteria in there. We're constantly putting food into the mouth, and that generates levels of inflammation. And that inflammation is the enemy of good brain health. And we also know that there's certain bacteria in the mouth which can actually migrate to the brain, and we find this in dementia patients. So although it sounds unusual, good dental hygiene is highly protective to the brain.

MARTÍNEZ: You know, James, you wrote the book "Supercharge Your Brain." What do you do on a personal level to try and keep your brain sharp?

GOODWIN: I bear one principle in mind - I try and keep my inflammation levels down. If I took the blood of an 18-year-old and measured all the inflammatory chemicals in there - things like interleukin 6, CRP, other molecules - they'd be low. He's young. The body can cope with all the things that we do that are not necessarily good for the brain. But by the time you get to my age - and I am in my 70s now - all my inflammatory molecules will be quite high in my blood.

So I exercise five days a week. I make sure that I only eat regularly at certain times. Eating and drinking at all hours of the day and night is not a good thing. The brain needs a rest and the body needs a rest. I make sure I have a great social life. If you're lonely, it's as damaging to your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and drinking a bottle of vodka. And it also is a good predictor of dementia. So I make sure that I've got good social contacts. And then the last one would be I manage my stress levels.

MARTÍNEZ: But managing our stress and avoiding loneliness - I mean, those are two things that in the last couple of years, Professor, have been put to the test with COVID. Billions and billions of human beings have gone through this collective trauma of COVID for two years now. I mean, what's being studied - what's being talked about in terms of what this time may have been doing to our brains?

GOODWIN: Well, the first thing I'd like to say - if I wanted to devise a plan to damage the health of the nation, I'd go for lockdown. It's enormously damaging. It may flatten the curve on COVID, but the downside of lockdown is huge. It means we take less exercise. It means that we eat less well. It means that we have less access to medical care. It means that we don't see people. All of these things are big negatives as far as brain health is concerned.

MARTÍNEZ: Is that something that maybe was unavoidable, though, you know, considering what we didn't know about COVID at the start?

GOODWIN: I think that's a fair point to make. So to counter that, what I would say was do everything you possibly can, if you're restricted in your social activities, to maintain contact with other people. Our social nature has evolved in the brain over 1.5 million years of evolution. Soon as you start interfering with that interaction with other people, it's going to be damaging to the brain. Phone people. Get on Zoom. Write people letters. Talk over the garden fence. Do anything you can to maintain your social life. It's hugely important.

MARTÍNEZ: Professor James Goodwin, director of science and research impact at Brain Health Network and author of "Supercharge Your Brain: How To Maintain A Healthy Brain Throughout Your Life." Thank you very much, Professor.

GOODWIN: Thank you very much, A. It was a pleasure to be with you and to be with your listeners.

(SOUNDBITE OF KOLOTO'S "FAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.