TIME neuroscience

A Simple Skin Test May Detect Alzheimer’s

There’s new hope that the first signs of these brain disorders may lie in the skin

Detecting Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases as early as possible is critical. But while doctors know that the conditions can start 15 to 20 years before the symptoms appear, there aren’t many reliable ways of pinpointing exactly when that occurs. Now, scientists led by Dr. Ildefonso Rodriguez-Leyva at Central Hospital in University of San Luis Potosi in Mexico report that the skin may hold the clue to such early detection.

MORE Early Warning: Detecting Alzheimer’s in the Blood and Brain Before Memory Loss

In a study that will be presented in April at the American Academy of Neurology’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C., Rodriguez-Leyva found that compared to healthy patients and those with age-related dementia, patients with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases had seven times higher levels of an altered form of a protein called tau in skin biopsies, and Parkinson’s patients also showed seven to eight times greater levels of a harmful version of another protein known as alpha-synuclein. Researchers aren’t sure what alpha-synuclein’s role is in the brain, but in Parkinson’s patients, it tends to clump into harmful aggregates that interrupt normal nerve function. Tau is involved in the brain decline associated with Alzheimer’s; as nerve cells die, the normally aligned molecules of tau, which function like railroad tracks to transport nutrients, collapse, twisting into unorganized masses of tangled protein.

“This skin test opens the possibility to see abnormal proteins in the skin before central nervous system symptoms — cognitive or motor deficits — appear,” Rodriguez-Leyva says.

MORE New Research on Understanding Alzheimer’s

Rodriguez-Leyva turned to the skin to look for signs of the altered brain proteins since the skin and brain share a common embryonic origin; while everyone makes the two proteins, those who go on to develop Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s seem to be especially vulnerable to having them fold in abnormal ways and stick together in damaging masses in the brain. If there were genetic signals dictating these sticky forms of the proteins, he speculated, then those signals might be detectable in the skin as well. “The ectoderm originates the nervous tissue and the skin,” he writes in an email to TIME discussing the study. “Our idea is that they have a similar program of protein expression. Therefore the skin could reflect events taking place in the nervous system.”

MORE New Test May Predict Alzheimer’s 10 Years Before Diagnosis

The study involved only a few dozen patients — 20 with Alzheimer’s, 16 Parkinson’s patients and 17 with age-related dementia, who were compared to 12 healthy controls — so more work needs to be done to confirm the findings. But the results hint that it may be possible to detect these neurodegenerative conditions sooner, and it also provides drug developers with more confidence that targeting abnormal forms of tau and alpha-synuclein may lead to effective treatments.

Read next: America’s Pain Killer Problem is Growing, Federal Data Shows

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TIME Careers & Workplace

3 Science-Backed Ways to Remember Anything

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Our ability to memorize is taking a back seat to convenience, but there must be a balance between the two

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This post is in partnership with The Muse. The article below was originally published on The Muse.

In this age of smart phones, smart TVs, smart watches, smart glasses—the list is becoming endless—the only thing that seems to be getting duller may be our own brains.

Think of all the things we used to be forced to memorize, which have become relics of a quaint and incomprehensible past. Can you imagine actually memorizing someone’s phone number anymore? And we all know that person who can’t find his own friend’s house without staring at his GPS.

Our ability to memorize is taking a back seat to convenience, and if you’re like me, you’ve noticed the detrimental effects.

It’s not all bad—professor of psychology Daniel Wegner has argued that new technology and search engines may be becoming helpful “virtual extensions of our memory” (sort of like what you do when you leave it to your significant other to remember important dates).

But there are disturbing consequences. A 2013 poll from The Trending Machine National showed that Millennials age 18-34 are “significantly more likely than seniors ages 55 or older to forget what day it is (15% vs. 7%), where they put their keys (14% vs. 8%), forget to bring their lunch (9% vs. 3%), or even to take a bath or shower (6% vs. 2%).”

A balance between memory and convenience must be achieved, and it is clearly time to fight back.

Here are three tips based on new scientific research that you can use to gain back control over your memory.

1. Associate Your Memories With Physical Objects

Here’s a common memory problem that can cause you huge embarrassment at the office: forgetting someone’s name. Whether you’re meeting a new employee or on the phone with an important client, finding a way to remember names can be the difference between making a great impression or committing a serious social blunder.

Next time you meet someone, try to associate his or her name with a physical object, like signs, buildings, billboards—basically anything that you can see, feel, or touch counts. Essentially, you’re connecting something tangible with more abstract information such as names, numbers, dates, or appointments, making them easier to remember.

So, if you meet Pete, for example, and he’s got a pen in his pocket, think of him as Pen Pete. The possibilities for object association with abstract information is nearly infinite, so get creative. (In my case, the more ridiculous my associations are, the more memorable they become.)

You’re probably used to using this physical object strategy when trying to remember directions—“turn left at the big red sign.” This is a natural association that has worked beautifully for the entirety of human existence. So why not apply it elsewhere?

2. Don’t Just Memorize by Repetition—Also Pay Attention to Nuance

Everyone is familiar with the old saying, “practice makes perfect.” Interestingly, scientists have found that while repetitive practice can enhance your ability to remember the “big picture” outline of an object, it is detrimental to remembering the minute details.

New research suggests that, although developing “muscle memory” is an efficient method for memorizing information and learning new tasks in a general way, it will impair your ability to memorize and learn in a thorough manner.

Think about it: If you’ve ever memorized a presentation without actually understanding what you’re saying, you know what happens. You either can’t remember what you’re supposed to say, or you come off sounding like a robot. God forbid that you get interrupted and can’t find your place again.

When it comes to memorization, rote repetition is not enough. Repetition needs to be complemented by an understanding of the details to successfully present in a way that commands your audience.

So what should you do? Practice repetitively—but ensure that your repetition is supported by a solid foundation of understanding.

3. Doodle Like Crazy

This will seem counterintuitive to some of you, but my fellow doodlers have known this truth for a long time—doodling while ingesting non-visual information helps to increase memory retention rate significantly.

A 2009 study in Applied Cognitive Psychology demonstrated that people who were asked to doodle while listening to a list of names were able to recall 29% more of the names on average over non-doodlers. Doodles don’t even have to be related to the topic at hand. Per The Wall Street Journal, “Jesse Prinz draws people’s heads to help himself pay attention during lectures and the speeches at conferences he attends.”

How can doodling be this effective? Studies suggest that the act actually helps you to remain more focused and retain more information because it helps your brain retain a baseline of activity that may otherwise vanish during a dry lecture or speech. In other words, doodling keeps you awake and focused!

So next time you’re in a meeting, bust out a writing utensil and start drawing—though you may want to sit toward the back!

As we continue our journey into the 21st century, improving technology will only make the world even more convenient. We’ll have to remember less and even begin to rely heavily on automation in every facet of our lives.

While it would be easy to settle in to all of this convenience, aim to keep your memory sharp and your wits about you.

More from The Muse:

TIME Sex/Relationships

8 Ways Sex Affects Your Brain

It can boost your mood, relieve pain, and more

Understanding how sex affects your brain can improve your roll in the hay, and it may also shed light on other parts of your health, says Barry R. Komisaruk, PhD, distinguished professor of psychology at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey. It’s not the easiest subject to study—test subjects might have to masturbate inside an MRI machine—so research is still developing. But scientists are starting to unravel the mystery. Here’s what we know so far about your brain on sex.

Sex is like a drug

Sex makes us feel good. That’s why we want it, like it, and spend so much time hunting for mates. The pleasure we get from sex is largely due to the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that activates the reward center of the brain. Dopamine is also one of the chemicals responsible for the high people get on certain drugs. “Taking cocaine and having sex don’t feel exactly the same, but they do involve the same [brain] regions as well as different regions of the brain,” says Timothy Fong, MD, associate professor of psychiatry at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine. Caffeine, nicotine, and chocolate also tickle the reward center, says Komisaruk.

Sex can act like an antidepressant

A 2002 study out of the University at Albany looked at 300 women and found that those who had sex without a condom had fewer depressive symptoms than women who did use a condom. The researchers hypothesized that various compounds in semen, including estrogen and prostaglandin, have antidepressant properties, which are then absorbed into the body after sex. (They corrected for other things that might affect both mood and condom use, such as being in a serious relationship or use of oral contraceptives.) This is good news for anyone who is in a committed relationship, but if you’re still playing the field, then you shouldn’t give up condoms. There are other ways to boost mood, but really no other way to prevent sexually transmitted diseases.

Read more: 13 Reasons to Have More Sex

Sex can (sometimes) be a downer

Those feel-good chemicals may be going full blast during the act, but after? According to researchers, there is such a thing as post-sex blues (technical term: postcoital dysphoria). About one-third of the women participating in one study reported having experienced sadness after sex at some point in time. While it’s possible that regret or feeling coerced might be the reason why, researchers can’t explain the connection at this point for sure.

Sex relieves pain

Don’t skip sex when you have a headache. Research shows that doing the deed may relieve your symptoms. In a 2013 German study, 60% of participants who had migraines and 30% of cluster-headache sufferers who had sex during a headache episode reported partial or total relief. Other studies have found that women who stimulated an area of the G spot had an elevation in pain threshold. “It took greater pain stimulus for them to feel the pain,” says Beverly Whipple, PhD, a professor emerita at Rutgers University who has conducted some research on the topic. Whipple didn’t study why this was so, but other researchers have attributed the effect to oxytocin, the so-called bonding hormone that helps mothers and babies bond and which also has pain-relieving properties.

Read more: 20 Weird Facts About Sex and Love

Sex can wipe your memory clean

Each year, fewer than 7 people per 100,000 experience “global transient amnesia,” a sudden but temporary loss of memory that can’t be attributed to any other neurological condition. The condition can be brought on by vigorous sex, as well as emotional stress, pain, minor head injuries, medical procedures, and jumping into hot or cold water. The forgetfulness can last a few minutes or a few hours. During an episode, a person cannot form new memories or remember very recent events. Fortunately, there seem to be no lasting effects.

Sex may boost your memory

Or at least it might if you’re a rodent. A 2010 study found that, compared with rats who were allowed only one one-night stand, rodents who engaged in “chronic” sex (once a day for 14 consecutive days) grew more neurons in the hippocampus, a region of the brain associated with memory. The findings were backed up by a second study, also in mice. It remains to be seen if regular sex also has this effect in humans (but you can always tell yourself it does).

Read more: 10 Reasons You’re Not Having Sex

Sex calms you down

The same study that linked frequent sex to a brain boost in rats also found that the rats were less stressed. This works for humans, too. One study found that people who’d just had sexual intercourse had better responses to stressful situations like public speaking than people who had not, or who had engaged in other types of sexual activity. How did sex ease stress? In this case, by lowering blood pressure.

Sex makes you sleepy

Sex is more likely to make men sleepy than women, and scientists think they know why: The part of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex winds down after ejaculation. This, along with the release of oxytocin and serotonin, may account for the “rolling over and falling asleep” syndrome.

Read more: Best and Worst Foods for Sex

This article originally appeared on Health.com.

Read next: 5 Things You Need To Know About Kissing

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TIME Research

People Think Expensive Drugs Work Better, Study Shows

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Even when there's nothing inside

We’ve all heard of the placebo effect: just believing in the healing power of a pill is sometimes enough to make a person feel better, even when there’s not medicine inside. Now, a new study shows that when people take a drug believing it’s more expensive than it actually is, they tend to think the drug is working—even when it’s just a placebo.

In a study published in the journal Neurology, researchers told 12 people with Parkinson’s disease that they were receiving two variations of the same drug, but one was more expensive than the other. They were told that the study was meant to assess whether the two drugs were in fact similar in efficacy, and that one drug was $100 while the other was $1,500. Instead, the researchers gave them all saline solution, with no effect at all.

Before getting the drugs, everyone completed tests of their motor skills and had brain imaging performed. When given the saline injection, the patients were told that they were either getting the cheap or expensive shot first.

Interestingly, those who were told they were getting the expensive shot first improved their motor skills by 28%. In one of the exams, their motor skills shot up seven points with the expensive drug, but only three points on the cheap drug. Afterward, when everyone was told what actually happened in the study, eight people told the researchers that they had greater expectations for the expensive drug and were surprised by the the improvements they felt just by believing it would work better.

It’s possible that the people in the study experienced so a great placebo effect because receiving a placebo has been shown to increase the release of dopamine in the brain, and dopamine also impacts movement.

Though the authors acknowledge that they had to deceive the people in their study to get the results, they say that findings like theirs could one day help improve the quality of life for people with Parkinson’s. “The potentially large benefit of placebo, with or without price manipulations, is waiting to be untapped for patients with Parkinson’s disease as well as those with other neurologic and medical diseases,” they write.

TIME Mental Health/Psychology

17 Ways to Age-Proof Your Brain

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Sharpen your memory with these surprising anti-aging tricks

What’s good for your body is good for your brain. That means eating a balanced diet with lots of fruits and veggies and not much sugar, saturated fat, or alcohol, as well as getting enough exercise and sleeping about eight hours a night. But evidence is accumulating that a whole host of other activities can help keep our brains young even as we advance in chronological age. There is no one magic activity that you need to take on, but trying a handful of the following will help.

Take dance lessons

Seniors who danced three to four times a week—especially those who ballroom danced—had a 75% lower risk of dementia compared with people who did not dance at all, found a 2003 landmark study in the New England Journal of Medicine. Why? “Dancing is a complex activity,” says study lead author Joe Verghese, MD, chief of geriatrics at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. “It’s aerobic so it improves blood flow to the brain which has been shown to improve brain connections. It also provides mental challenges.” While it can be hard to prove cause and effect (people with dementia may cut back on activities), the study enrolled people without dementia and followed them over time.

Play an instrument

Whether it’s the saxophone, the piano, or a ukulele, researchers found that playing an instrument for 10 or more years was correlated with better memory in advanced age compared to those who played music for less than 10 years (or not at all). Other research shows that even listening to music can help boost your brainpower. A study from the Stanford University School of Medicine found that listening to baroque music (Vivaldi, Bach) leads to changes in the brain that help with attention and storing events into memory.

Learn a foreign language

Being bilingual may help delay the onset of dementia. Individuals who spoke two languages developed dementia an average of four and a half years later than people who only spoke one language in a 2013 study published in the journal Neurology. Other research shows that people who speak more than one language are better at multitasking and paying attention. Experts say the earlier you learn, the better—growing up speaking two languages is optimal—but that it’s never too late and every little bit of language learning helps.

Play chess

Playing chess, bingo, checkers, and card games may help keep your brain fit. A 2013 French study found a 15% lower risk of dementia among people who played board games versus those who did not. And the effects seemed to last over the study’s 20-year follow-up. “The idea is that this helps build cognitive reserve,” says Dr. Verghese, whose study also found benefits to playing board games like Monopoly. “The more these activities buffer against the disease, you may be able to mask the effects of the disease for longer periods of time. It buys you extra time.”

Read more: 12 Unexpected Things That Mess With Your Memory

Read more of less

Reading, in general, is good for the brain. But reading fewer books and articles so you can give them each of them more focused attention may be even better. “Our brain doesn’t do very well with too much information. The more you download, the more it shuts the brain down,” says Sandra Bond Chapman, PhD, director of the Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas at Dallas. “It’s better to read one or two good articles and think about them in a deeper sense rather than read 20.”

Change your font

Next time you have to read through some documents for work, consider changing the typeface before you print them out. Chances are, the docs came to you in an easy-to-read font like Arial or Times New Roman, but switching it to something a little less legible like Comic Sans or Bodoni may improve your comprehension and recall of the information, according to a small study out of Harvard University. Likewise, a study at a Ohio high school revealed that students who received handouts with less-legible type performed better on tests than the students who were given more readable materials. It’s a version of the no-pain-no-gain phenomenon: When you exert more effort, your brain rewards you by becoming stronger. But make sure you keep things new by changing fonts regularly.

Single-task

If you think your ability to multitask proves you’ve got a strong brain, think again. “Multitasking hijacks your frontal lobe,” says Chapman, who is also the author of Make Your Brain Smarter. The frontal lobe regulates decision-making, problem-solving, and other aspects of learning that are critical to maintaining brain health. Research has shown that doing one thing at a time—not everything at once—strengthens higher-order reasoning, or the ability to learn, understand, and apply new information.

Read more: 25 Signs and Symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease

Write about your stress

In one study, college students who wrote about stressful experiences for 20 minutes three days in a row improved their working memories and their grade point averages. Students who wrote about neutral events saw no such improvements. “We hypothesized that stress causes unwanted, intrusive thoughts,” says study co-author Adriel Boals, PhD, associate professor of psychology at the University of North Texas in Denton. “Writing gets rid of intrusive thoughts then working memory increases.” If something’s bothering you, don’t bottle it up.

Take up knitting

Activities that put your hands to work, like knitting, crocheting, and gardening, are proven stress relievers, and they may also keep your brain young. In a 2013 survey of about 3,500 knitters around the world, there was a correlation between knitting frequency and cognitive function; the more people knitted, the better function they had.

Find your purpose

People who feel they’ve found their purpose in life have lower rates of depression and tend to live longer. Studies also show that this positive outlook also benefits the brain. In one study, those who reported having a strong purpose in life were more than twice as likely to stay Alzheimer’s-free than people who did not profess a purpose. To develop a sense of purpose, focus on the positive impact you have at home or at work. You could also try volunteering for a cause that’s meaningful to you.

Read more: 12 Ways to Improve Your Concentration at Work

Be social

Spending lots of time with friends and family, especially as you get older, may be one of the best buffers against mental decline. In one study, people who participated in social activities more often and who felt that they had ample social support did better on several measures of memory, as well as mental processing speed. “Social engagement is linked with mental agility,” says Carey Gleason, PhD, a clinical neuropsychologist at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison.

Play a video game

Companies like Lumosity charge you a monthly fee for brain-training games, but playing puzzle games on your kid’s Xbox may have the same effects—and depending on what you play, may be even more effective. In a Florida State University study, subjects either played games on Lumosity.com or played Portal 2, a popular action-puzzle game for computers, Playstation, and Xbox. Those who played Portal 2 scored better on problem solving, spatial skill, and persistence tests. Other research shows that playing Tetris may increase gray matter in the brain.

Use your time efficiently

Don’t spend an hour doing something that should take you 10 minutes. Conversely, don’t spend 10 minutes on something that deserves an hour. In other words, calibrate your mental energy. “Decide from the get-go how much mental energy you are going to spend on a task,” says Chapman. “Giving your full forceful energy all the time really degrades resources. You need to know when to do something fast and when to do something slow.”

Read more: 15 Diseases Doctors Often Miss

Write by hand

Sure, typing is faster, but writing longhand may be better for your brain. Studies have shown that students learn better when they take notes by hand because it forces them to process the information as they take it in. The cursive you learned in elementary school may be particularly useful. First graders who learned to write in cursive scored higher on reading and spelling than peers who wrote in print.

Take naps

Go ahead, sneak in a super-quick catnap: it’ll recharge your brain. One group of German researchers saw improvements in memory among people who dozed for as little as six minutes, although the results were even better among those who napped longer. Conversely, problems sleeping, including sleep apnea and insomnia, are associated with dementia. That research is still early (people with dementia have disturbed sleep), but bear in mind that sleeping seven to eight hours a night may help you live longer and, hopefully, healthier.

Wash the dishes

It may be easier than you think to get the optimal amount of physical activity. According to one study, washing the dishes, cooking, and cleaning can add to our daily activity total and are linked with a reduced risk of dementia. In the study, people with the least amount of total physical activity were more than twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s compared with people reporting the most activity. Even playing cards and moving a wheelchair counted.

Read more: 12 Worst Habits for Your Mental Health

Ramp it up

Whether it’s physical activity or mental activity, you need to keep pushing your limits in order to reap the benefits. “You need to challenge yourself to the next level so you get the benefits,” says Verghese. Don’t be satisfied with finishing Monday’s easy crossword puzzle. Keep going until you master Saturday’s brainteaser as well. The same with walking: keep lengthening your distance.

This article originally appeared on Health.com.

Read next: This Is How Much Exercise Experts Really Think You Need

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TIME Aging

These Common Mood Changes Can Signal Early Alzheimer’s

The vast majority of people with Alzheimer’s disease will experience changes like depression and anxiety. But a new study published in the journal Neurology shows that behavioral changes like these start well before they begin to have memory loss.

The researchers looked at 2,416 people over age 50 without cognitive issues. After following them for seven years, researchers found that 1,218 people developed dementia.

Those with dementia had twice the risk of developing depression earlier—far before their dementia symptoms started—than people without the disease. They were also more than 12 times more likely to develop delusions. The symptoms appeared in consistent phases: first, irritability, depression, and nighttime behavior changes; followed by anxiety, appetite changes, agitation and apathy. The final phase was elation, motor disturbances, hallucinations, delusions and disinhibition.

Though the researchers were able to make the connection, they still cannot confirm for certain whether the changes in the brain that cause one shift in behavior are the same changes that cause memory loss. But understanding when symptoms related to Alzheimer’s disease appear could one day lead to earlier interventions.

Read next: The Science Behind Why Dogs Might Just Be Man’s Best Friend

TIME Science

Dogs Can Get Dementia Too

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Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

Dogs are living longer — and a veterinarian finds himself diagnosing canine dementia at least once a day

Zeigfield waddled, rather than walked, into my examination room. I had been seeing this obese Dachshund at my veterinary hospital for most of his 17 years, treating many of the common ailments of the breed: back problems, mild skin disease, and regular episodes of what veterinarians tactfully refer to as “dietary indiscretion” (in Zeigfield’s case, eating a batch of chocolate chip cookies, part of an old sock, and a half bottle of his owner’s Prozac). But today’s visit was different. “He just hasn’t been himself for the past several months,” his owner Carol reported. “He seems restless at night, but mostly he just lays around. He doesn’t play his old games anymore. There isn’t any single issue, but he just isn’t right.”

Further questioning revealed that there actually was a single issue that prompted the visit: Zeigfield had been urinating and defecating indoors, despite being well house-trained since puppyhood. After ruling out most of the possible physical causes, I told Carol that her dog was likely developing cognitive dysfunction syndrome, the most common type of dementia in dogs.

Pets’ lives are different now than when I started my veterinary practice 40 years ago. Dogs are no longer allowed to run freely outside to be hit by cars, fight with other animals, or eat out of garbage cans. The quality of our dog foods is considerably better, and we have controlled the mostly deadly infectious diseases. Dogs’ lifestyles are safe but sedentary, leading to longer lives and more chronic conditions like obesity, arthritis, and cognitive dysfunction—which I find myself diagnosing almost daily at the Southern California veterinary hospitals where I practice.

People are often surprised that their pets can develop something similar to the Alzheimer’s Disease we see in humans, but our brains are not that different from dogs’. When your dog greets you, the same parts of the dog’s brain sends sensory input to the hippocampus, where memory connections are forged. Just beside the hippocampus sits the amygdala, which links the memories passed on from the hippocampus to emotions (like joy at your homecoming) and refers these feelings to the neural systems that initiate activity. Various parts of the cerebral cortex sort these impulses and modify them so that they are appropriate. This how the sound of the owner’s car pulling into the driveway tells your dog an affectionate greeting, a long walk, and, of course, dinner are on their way.

The cellular changes of canine cognitive dysfunction would be recognizable under the microscope to any human brain pathologist: Plaques of beta amyloid—protein fragments believed to be the result of “oxidative stress”—lead to distinctive “neurofibrillary tangles” within the damaged nerve cells, and shrinkage of the brain appears in areas where memories are made and behaviors are shaped.

Some things are different between our species, of course. Fido doesn’t forget where he put his car keys. But he may not remember which door he uses to go out to the yard. The same inability to evaluate behavioral appropriateness may prompt a person with dementia to disrobe in public, or a dog with dementia to eliminate in the house without hesitation. Many dogs with cognitive dysfunction wander restlessly all evening in a manner reminiscent of the “sundown syndrome” of Alzheimer’s patients. And most significantly, finding familiar surroundings strangely unfamiliar often triggers anxiety and agitation.

When I explain such anxiety to owners of senile dogs, I often refer to a scene in the movie On Golden Pond, in which Henry Fonda’s character leaves the house to pick strawberries and returns a few minutes later, shaking and distraught. “Nothing was familiar, not one damn tree,” he says. “I was scared half to death.”

As with many of the dogs I treat, Sterling, a 14-year-old Labrador retriever from El Cajon, was dealing with dementia along with other health problems. He had recently lost most of his hearing, and arthritic hips made it difficult for him to rise from his favorite sleeping spot. Sterling spent hours every night panting and whining. Once he got to his feet, he could move fairly well. But as soon as he left the house for a walk around the neighborhood, he pulled nervously at the leash to get back into the house, where he would pant and tremble for the next hour. Sterling’s owners felt that he was suffering, and they had started to consider euthanasia.

Once a dog’s cognition deteriorates, it loses the ability to compensate for discomfort, and the dog’s suffering becomes compounded by anxiety. This is the point at which most compassionate owners I’ve dealt with have made the difficult decision to euthanize their long-time companion. Although dementia is almost never fatal on its own, cognitive dysfunction and physical health problems are a debilitating combination.

I told Sterling’s owners we could treat the low thyroid condition that was diminishing his hearing and potentially find more effective treatments for his hip arthritis. We could lessen his distress with the same antidepressant medications given to humans. But I couldn’t offer any honest reassurance of dramatic improvement.

Treatments for canine dementia are most effective when they are started before the signs of cognitive dysfunction start to show. This is equally true in humans, which is why researchers are working on tests to predict Alzheimer’s long before symptoms appear. A number of nutritional supplements (particularly DHA, one of the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil) and various antioxidants have been shown to slow the progression of mental decline. S-AdenosylMethionine (SAMe) is an over-the-counter supplement that provides mild help for old brains. There is even an FDA-approved medication to treat canine cognitive dysfunction: Seleginine is a derivative of a drug used in human Parkinson’s Disease. In my personal experience I have not seen dramatic results with this medication, but it is usually prescribed in the later stages of dementia, when it may be “too little, too late.”

We can also borrow from the extensive research that has been done in humans and laboratory animals, which find that eating a healthy diet (high in omega-3), staying mentally active, and getting lots of aerobic exercise can delay the onset of senile dementia. The exact amount of exercise that is required to delay senility in dogs has yet to be studied, but my personal experience has been that when I see one of my canine patients who is still alert and happy at 15 years old, the dog’s owner invariably tell me, “He has always gotten out on his walks every day, no matter what.”

When we are in the middle of our busy lives, old age seems far away, and taking steps to delay senile dementia (for our dogs or ourselves) isn’t a priority. There is even a certain unspoken acknowledgment that old age and a weak mind are inexorably linked. It isn’t until your graying canine companion is anxiously pacing the house at midnight or your mother forgets your name that you think you’d do anything possible to bring back the memory and comprehension that has been lost. Something to think about while you take a long walk with your dog.

Lee Harris, who holds a doctor of veterinary medicine degree, has been taking care of pets for 40 years in the San Diego and Seattle areas. He wrote this for Thinking L.A., a project of UCLA and Zocalo Public Square.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME psychology

These 5 Things Will Make You Smarter

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

1) Get rid of the distractions

You can’t multitask.

Via Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School:

To put it bluntly, research shows that we can’t multitask. We are biologically incapable of processing attention-rich inputs simultaneously.

All those buzzing text messages and email chimes can reduce mental ability by an average of 10 IQ points. For men, it’s about three times the effect of smoking marijuana.

Via Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long:

A study done at the University of London found that constant emailing and text-messaging reduces mental capability by an average of ten points on an IQ test. It was five points for women, and fifteen points for men. This effect is similar to missing a night’s sleep. For men, it’s around three times more than the effect of smoking cannabis. While this fact might make an interesting dinner party topic, it’s really not that amusing that one of the most common “productivity tools” can make one as dumb as a stoner… when people do two cognitive tasks at once, their cognitive capacity can drop from that of a Harvard MBA to that of an eight-year-old.

2) Get your sleep

If you’ve missed sleep, you’ve reduced your intelligence.

Via Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School:

Take an A student used to scoring in the top 10 percent of virtually anything she does. One study showed that if she gets just under seven hours of sleep on weekdays, and about 40 minutes more on weekends, she will begin to score in the bottom 9 percent of non-sleep-deprived individuals.

Think you’re just fine cheating yourself on sleep? Of course you do. But you’re wrong.

…after just a few days, the four and six-hour group reported that, yes, they were slightly sleepy. But they insisted they had adjusted to their new state. Even 14 days into the study, they said sleepiness was not affecting them. In fact, their performance had tanked. In other words, the sleep-deprived among us are lousy judges of our own sleep needs. We are not nearly as sharp as we think we are.

What if you can’t get a good night’s sleep but need to learn new info? Even naps can help:

Via Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep:

If you can’t get in a full night’s sleep, you can still improve the ability of your brain to synthesize new information by taking a nap. In a study funded by NASA, David Dinges, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and a team of researchers found that letting astronauts sleep for as little as fifteen minutes markedly improved their cognitive performance, even when the nap didn’t lead to an increase in alertness or the ability to pay more attention to a boring task. Researchers at the City University of New York, meanwhile, found that naps helped the brain better assess and make connections between objects.

3) Performance enhancing drugs for your brain

No, they’re not anabolic steroids. It’s caffeine, sugar and nicotine. Coffee and nicotine make you smarter.

Via Brain Candy: Science, Paradoxes, Puzzles, Logic, and Illogic to Nourish Your Neurons:

Studies show that caffeine increases the speed at which we process sensory information. And with luscious caffeine jouncing happily through our system, we make faster decisions based on these stimuli. In other words, we see faster and we act faster.

Cigarettes make us smarter too. Or at least their nicotine component does: It’s been shown to boost short-term working memory and executive function. Nicotine patches have also been shown to combat some of the effects of Alzheimer’s disease.

Don’t like coffee? Studies show Red Bull can do the trick. A donut can help too. Or do a bit of exercise and have a sugary drink.

Via Mind Performance Hacks: Tips & Tools for Overclocking Your Brain by the excellent Vaughan Bell:

Increasing glucose and oxygen supplies to the brain seems to allow information to be more accurately and fully committed to memory – in other words, you learn better… light exercise or even deliberately increasing breathing rate by a small amount will increase blood oxygen levels… A well-timed sugary drink, thirty minutes to an hour before you have to remember or take notice of something particularly well should improve how well you remember it.

4) Keep Learning

You always hear that doing puzzles can help stave off dementia. In reality, those aren’t nearly enough to keep your brain sharp. But the principle holds.

Want to keep your mind powerful? Do something that really forces you to stretch yourself:

5) Believe in yourself

Want to be smarter? The first step is to believe that you can become smarter:

Those students who learned about IQ’s malleability improved their grades more than did students who did not receive this message, and also saw academics as more important than did students in the control group.

Surround yourself with people who believe in you and you’ll perform better:

Via The Heart of Social Psychology: A Backstage View of a Passionate Science:

…Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson (1968) did the same study in a classroom, telling elementary school teachers that they had certain students in their class who were “academic spurters.” In fact, these students were selected at random. Absolutely nothing else was done by the researchers to single out these children. Yet by the end of the school year, 30 percent of the the children arbitrarily named as spurters had gained an average of 22 IQ points, and almost all had gained at least 10 IQ points.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree. Join over 145,000 readers and get a free weekly email update here.

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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Does Your Mind Wander? Here’s Why That Can Be Your Greatest Asset

Thought bubble
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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Wandering minds are associated with creativity. Popular wisdom tells you to live in the moment.

Huh?

So is it better to be unfocused or focused?

Let’s look at the research.

The Upside of Mind Wandering

You spend up to 8 minutes of every hour daydreaming. Your mind will probably wander for 13% of the time it takes you to read this post. Some of us spend 30-40% of our time daydreaming.

Via The Science of Sin: The Psychology of the Seven Deadlies (and Why They Are So Good For You):

Do you remember what the previous paragraph was about? It’s OK, I’m not offended. Chances are that your mind will wander for up to eight minutes for every hour that you spend reading this book. About 13 percent of the time that people spend reading is spent not reading, but daydreaming or mind-wandering. But reading, by comparison to other things we do, isn’t so badly affected by daydreaming. Some estimates put the average amount of time spent daydreaming at 30 to 40 percent.

So why do we do it? It may be a form of problem-solving:

…the content of people’s daydreams reflected the kinds of coping strategies that they typically employed to solve problems. This suggests that the wandering mind might actually be off searching for ways to cope with the stresses of everyday life. You may not know exactly how to deal with your man troubles, but your wandering mind is working on it…One of the most interesting things about this slothful pastime is that it involves the same brain regions that are active when people are solving insight puzzles.

In fact, people whose minds wander a lot are more creative and better problem solvers.

Via 100 Things Every Presenter Needs to Know About People:

Mind-wandering allows one part of the brain to focus on the task at hand, and another part of the brain to keep a higher goal in mind. Christoff (2009) at the University of California, Santa Barbara has evidence that people whose minds wander a lot are more creative and better problem solvers. Their brains have them working on the task at hand but simultaneously processing other information and making connections.

In Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, Steven Johnson makes it pretty clear that creativity is messy.

Ideas need to be sloshing around or crashing in to one another to produce breakthroughs:

Hold on though — this doesn’t mean daydreaming is all good.

The Downside of Mind Wandering

As Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, explained in the Harvard Gazette, a wandering mind is not a happy mind:

People spend 46.9 percent of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing, and this mind-wandering typically makes them unhappy. So says a study that used an iPhone Web app to gather 250,000 data points on subjects’ thoughts, feelings, and actions as they went about their lives.

And:

“Mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness,” Killingsworth says. “In fact, how often our minds leave the present and where they tend to go is a better predictor of our happiness than the activities in which we are engaged.”

And yes, it’s a cause, not an effect:

Time-lag analyses conducted by the researchers suggested that their subjects’ mind-wandering was generally the cause, not the consequence, of their unhappiness.

And recent research shows a wandering mind may be associated with poor health, perhaps due to that unhappiness and stress.

So What’s The Deal?

A wandering mind takes more in: good and bad. This leads to new ideas. But it can take you up — and it can take you down.

Focus doesn’t allow the noise in. But the noise is what allows creativity to spark.

What you want to do is spend most of your time focused but have rituals that allow your mind to wander on cue.

You have coffee in the morning and get ready to go. You unwind at night to get ready for bed.

You already have rituals that put you into a zone, you just may not realize it. What you want to do is use them deliberately.

This is the secret the pros know. Michael Jordan was able to do it during games.

And research shows these rituals are powerful for creativity too.

Via The Winner’s Brain: 8 Strategies Great Minds Use to Achieve Success:

A 2008 study by the University of Toronto’s Chen-Bo Zhong and his colleagues found that doing something habitual, such as going for a walk, washing the dishes, or taking a nap, enables you to unconsciously access peripheral information your brain may not readily consider during an intense state of Focus.

How do you get focused? How do you unwind?

Start using these more deliberately and you can make yourself happier as well as more creative when you need to be.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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TIME health

How Dr. Alzheimer Discovered a Disease in a Mental Asylum

Alois Alzheimer
Apic / Getty Images Alois Alzheimer (1864-1915)

The unusual case seemed to stick out and the psychiatrist sensed that there was something special about Auguste. Dr. Alois Alzheimer decided that he should see Auguste for himself

History News Network

This post is in partnership with the History News Network, the website that puts the news into historical perspective. The article below was originally published at HNN.

Carl didn’t know what was happening to his wife. The German railway clerk from Morfelder Landstasse and his wife Auguste had been happily married for twenty-eight years. They had one daughter, Thekla, and their marriage had always been harmonious; that is, until one Spring day in 1901 when Auguste suddenly exhibited signs of jealousy.

Auguste accused Carl of going for a walk with a female neighbor, and since then, she had been increasingly mistrustful. Carl thought that this sudden jealousy was unfounded. Over the next several months, Auguste’s memory began to fade. The once orderly and industrious homemaker was making uncharacteristic mistakes in preparing home meals — a task that she had probably performed countless times. She wandered aimlessly around the apartment, leaving housework unfinished. She became convinced that a cart driver who frequented their house was trying to harm her and that people were talking about her. Without explanation, she began to hide various objects around the house. The couple’s neighbors sometimes discovered Auguste ringing their doorbells for no reason.

Prior to this change, Auguste had never been seriously ill. She was an otherwise healthy 51-year old woman who did not drink alcohol nor suffered from any mental illness. By November of 1901, Carl was at wit’s end. He had no choice but to take his wife to the local mental asylum. The physician’s admittance note described her as suffering from a weak memory, persecution mania, sleeplessness, and restlessness that rendered her unable to perform physical or mental work.

The following day, the senior physician at the Asylum for the Insane and Epileptic in Frankfurt am Main came across Auguste’s clinical notes. The unusual case seemed to stick out and the psychiatrist sensed that there was something special about Auguste. It was the case that he was waiting for. Dr. Alois Alzheimer decided that he should see Auguste for himself.

Over the next several months, Dr. Alzheimer interviewed and examined Auguste, whose condition continued to deteriorate. He asked her to name common objects, perform simple arithmetic, tell him where she lived, what year it was, the color of snow, the sky, grass, and so on. Alzheimer maintained a detailed record and even arranged for Auguste to be photographed. One photo reveals a woman with a deeply furrowed forehead and heavy bags under her eyes. She was wearing a white hospital gown and her face had a tired, blank expression, with perhaps a hint of fear. Her hands were draped over her raised knees, with the long fingers securely interlocked.

What struck Dr. Alzheimer was Auguste’s relatively young age. He had seen cases of mental deterioration in much older patients and had theorized that age-related thickening of the brain’s blood vessels led to brain atrophy. It was unusual, however, to see the condition in a person who was only fifty-one years old. Dr. Alzheimer had only encountered one other case similar to Auguste’s. The autopsy findings on that patient revealed shrinkage in specific brain cells but no significant blood vessel thickening.

Dr. Alzheimer continued his daily visits and long conversations with Auguste. There was no cure, of course, and the limited treatments included the use of sedatives and warm baths. At times, Auguste had to be placed in isolation after she groped faces and struck other patients in the clinic. She wandered aimlessly, sometimes screamed for hours, and became increasingly hostile. By February of 1902, her condition had advanced to the point that long conversations and physical examinations became impossible.

On April 8, 1906, after nearly five years of progressive mental and physical decline, Auguste died. The official cause of death was blood poisoning due to bedsores. Dr. Alzheimer suspected that behind her mental illness was a strange disease, and that perhaps examining her brain would offer some clues. When he examined the brain sections under the microscope, his suspicion was confirmed. Dr. Alzheimer described changes in the neurofibrils — the protein filaments found in brain cells. He also saw peculiar deposits that he referred to a “millet seed-sized lesions.” These pathologic findings — now known as neurofibrillary tangles and amyloid deposits – characterize the brains of Alzheimer’s Disease patients.

Dr. Alzheimer’s discovery was not immediately well received. In fact, the first time he presented Auguste’s case and autopsy findings during a German Psychiatry conference in 1906, the reception from the audience was rather cold. This was the time when psychoanalysis and the Freudian views on the relationship between childhood trauma and mental illness were, in today’s parlance, the “trending” topics in psychiatry. Correlating mental or neurologic disorders with histopathologic findings was not yet firmly established nor accepted. Ninety years later, in 1998, researchers re-examined Auguste’s original brain sections and confirmed the presence of neurofibrillary tangles and amyloid plaques.

Emil Kraepelin, one of the most prominent psychiatrists in the early 1900s, first mentioned the term ‘Alzheimer’s Disease’ in the 1910 edition of his textbook on psychiatry. The disease was of course still poorly understood, but one of the most famous medical eponyms was born.

Today, there are an estimated five million Americans diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. The number is expected to rise as the population ages. There is no cure, and the burden on the afflicted as well as caregivers remains tremendous. The economic burden is also substantial, with healthcare costs for dementia in general estimated to be over $200 billion dollars in 2010. Researchers are on a quest to find effective treatment in areas that include stem cell and gene therapy.

Rod Tanchanco is a physician specializing in Internal Medicine. He writes about events and people in the history of medicine. His personal blog is at talesinmedicine.com.

References

Maurer K. Alzheimer : the life of a physician and the career of a disease. New York: Columbia University Press; 2003.

Graeber MB, Kösel S, Grasbon-Frodl E, Möller HJ, Mehraein P. Histopathology and APOE genotype of the first Alzheimer disease patient, Auguste D. Neurogenetics. 1998;1(3):223–8

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