The Dalai Lama explores Neuroplasticity (BSP 113)

The scientific highlight of the Dalai Lama's first visit to Alabama was an invitation-only event called "Neuroplasticity and Healing," which was held at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). BSP 113 features exclusive coverage of that event.

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The episode transcript and full show notes will be posted next week.

Exercise Promotes Brain Plasticity (BSP 111)

John Ratey, MD
Click picture to hear interview

According to psychiatrist Dr. John Ratey the best way to improve brain plasticity is by exercise.  I spoke to him shortly after he published his best-seller Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (2008). He commented that even compared to drugs "Exercise is the champ."

Download BSP 111

Since then Dr. Ratey has been traveling the world promoting the value of exercise for people of all ages, but his main focus has been on young people and on trying to restore and invigorate physical education programs in the schools. In Spark he provided some of the preliminary evidence that vigorous exercise promotes better academic performance, but that evidence had continued to mount.

Besides improving academic performance regular exercise also helps over all mental health. Exercise is especially effective for problems like depression and ADHD. Our brains rely on a complex mixture of neuroactive chemicals (neurotransmitters, etc.), but since our understanding of these is still very primitive, treatment with drugs can be unpredictable. Dr. Ratey feels that medications can be an important part of treating problems like ADHD, but that exercise should be included as an essential element.

Of course, even those of us who don't struggle with mental illnes are concerned with keeping our brains healthy as we age. Here again Dr. Ratey argues that exercise is essential. He speculates that exercise tricks your brain "into thinking that you're younger and that you still need to grow, as opposed to being stationary and having atrophy occur." Also, when you keep on learning (new things) your brain continues to respond and build new pathways. This is very similar to what Dr. Michael Merzenich (one of the pioneers of brain plasticity) told us in BSP 105.

Dr. Ratey is working on a new book that will be an update on the science that has been done since Spark was published, but his 2008 interview remains one of my favorites. That's why I just released an updated version of this interview as BSP 111. 

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References and Links

Related Episodes:


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Brain Plasticity with Michael Merzenich (BSP 105)

                              Michael Merzenich

                              Michael Merzenich

If you have read anything about brain plasticity you have seen the name Michael Merzenich. Dr. Merzenich is one of the pioneers in this field, having spent over 30 years documenting that the human brain (and that of other mammals) continues to change throughout life. I interviewed Dr. Merzenich several years ago (BSP 54), but the publication of his first book Soft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life gave us another opportunity to talk about how we can apply these discoveries in our daily lives.

According to Dr. Merzenich, "No matter how much you've struggled, no matter where you've been in your life, you're in charge of your life going forward.  And you have the capacity; you have the resources to change things for the better—always have that capacity.  And that's what the book is trying to emphasize. “ (BSP 105)

I found Soft-wired very compelling because it combines a clear explanation of the science with many stories about real people facing a wide variety of cognitive challenges. The overall tone of the book is very optimistic even though it also considers the way bad choices can contribute to cognitive decline. 

How to get this episode:

  • FREE: audio mp3 (click to stream, right click to download)
  • Buy Transcript for $1.
  • Premium Subscribers now have unlimited access to all old episodes and transcripts.
  • The most recent 25 episodes of the Brain Science Podcast are still FREE. See the individual show notes for links the audio files.

Related Episodes:

  • BSP 10: Introduction to Brain Plasticity.
  • BSP 17: Discussion of The Wisdom Paradox: How Your Mind Can Grow Stronger As Your Brain Grows Older by Elkhonon Goldberg.
  • BSP 28: Interview with Dr. Norman Doidge, author of The Brain That Changes Itself.
  • BSP 33: Interview with Dr. John Ratey, author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.
  • BSP 54: Interview with Dr. Michael Merzenich, author of Soft-wired.
  • BSP 87: Interview with Dr. Pam Greenwood, co-author of Nurturing the Older Brain and Mind.

Further Reading:

Brain Fitness with Alvaro Fernandez (BSP 100)

Alvaro Fernandez of SharpBrains

Alvaro Fernandez of SharpBrains

I have been using the SharpBrains website as a source of information and ideas since the early days of my Brain Science Podcast, so it seemed fitting to invite SharpBrains co-founder Alvaro Fernandez to be my guest for Episode 100.   We talked about the second edition of The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness: How to Optimize Brain Health and Performance at Any Age, which he co-authored with Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg (BSP 18). The goal of this book is to give people from all backgrounds a practical guide for evaluating the current science and establishing their own "brain fitness" regimen, much in the way that each of us must choose a physical fitness that meets our individual needs and lifestyle.

Brain Fitness should not just be a concern for older people, it should become a key component of a healthy lifestyle at any age. The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness is a great first step.

How to get this episode:


  • FREE: audio mp3 (click to stream, right click to download)
  • Buy Transcript for $1.
  • Premium Subscribers now have unlimited access to all old episodes and transcripts.
  • The most recent 25 episodes of the Brain Science Podcast are still FREE. See the individual show notes for links the audio files.

Links and References: 

Celebrating BSP 100

To celebrate Episode 100 of the Brain Science Podcast I invited listeners to contribute audio to the show. I couldn't use everything, but I want to thank everyone who submitted content.  The following listeners are featured:  

  •  "I Got a Brain" Written and Performed by Dr. Jay Einhorn
  • Interview with Darryl Ferges
  • "Mindfire" (new theme music) by Tony Cotraccia
  • Audio comments:  Leon Mcgahee, MD., Eric Lindley, Julio Dantos, Hamish Kebb, and Adelia Moore, PhD
  • Email from Jana Johnson

Send Feedback to 

      Brain Aging Research with Dr. Pamela Greenwood (BSP 87)


      Pamela Greenwood, PhD

      Nuturing the Older Brain and Mind, by Pamela M. Greenwood and Raja Parasuaman provides a comprehensive review of the current research in cognitive aging.  In the latest Brain Science Podcast (BSP 87)Dr. Greenwood explains that brain aging and cognitive aging are not the same thing; the typical brain changes that are associated with normal brain aging (such as shrinkage) are not reliable predictors of cognitive decline. Fortunately, even though normal brain aging is still not well understood, the discovery of brain plasticity is shifting the focus of research. Not only does brain plasticity offer new hope for people who suffer strokes and other brain injuries, it also suggests that life style choices influence cognitive function at all ages.

      Nurturing the Older Brain and Mind is intended for an academic audience but it is accessible to everyone. This month's interview with Dr. Greenwood (BSP 87) focuses on dispelling the most stubborn myths about brain aging. We also talk about the practical steps we can all take to help maintain our cognitive performance.

      How to get this episode:

      Related Episodes:

      • BSP 10: Introduction to Brain Plasticity.
      • BSP 26: Norman Doidge, author of The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science.
      • BSP 28: Edward Taub: applying brain plasticity to stroke rehabilitation.
      • BSP 68: Peter Whitehouse on dementia versus normal brain aging.


      • Nurturing the Older Brain and Mind, by Pamela M. Greenwood and Raja Parasuraman (2012).
      • The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, by Norman Doidge.
      • Greenwood, P. M. (2007) Functional Plasticity in Cognitive Aging: Review and Hypothesis. Neuropsychology  21(6) 657–673.
      • Greenwood, P. M., and Parashauraman, R. (2010) Neuronal and cognitive plasticity: A neurocognitive framework for ameliorating cognitive aging. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience 2: 150.
      • Gould, E. and Gross, C.G. (2002) Neurogenesis in adult mammals: Some progress and problems. Journal of Neuroscience 22 (3): 619-623.
      • Taub, E., Uswatte, G., and Elbert, T. (2002) New treatments in neurorehabilitation founded on basic research. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 3 (3): 228-236.
      • Grady, C. L., McIntosh, A.R., and Craik, F.I. (2003) Age-related differences in the functional connectivity of the hippocampus during memory encoding. Hippocampus 13 (5): 572-586.
      • Colcombe, S.J., A.F. Kramer, K.I. Erickson, P. Scalf, E. McAuley, N.J. Cohen, A. Webb, et al.,
      • Cardiovascular fitness, cortical plasticity, and aging. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 2004. 101(9): p. 3316-21.
      • Hertzog, C., Kramer, A. F., Wilson, R. S. and Lindenberger, U. (2009) Enrichment effects on adult cognitive development: Can the functional capacity of older adults be preserved and enhanced? Psychological Science in the Public Interest 9 (1): 1-65.
      • Kramer, A.F., Larish, J. F.,  and Strayer, D. L. (1995) Training for attentional control in dual tasking settings: A comparison of young and older adults. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied 1: 50-76.
      • Nagamatsu, L.S., Handy, T. C., et. al. 2012. Resistance Training Promotes Cognitive and Functional Brain Plasticity in Seniors With Probable Mild Cognitive Impairment.Archives of Internal Medicine 172 (8) 666-668.
      • Liu-Ambrosea, T.,  Nagamatsua, L.S., Vosse, M.W.,  Khanc, K.M., and. Handy, T. C. (2012) Resistance training and functional plasticity of the aging brain: a 12-month randomized controlled trial. Neurobiology of Aging 33: 1690 –1698.
      • Willis, S.L. et. al (2006) Long-term effects of cognitive training on everyday functional outcomes in older adults. Journal of the American Medical Association 296 (23): 2805-2814.
      • For more references: see Nurturing the Older Brain and Mind and the free transcript of BSP 87.


      Alzheimer's Disease with Dr. Peter Whitehouse (BSP 68)

      Brain Science Podcast 68 is an interview with Dr. Peter Whitehouse, co-author (with Daniel George) ofThe Myth of Alzheimer's: What You Aren't Being Told About Today's Most Dreaded Diagnosis.  Alzheimer's Disease originally referred to a relatively rare form of premature dementia, but in recent decades the diagnosis has been expanded to include patients of all ages. This change is not based on science, and in this interview we talk about why being labeled with with Alzheimer's may be doing older patients more harm than good.

      Dr. Whitehouse is one of the pioneering researchers in this field, but advocates devoting resources to helping elders with with a wide range of age-related brain changes.  This interview should be of interest to physicians, scientists, as well as patients and their families.  I will be posting a supplemental interview with Daniel George, the co-author of The Myth of Alzheimer's later this month.  (Learn more at

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      • Subscribe to the Books and Ideas podcast to get the extra interview with Daniel George.
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      Michael Merzenich Talks About Neuroplasticity (BSP 54)

      Brain Science Podcast #54 is an interview with Dr. Michael Merzenich, one of the pioneers of neuroplasticity.  We talk about how the success of the cochlear implant revealed unexpected plasticity in adult brains and about how brain plasticity can be tapped to improve a wide variety of problems including dyslexia, autism, damage from disease and injury.  Healthy people of all ages can also tap the resource of brain plasticity to help maintain and improve their mental functions.

      How to get this episode:

      Links and References

      Previous Episodes on Brain Plasticity

      Send email feedback to Ginger Campbell, MD at

      From SharpBrains: Neurogenesis and Brain Plasiticity

      In her latest post for SharpBrains Laurie Bartels reviews some of the principles of brain plasticity.  One principle that she mentions that I think deserves more attention is the importance of learning new things.

      Adults may have a tendency to get set in their ways – I’ve been doing it this way for a long time and it works, so why change?  Turns out, though, that change can be a way to keep aging brains healthy.  At the April Learning & the Brain conference, the theme of which was neuroplasticity, I attended several sessions on adult learning. (Click here to read Laurie's post.)

      She goes on to review the highlights of the Learning and Brain Conference.  You can read the full post at:

      Year-end Review for 2007 (BSP 27)


      Episode 27 is a look back on the first 26 episodes of the Brain Science Podcast.

      I look back on some of the main topics that we have explored including memory, consciousness, emotions, decision-making, body maps, and plasticity.  Then I talk a little about what I hope to do in the covering year.  This episode is a little more personal than most, and will mainly be of interest to regular listeners.  It includes some ideas about how you can help the Brain Science Podcast grow and prosper.

      However, in preparing this episode, I went back over the past year's episodes, and I have prepared a list of all the episodes so far and the main topics.  This should help both new listeners and regulars to find episodes that pertain to particular topics.

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      Interview with Elkhonon Goldberg, PhD (BSP 18)


      Episode 18 of the Brain Science Podcast is an interview with Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg, PhD.

      Show Notes:

      • I apologize for the uneven sound quality of this episode.  If any one out there has any suggestions, please drop me an email.
      • Dr. Goldberg shared a little bit about the breadth of his work as a neuropsychologist.
      • We talked about his rather unique perspective on the difference between the right and left brain hemispheres.  He explained why he feels that as we get older we move from reliance on the right hemisphere, which he feels is the novelty hemisphere, to a reliance on the left hemisphere, where our lifetime store of patterns enables us to use pattern recognition as a short cut in problem solving.
      • We talked about the importance of constant mental challenge, and Dr. Goldberg gives his advice about how we can keep our brains healthy through out our lives.


      The following are two companies that Dr. Goldberg is working with to provide information to the public and also tools for cognitive enhancement:

      • SharpBrains:  This is a clearing house for information, and they evaluate many of the products currently being offered.
      • HeadStrong Cognitive Fitness:  This Australian company offers a net-based program for cognitive enhancement based on Dr. Goldberg's research.  I am hoping to test their products in the near future.

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      The Wisdom of the Aging Brain (BSP 17)


      This week we discuss another book by Elkonon Goldberg, Ph.D.  I highly recommend this book to everyone, because it is an excellent review of many of the topics we have discussed over the last several months including memory, emotion, and neuroplasticity.   In this episode, we continue our discussion of the role of the pre-frontal lobes in intelligence, as well as what happens to our brain as we age.

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      Show Notes

      I want to thank Matthew Lofton for pointing out to me that there is evidence that elephants can recognize themselves in a mirror.  This means I was wrong when I said (in #16) that only humans and some primates can do this. He referred us to "I, Elephant," by Kaspar Mossmanin in the February 2007 issue of Scientific American Mind.  The original article was "Self-recognition in an Asian elephant," by:Plotnik, Joshua M.; de Waal, Frans B. M.; Reiss, Diana. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 11/7/2006, Vol. 103 Issue 45, p17053-17057.  He posted this information as a comment, but I wanted to bring this to everyone's attention.

      Episodes that are referred to in this episode:


      Note: You should have no problem listening to Episode #17 first, but I have provided these references for those who want to review or go back for more details.

      Definitions used in this episode:

      • Attractor: a cognitive template that enables pattern recognition. An attractor is thought to be a concise set of neurons with strong interactions among themselves. A unique and important quality of attractors is that a broad range of inputs activate the same set of neurons. This is thought to be the mechanism of pattern recognition.
      • Cognitive competence: the ability to relate the old to the new so as to recognize the similarities between a new problem and one that has been previously solved.
      • Cognitive wisdom: an enhanced capacity for problem solving
      • Generic memory: memory for patterns

      Brief list of topics discussed in this episode:

        • Review of important ideas about the prefrontal lobes from #16.
        • An hypothesis about the differing roles of the right and left hemispheres.
        • How the brain changes in normal aging.
        • Mechanisms that protect the brain from degenerative changes:
        •      Generic memory-why this type of memory is more robust.
        •      Pattern expansion-how parts of the cortex expand with use.
        •      Effortless experts-why familiar tasks are less demanding.
        •      Why vigorous mental activity is important throughout life.

        For more links related to Dr. Goldberg's work see the show notes for Episode 16.