TIME Exercise/Fitness

How Exercise Helps Curb Alzheimer’s Symptoms

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Pamplemousse—Getty Images/OJO Images RF

Most studies so far have focused on the importance of physical activity before you develop Alzheimer’s. But can it treat the disease once you are diagnosed? Two studies hint that may be the case

At the annual Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in July 2015, scientists report some encouraging news about the benefits of exercise. In the first studies to look at physical activity among people already diagnosed with the early stages of Alzheimer’s, moderate to high intensity workouts may not only slow down the biological symptoms of Alzheimer’s—but may lead to improvements in cognitive functions as well.

In one study involving 200 people with mild or moderate disease, Dr. Steen Hasselbalch from the University of Copenhagen and his colleagues randomly assigned some participants to an hour of exercise three times a week for 16 weeks, while allowing the remainder to continue without a regular activity regimen. After a phase-in period, the exercisers were working at a moderate to intense level, achieving 70% to 80% of their maximum heart rate for at least half of each session.

MORE: Your School Grades Affect Your Risk of Dementia

That level of intensity is important, says Hasselbalch, to achieve results. Compared to the control group, the exercisers showed fewer symptoms such as anxiety, changes in mood and depression that are common among Alzheimer’s patients. Overall, those who were more active did not show any changes in cognitive functions, but when Hasselbalch looked at the results more carefully, he found that participants with milder disease who exercised actually did perform better on intellectual skills after the 16 weeks. They were tested on memory, language, mental speed and other executive functions.

“It’s been shown with other diseases that exercise can have beneficial effects,” he says. “Now we have shown it’s also important for dementia. So if you now have this alternative treatment, it sends a message that you can do something even after diagnosis to treat dementia.”

MORE: Two New Alzheimer’s Drugs Offer Hope—With Caveats

Because the people exercised in a group setting, he says that simply being part of that social situation and getting out of the house and interacting with others appears to reduce the mood-related symptoms of Alzheimer’s. “But if you really want an effect on cognition, then you have to exercise hard.”

He admits that his study did not delve into how the exercise might be contributing to the improved cognitive changes, but he will be analyzing the blood and cerebral spinal fluid collected from the participants to study that further.

MORE: Alzheimer’s May Show Up in Saliva

Such changes are what Laura Baker, from Wake Forest School of Medicine, and her team did with another group of early stage Alzheimer’s patients. They wanted to see what biological changes exercise might have on the Alzheimer’s process, and focused on 70 patients with mild cognitive impairment and diabetes, both of which significantly increase the risk for Alzheimer’s. Some were randomly assigned to simple stretching exercises, while others were told to exercise four times a week and, like those in Hasselbalch’s study, had to work hard enough to raise their heart rate to 70% to 80% of its maximum for 30 of the 45 minutes of each session. Baker then studied their cognitive function tests, brain imaging and levels of Alzheimer’s proteins in their cerebral spinal fluid.

She found that those who exercise rigorously increased the blood flow in the areas of the brain responsible for memory and higher level processing. The result was a dramatically increased score, by 80%, on average on the cognitive tests than those who just stretched, even after accounting for age-related changes in thinking. More intriguing, the exercisers also showed on average a 14% lower level of the protein tau, which is a good indicator that brain neurons are dying and Alzheimer’s processes are well underway, at the end of the study compared to before they began the exercise regimen.

“What’s encouraging to us is that we don’t have treatments now; there’s nothing for Alzheimer’s patients,” says Baker. “The possibility that a non-medicine intervention could actually change the disease — we’re just very encouraged by these results,.”

While the exercise regimen wasn’t an easy one — it qualifies as moderately intense physical activity, which for a group of older adults who are likely sedentary to begin with is certainly a challenge, both Hasselbalch and Baker say that with the right execution — by working with participants and by gradually increasing their exercise level — achieving the amounts of activity needed to help their brains is possible. Baker also points out that it’s time to start studying the combined effects of new medications that are being tested for Alzheimer’s and increased physical activity. Together, she says, they may hold the key to actually slowing down and possibly even reversing progression of the disease.

TIME neuroscience

Diabetes Drugs May Offer Hope for Parkinson’s Disease Treatment

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Levin/Papantonio

Diabetes patients who took these medications had a 28% lower chance of developing Parkinson's

Two forms of diabetes medication may reduce risk of developing Parkinson’s disease, according to a new study.

Researchers analyzed data on more than 160,000 diabetes patients in the U.K. and found that patients who took rosiglitazone or pioglitazone had a 28% lower chance of developing Parkinson’s than their counterparts who took other diabetes medication, according to the study, published in the journal PLOS Medicine. The drugs were originally developed by GlaxoSmithKline and Takeda, respectively, but they are now off patent.

The research does not suggest that people with Parkinson’s take the diabetes drugs directly. Rather, the findings offer hope for future Parkinson’s research.

“We often hear about negative side effects associated with medications, but sometimes there can also be unintended beneficial effects,” senior researcher Ian Douglas from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine told Reuters.

TIME neuroscience

Green Spaces at School May Help Kids’ Brains

A significant increase in exposure to green spaces resulted in a 5% increase in the development of children's working memory

Exposure to green space at a young age may aid children’s cognitive development, according to a new study in the journal PNAS.

Researchers, who evaluated data on nearly 2,600 Barcelona schoolchildren between the ages of 7 and 10, found that exposure to green space was correlated with improved working memory and decreased inattentiveness. The results were most remarkable when there was more green space at school.

Part of the association can be connected to traffic pollution, which accounted for somewhere between 20% and 65% the effect of being exposed to green space. Green space at school may also increase physical activity and reduce noise, according to the study. Overall, a significant increase in green space at school could end the impairment of nearly 9% of students with impaired working memory, according to the researchers.

The researchers used satellite data to assess the greenness of both children’s homes and their schools. Overall, a significant increase in exposure to green spaces resulted in a 5% increase in the development of children’s working memory after a one-year period, as well as a 1% decrease in inattentiveness.

Previous research has shown associations between green space and mental and physical health but this is the first study to suggest that exposure to green spaces may aid cognition. The research, still in early stages, needs further work to confirm it.

TIME neuroscience

Game-Changing Discovery Links the Brain and the Immune System

New research could affect how we approach everything from Alzheimer's to autism

Researchers at the University of Virginia School of Medicine have made a dazzling discovery, published this week in Nature: the brain is directly connected to the immune system by previously unknown vessels.

“The first time these guys showed me the basic result, I just said one sentence: ‘They’ll have to change the textbooks,'” Kevin Lee, chairman of the UVA Department of Neuroscience, told Science Daily. He added that the discovery “will fundamentally change the way people look at the central nervous system’s relationship with the immune system.”

The discovery of these new vessels has enormous implications for every neurological disease with an immune component, from Alzheimer’s to multiple sclerosis. It could open up entirely new avenues for research and treatment alike, all stemming from the kind of discovery that has become extraordinarily rare in the 21st century.

“I really did not believe there are structures in the body that we are not aware of. I thought the body was mapped,” said director of UVA’s Center for Brain Immunology and Glia Jonathan Kipnis, who worked on the research. “I thought that these discoveries ended somewhere around the middle of the last century. But apparently they have not.”

Read more at Science Daily

TIME neuroscience

You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span Than a Goldfish

No longer can we boast about 12 seconds of coherent thought

The average attention span for the notoriously ill-focused goldfish is nine seconds, but according to a new study from Microsoft Corp., people now generally lose concentration after eight seconds, highlighting the affects of an increasingly digitalized lifestyle on the brain.

Researchers in Canada surveyed 2,000 participants and studied the brain activity of 112 others using electroencephalograms (EEGs). Microsoft found that since the year 2000 (or about when the mobile revolution began) the average attention span dropped from 12 seconds to eight seconds.

“Heavy multi-screeners find it difficult to filter out irrelevant stimuli — they’re more easily distracted by multiple streams of media,” the report read.

On the positive side, the report says our ability to multitask has drastically improved in the mobile age.

Microsoft theorized that the changes were a result of the brain’s ability to adapt and change itself over time and a weaker attention span may be a side effect of evolving to a mobile Internet.

The survey also confirmed generational differences for mobile use; for example, 77% of people aged 18 to 24 responded “yes” when asked, “When nothing is occupying my attention, the first thing I do is reach for my phone,” compared with only 10% of those over the age of 65.

And now congratulate yourself for concentrating long enough to make it through this article.

MONEY consumer psychology

This is Your Brain on Expensive Wine

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Scott Camazine—Getty Images

Here's one reason why you might get more pleasure from wines with extravagant price tags.

A new study in the Journal of Marketing Research confirms what prior research (and, in some cases, gut feeling) has told us for years: Most people can’t really taste the difference between cheap and expensive wine.

These new findings, by INSEAD marketing professor Hilke Plassmann and University of Bonn neuroscience professor Bernd Weber, go a step further than previous studies in explaining why people get more enjoyment from a wine they’re told is expensive and less pleasure from one they’re told is cheap—even if they are actually drinking the same wine.

“Expectations truly influence neurobiological responses,” write the authors.

But how much we’re swayed by that influence ranges from person to person. One key factor, the researchers found, is the structure of your brain. Everyone is somewhat suggestible to the placebo effect from being told wine is cheap or expensive, but some brains are more suggestible than others.

Specifically, people with more volume in areas of the brain controlling sensory awareness are less susceptible to marketing placebo effects. (That’s logical: They’re more likely to sense, on their own, if a wine tastes cheap.)

On the other hand, people with more volume in parts of the brain associated with reward seeking and emotional self-evaluation are more susceptible to marketing placebo effects from price tags. The authors theorize that expectations have a bigger effect on these people: As soon as they see an high price, it appears, they start anticipating a luxurious experience, whether consciously or not.

One big grain of salt? Neuroscientists don’t all agree that using brain structure to infer behavior or personality makes for sound science—and Plassmann and Weber acknowledge in their study that some researchers are skeptical of that methodology in general.

Though the authors used MRI brain scans to arrive at their conclusions, they also asked subjects to answer questions as another way of measuring how personality was correlated with susceptibility to prices. For example, they asked subjects how much they agreed with statements like “when I get something I want, I feel excited and energized” as a second way of determining how “reward-seeking” they were—and found a similar effect as in the MRI section of the study.

Previous blind tasting studies have also found that when prices are hidden, most people don’t enjoy expensive wines more than cheaper bottles. Surprisingly, they even tend to rate inexpensive bottles slightly higher.

TIME Research

Air Pollution May Make Your Brain Age Faster, Study Says

Air pollution can also increase your risk of a stroke

Long-term exposure to air pollution may cause your brain to age more quickly and put you at higher risk for a stroke, a new study suggests.

Exposure to higher levels of air pollution may be linked to lower total cerebral brain volume, according to a study published in the May issue of Stroke, which analyzed health data from nearly 1,000 men and women over 60 who did not have dementia and had not had a stroke.

Total cerebral brain volume naturally decreases as humans age, resulting in declines in ability to learn new things and retrieve information, but the researchers found that air pollution exposure may be linked to premature brain aging and higher risks for certain brain strokes.

The findings add new knowledge to the impact of air pollution on the structure of the brain, a link that has remained largely unclear in research.

Specifically, a 2 microgram per square meter increase in PM2.5 (particulate matter in the air that is less than 2.5 micrometers wide) was associated with a 0.32% lower total cerebral brain volume, the study said. To put that in context, brain volume decreases at about 0.5% per year after age 40, and PM2.5 levels can vary widely across the world. For example, the PM2.5 in Beijing is about 175 micrograms per square meter, while the PM2.5 in New York City is about 30 micrograms per square meter.

TIME neuroscience

Alzheimer’s May Be Caused by Misfiring Immune System, Study Suggests

Breakthrough may lead to innovative approaches to treatment

New research suggests that deprivation of an amino acid called arginine may contribute to Alzheimer’s disease — a finding that could help usher in new treatment strategies for patients suffering from the debilitating illness.

A team at Duke University focusing on the immune system found that cells designed to protect the brain from infection will uncharacteristically consume arginine during the early stages of Alzheimer’s, according to Agence France-Presse.

“Our approach is recognized as unique and opens new avenues to think about what causes Alzheimer’s disease and new ways to treat the disease,” senior author Dr. Carol Colton told TIME.

The team was also able to block the arginine consumption process using a drug called difluoromethylornithine, which is used to treat cancer. But according to Colton, they eventually need to find a more suitable agent.

Nevertheless, the mice that underwent the therapy performed better on memory tests.

“The response to this potential new mechanism … is favorable,” Colton said. “[We are] cautiously optimistic.”

The next step for researchers will be to test older mice that already have an advanced form of Alzheimer’s.

The study was published in the April 15 issue of Journal of Neuroscience.

In 2013, Alzheimer’s affected as many as 5 million Americans and in 2050 the number is projected to rise to 14 million people, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

TIME neuroscience

Here’s a New Trick to Help Babies Learn Faster

Surprise them. Not by jumping out of a closet but by challenging her developing notions about the world, and avoiding the same-old same-old

We know that babies like new things. Present them with something they haven’t seen before and they’ll gravitate toward it, touch it, bang it around, put it in their mouths. It’s all part of the learning process so they can build a database of knowledge about the world around them.

But for babies to really learn about how the world works, it takes more than novelty. In a series of experiments with 11 month olds published Thursday in the journal Science, researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that surprising information—things that went against babies’ assumptions about concepts like gravity and the solidness of objects—forms the seed for future learning.

Aimee Stahl, a PhD candidate in the department of psychological and brain science at Johns Hopkins University, and her colleague Lisa Feigenson conducted a set of experiments with 110 infants to tease out this effect of surprise in how babies learn. The studies began with the assumption that babies are born with certain core knowledge about how the world works — that objects are solid so other things can’t pass through them, for example, or that dropping things causing things to fall rather than float.

MORE: Naps May Help Babies Retain Memories, Study Finds

First, Stahl challenged these concepts with some babies by strategically using a screen to hide a wall as they rolled ball. When they lifted the screen, some babies saw the ball stopped in front the wall, as they would expect. Other babies, however, saw the ball on the other side of the wall. When both groups were then presented with something entirely new to learn — associating a squeaking sound with a new toy — the babies who saw the contrary event (the ball on the other side of the wall) learned to link the sound to the new toy more quickly than those who saw the expected event (the ball on the correct side of the wall).

To ensure that the babies weren’t just enthralled with the novelty of the new toy, Stahl and Feigenson then repeated the experiment, except this time during the testing phase they played a different, rattling sound instead of the squeaking noise. The learning scores in the first experiment were still higher than those in the second version, strongly suggesting that the babies were actually making new connections and learning something about the objects, rather than just paying attention to the new-ness of them.

MORE: How to Improve a Baby’s Language Skills Before They Start to Talk

This was supported by the other experiments Stahl and Feigenson conducted, in which babies tried to find an explanation for the contrary results; for the balls that appeared to melt through the solid wall, they bounced and banged the balls to verify their solidity. For situations in which objects seemed to defy gravity and float, they dropped them. “It seemed like they were seeking an explanation to the kind of surprising events they witnessed,” says Stahl. “If it was just novelty that was attracting them, they wouldn’t be so specific in the way they handled the objects.”

These are the first experiments to test the idea that learning involves more than just exploring new things; Stahl’s results indicate that surprising or contradictory information helps them to confirm and test their knowledge, and try to explain events that seem to go against what they know.

“It raises exciting questions about whether surprise is something educators, parents and doctors can harness to enhance and shape learning,” says Stahl. She’s exploring, for example, how surprise can help in learning even with older children in more naturalistic environments, outside of artificial lab experiments. “Our research shows that when babies’ predictions about the world don’t match what they observe, that signals a special opportunity to update and revise their knowledge and to learn something new.”

Video: Johns Hopkins University Office of Communications; Len Turner, Dave Schmelick and Deirdre Hammer

TIME neuroscience

How Air Pollution Affects Babies in the Womb

Silhouette of Pregnancy
Getty Images

A new study finds evidence that prenatal exposure to common pollutants can contribute to hyperactivity, aggression and more in kids

It makes sense that an expectant mom’s exposure to pollutants in the air can affect her still-growing baby’s lungs and respiratory system. But there’s increasing evidence that such compounds can also harm brain development and contribute to behavioral and cognitive problems later in childhood.

In the latest study on the subject, published in JAMA Psychiatry, researchers for the first time pinpointed exactly which areas of the brain are affected if a baby is exposed to car exhaust and the byproducts of burning home heating oil. These polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) have previously been linked to developmental delays, lower verbal IQ. signs of anxiety depression and problems with attention. But researchers haven’t been able to identify which areas of the brain are most vulnerable.

MORE: Children Exposed to More Brain-Harming Chemicals Than Ever Before

In this study, they recruited 40 mothers and their children living in the inner city who were participating in an ongoing study of pollution’s effect on development. They were selected because they had low exposure to environmental factors other than PAHs that could affect development, such as tobacco smoke, lead, insecticides and other chemicals. Based on measurements of PAH in their surroundings, about half of the mothers had PAH exposures below the median of those in the larger group, and half had PAH exposures higher than the median.

“The effects were extraordinarily powerful,” says Dr. Bradley Peterson, director of the Institute for the Developing Mind at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and lead author of the study. “The more prenatal exposure to PAH, the bigger the white matter problems the kids had. And the bigger the white matter problems, the more severe symptoms of ADHD, aggression and slow processing they had on cognitive tasks.”

MORE: Mom’s Exposure to Air Pollution Can Increase Kids’ Behavior Problems

White matter is made up of the fibrous connections between nerve cells and is critical to helping neurons from one part of the brain communicate with their counterparts in other regions, and the babies with the highest exposure to PAH in the womb showed a dramatically lower volume of white matter in the left side of their brains. The entire left hemisphere, from the front to the back, was affected. “You would assume that an environmental exposure brought in by the blood and circulating to the brain would affect both sides of the brain,” says Peterson. “But the adverse effects of PAHs is located on one side; that’s surprising.”

The asymmetrical effect speaks volumes about how PAHs target brain tissue. Like other neurotoxins, they may preferentially seek out actively developing tissue. During gestation, the left side of the brain, which houses language capabilities, may be undergoing more intense structural changes in preparation for birth. This was supported by the fact that in the larger group of children in the study, those who were exposed to PAHs around age five didn’t show the same left-sided bias; in the older children, the pollutants affected both sides equally because the right hemisphere of the brain is undergoing active development at that time as well.

MORE: ADHD Linked to the Air Pregnant Women Breathe

Peterson suspects that the connection between PAHs and later behavioral and cognitive symptoms such as inattention, hyperactivity and slow processing speed may be due to how PAHs disrupt the normal communication between nerves in the left side of the brain and elsewhere.

The problem, he admits, is that moms-to-be can’t easily change where they live or work. And most people aren’t aware of how many PAHs they absorb on a daily basis. There are ways to minimize the risk of exposure, however. Expectant mothers can avoid secondhand smoke, a major source of the compounds. Not directly inhaling exhaust from cars on busy streets or smoke from fireplaces can also help, as can spending as much time as possible in parks or other areas free of burning fuels. It won’t eliminate the risk from living in an inner city and being surrounded by car emissions, but it can help, Peterson says. “Even if you can reduce your exposure from moderately high to moderate levels, it’s going to have a beneficial effect on the developing fetus,” he says.

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