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    Brain waves may focus attention and keep information flowing

    Studies suggest the oscillations created by nerve cell activity have roles of their own.

    We can’t see it, but brains hum with electrical activity. Brain waves created by the coordinated firing of huge collections of nerve cells pinball around the brain. The waves can ricochet from the front of the brain to the back, or from deep structures all the way to the scalp and then back again.

    Called neuronal oscillations, these signals are known to accompany certain mental states. Quiet alpha waves ripple soothingly across the brains of meditating monks. Beta waves rise and fall during intense conversational turns. Fast gamma waves accompany sharp insights. Sluggish delta rhythms lull deep sleepers, while dreamers shift into slightly quicker theta rhythms.

    Researchers have long argued over whether these waves have purpose, and what those purposes might be. Some scientists see waves as inevitable but useless by-products of the signals that really matter — messages sent by individual nerve cells. Waves are simply a consequence of collective neural behavior, and nothing more, that view holds. But a growing body of evidence suggests just the opposite: Instead of by-products of important signals, brain waves are key to how the brain operates, routing information among far-flung brain regions that need to work together.

    MIT’s Earl Miller is among the neuro­scientists amassing evidence that waves are an essential part of how the brain operates. Brain oscillations deftly route information in a way that allows the brain to choose which signals in the world to pay attention to and which to ignore, his recent studies suggest.

    Other research supports this view, too. Studies on people with electrodes implanted in their brains suggest brain waves, and their interactions, help enable emotion, language, vision and more.

    When these waves are abnormal, brainpower suffers, studies find. Detailed looks at how the brain uses these waves raise the possibility of tweaking the signals with electrical nudges — interventions that could lead to therapies that can correct memory problems and mental illness, for instance. Already, early attempts have led to improvements in people’s memory.

    Types of brain waves

    Scientists are studying how oscillations generated by nerve cells affect brain function. Although the boundaries between different wave types can be fuzzy, these oscillations can be grouped by frequency.

    Fast gamma waves have been linked to states of high attention. 30 to 80 Hz

    Beta waves may be involved in movement and complex tasks such as memory and decision making.  12 to 30 Hz

    The first neuronal oscillations discovered, alphawaves appear when a relaxed person closes his eyes. 8 to 12 Hz

    Theta oscillations may help the brain sort information essential for navigation. 4 to 8 Hz

    Slow delta waves mark deep sleep and anesthesia. 1.5 to 4 Hz

    C. CHANG

    These insights about brain waves coincide with a shift in neuroscience away from a view that reduces the brain down to the behavior of single nerve cells, or neurons. That’s like thinking of the brain as “a giant clock, and if you figure out each gear, you’ll figure out the brain,” Miller says. But “it’s not just individual neurons in a giant clock. It’s networks interacting in a very dynamic, fluid way.”

    Central to those interactions, Miller and others think, are coordinated brain waves. “The oscillations are the most powerful signal in the brain,” Miller says. “How could evolution not have taken advantage of that?”

    In three recent papers, Miller and colleagues argue that two different types of brain waves — beta and gamma — work together to selectively choose the information that makes it into working memory. Gamma waves that cycle 30 to 80 times per second (30 to 80 hertz) help coordinate information streaming in from our senses — what we feel, see and smell. In contrast, slower 12 to 30 Hz beta waves are the messages that help keep us on task by guiding the brain toward the sensory signals worth paying attention to.

    These two types of brain oscillations engage in a neural seesaw: When beta waves are strong, akin to a stereo blasting, gamma waves are weak, as if the volume had been dialed down, and vice versa. Miller and colleagues saw this push-and-pull action in the brains of monkeys with implanted electrodes as the animals completed a tricky memory task, one that required the monkeys to hold several pieces of information in their minds at the same time. The results were described January 26 in Nature Communications. “At all these complex decision points, you can see the beta and gamma doing this complex dance in a way that you’d expect if they’re controlling working memory,” Miller says.

    These two types of waves were generated in different parts of the brain, offering spatial clues about how the brain focuses itself, the researchers also found. Sensory information, organized by gamma waves, skims the superficial layers of the brain, experiments on monkeys showed. But slower, more goal-directed waves, a mix of alpha and beta waves, are deeper in the brain. And those slower, deeper waves could actually dial down the strength of the gamma waves that rippled along the outer brain. The deeper waves were selecting which sensory information to pay attention to, the researchers proposed in the Jan. 30 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    A third paper, in the Feb. 7 Neuron, shows similar interactions between gamma and beta waves while monkeys matched patterns of dots on a computer screen. Some of the patterns were clearly different but still belonged to the same category, an easy task akin to knowing that both a dog and a cat are types of animals. Other times, the patterns were harder to classify and required more sophisticated mental work, similar to knowing that trains and bicycles are both types of transportation. Gamma waves were present when the monkeys were puzzling out an easy category. But when higher-level categorization was required, beta waves started to roll.  

    These interactions between gamma and beta waves might be how the brain solves an information overload problem, Miller suspects. Incoming sensory input constantly bombards the brain, and much of it is meaningless. The brain needs a way to figure out if it should ignore the feeling of a scratchy shirt, but pay attention to the ringing phone. These two rhythms may offer a way for “volitional control over what you think about,” Miller says, allowing a person to consciously choose what information to bring to mind. 

    Oscillations may also shape visual information as it travels through the brain, says Charles Schroeder, a neuroscientist at the Nathan S. Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research in Orangeburg, N.Y. He and colleagues are studying a different ebb and flow of oscillations from the one Miller recently described. This one probably involves a host of different kinds of waves, including theta waves, and happens in the split second when your eyes dwell on a scene — a pause that usually lasts about 200 milliseconds.

    When you look at a scene, the first half of the time it takes to stare is spent on visual information streaming into your brain. But toward the end of that fixation time, “the information flow reverses,” Schroeder says. Different neuronal oscillations carry signals from the brain’s command center, ready to direct the eyes to the next spot. “Literally within a tenth of a second before you move your eyes, there is this incredible flash of network activity in the front of the brain, and then the eyes move,” Schroeder says. “It’s really a dramatic thing.” Schroeder and colleagues have caught this action in monkeys’ brains, and more recently, in people implanted with electrodes as part of epilepsy treatment.

    But some vision researchers still dismiss these oscillations as noise, convinced that the activity of single neurons — and not the collective waves that result from that activity — is the key to understanding the brain, Schroeder says. “It’s still difficult to convince people that brain oscillations are functional.”

    Researchers may argue over the function of brain waves for years to come, says neuroscientist and neurologist Robert Knight of the University of California, Berkeley. He believes that information, at its core, is held in the signals zipped off by neurons. But work from his lab has convinced him that oscillations help those signals reach the right spot, connecting brain areas in important ways. “You’ve got to have a way to get brain areas communicating,” he says. “What oscillations do is provide a routing mechanism.”

    And oscillations do this quickly, he says. Human brains are incredibly fast. “We’re handling massive amounts of information in subsecond time periods,” Knight says. “And you have to have some way to shape it, to control it.” Waves, he says, give the brain a way to tune out extraneous information by temporarily shutting down unnecessary communication lines.

    Knight and colleagues recently spotted fast gamma waves at work as people did a wide range of tasks, including repeating words, answering questions about themselves and distinguishing male faces from female. A certain gamma wave pattern seemed to predict when people would get the right answer on these tasks, the team reported in December 2017 in Nature Human Behavior. Gamma waves, the team suspects, link up areas of the brain that are needed to turn goals into action.

    If oscillations are crucial information routers in the brain, then changing them might be beneficial when information is distorted or lost. Altered oscillations have been observed in disorders such as autism, Parkinson’s disease, depression and anxiety, and even in normal aging.

    A study published February 6 in Nature Communications hints at the potential of tweaking these rhythms. Youssef Ezzyat, a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania, and colleagues studied memory abilities in 25 people who had electrodes implanted in their brains as part of their epilepsy treatment.

    As the researchers gave the people lists of words to remember, electrodes monitored neural oscillations. A computer algorithm then figured out which assortment of brain waves indicated when a person was likely to remember the word, an assortment that varied slightly from person to person.

    When those good performance signals were missing, the researchers delivered a short burst of electricity to the brain — “a bit of a nudge to course correct,” Ezzyat says. And these nudges improved performance.

    Specifically manipulating brain waves to treat brains is a long way off, Ezzyat cautions. But he and colleagues are making progress. In the meantime, his results and others’ are powerful signs that brain waves aren’t just an idle hum.




    A. Wutz et al. Different levels of category abstraction by different dynamics in different prefrontal areas. Neuron. Vol. 97, February 7, 2018, p. 1. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2018.01.009.

    Y. Ezzyat et al. Closed-loop stimulation of temporal cortex rescues functional networks and improves memory. Nature Communications. Published online February 6, 2018. doi: 10.1038/s41467-017-02753-0.

    M. Lundqvist et al. Gamma and beta bursts during working memory readout suggest roles in its volitional control. Nature Communications. Published online January 26, 2018. doi: 10.1038/s41467-017-02791-8.

    A. Bastos et al. Laminar recordings in frontal cortex suggest distinct layers for maintenance and control of working memory. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Vol. 115, January 30, 2018, p. 1117. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1710323115.

    M. Haller et al. Persistent neuronal activity in human prefrontal cortex links perception and action. Nature Human Behavior. December 18, 2017. doi: 10.1038/s41562-017-0267-2.


    The Simple Reason Exercise Enhances Your Brain

    Evidence keeps mounting that exercise is good for the brain. It can lower a person's risk for Alzheimer's disease and may even slow brain aging by about 10 years. Now, new research helps illuminate how, exactly, working out improves brain health.

    In one research review published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, researchers examined 39 studies that looked at the link between exercise and cognitive abilities among people over age 50. They found that aerobic exercise appears to improve a person’s cognitive function and resistance training can enhance a person’s executive function and memory. Other exercises like tai chi were also linked to improvements in cognition, though there wasn’t as much available evidence. Ultimately, the researchers concluded that 45 minutes to an hour of moderate-to-vigorous exercise was good for the brain.

    “There is now a wide body of research showing that the benefits to the body with exercise also exist for the brain,” says study author Joe Northey, a PhD candidate at the University of Canberra Research Institute for Sport and Exercise in Australia. “When older adults undertake aerobic or resistance exercise, we see changes to the structure and function of areas of the brain responsible for complex mental tasks and memory function.”

    But how does exercise have these effects? Another new study presented at the American Physiological Society’s annual meeting in Chicago explored one possible way. In the study, researchers from New Mexico Highlands University found that when people walk, the pressure of making impact with the ground sends waves through the arteries, which increase blood flow to the brain (also called cerebral blood flow). Getting enough blood to the brain is important for healthy brain function, since blood flow brings the brain oxygen and nutrients.

    In the small study—which has not yet been published—researchers used ultrasounds to assess arteries and changes in cerebral blood flow in 12 healthy young adults while they were standing, walking and running. The increases in blood flow were greater when the men and women ran, but walking was enough to spur the effect. “[Increased cerebral blood flow] gives the brain more to work with,” says study author Ernest R. Greene, a professor of engineering and biology at New Mexico Highlands University. “It’s another positive aspect of exercise.”

    Scientists are still exploring multiple ways by which fitness improves the brain. But blood flow is a promising path, since it can also help create new brain cells. The protein BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) also seems to play a role because it helps repair and protect brain cells from degeneration. Exercise can also boost mood by triggering the release of feel-good hormones and chemicals, like endorphins, which can improve brain health. A 2015 study found that exercise may be able to prevent the onset of depressive symptoms. 

    “Each type of exercise seems to have different effects on the growth factors responsible for the growth of new neurons and blood vessels in the brain,” says Northey. “That may indicate why doing both aerobic and resistance training is of benefit to cognitive function.”

    By: Alexandra Sifferlin

    12 Ways to Age-Proof Your Brain


    Evidence is accumulating that a whole host of 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.

    12 Ways We Sabotage Our Mental Health

    The Magic of Self-Delusion


    Read enough books or websites that claim to have the secret to how to eat (for weight loss or simply for good health) and you’ll feel like you have whiplash. That’s because the truth is nowhere and everywhere.  Ask yourself these questions (and answer them honestly, of course):

    • Do you eat at least five servings of vegetables and fruits a day? (More vegetables than fruit is best.)
    • Are most of your meals and snacks either prepared at home from scratch, or composed of one-ingredient foods like a piece of fruit with some almonds?
    • Do you participate in enjoyable physical activity for at least 30 minutes, five days a week?
    • Do you have healthy outlets for relieving stress? (i.e., not involving food, drugs, alcohol, or screaming at your kids/pets/partner/strangers.)
    • Do you get at least 7 hours of sleep most nights…and wake feeling rested?
    • Do you have any health concerns that you could be caring for with nutrition and physical activity, such as diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol, but aren’t (or don’t know how to)?

    Self-Assessment and Next Steps

    If you answered “no” to any of these questions, your habits have room for improvement.

    If you have health problems in which nutrition and physical activity play a role, I suggest talking to your doctor and getting a referral to a registered dietitian nutritionist, stat. However, if you are free of major health concerns but want to feel your best, then any eating plan that includes a variety of healthy foods and meets your body’s energy needs will help you maintain—or enhance—your health and vitality will work. True, it’s not always easy to change your eating habits, but you still have a lot of freedom.

    A Two-Step, No-Nonsense Plan to Better Health

    If you examine the must successful eating plans, the ones that have been shown to promote for good health, they may seem very different on the surface. But most of them are in fact very similar at their core. They will pretty much have these two points in common:

    1. Eat lots of vegetables and fruits. Vegetables have priority. Fresh or frozen is best.
    2. Eat only very small amounts (if at all) of foods that are high in sugar, or other highly processed foods (white flour, fast food, junk food, foods with ingredients that you need a science degree to decipher). Avoid foods with trans fats (hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils) at all costs.

    From there, you will find different recommendations about the higher-calorie but healthy foods like meat, poultry, whole grains, milk and other dairy, healthy fats (nuts, avocados, olives, olive and nut oils), legumes (beans).

    Stop the Self-Delusion

    This is a solid starting point, but I see so many people who have failure to launch: They don’t get started with adding more veggies and cutting back on the uber-processed foods because they are perpetually searching for a magic bullet, perpetually being seduced by diet gurus (and there are more and more of them on the internet lately, with their e-newsletters and webinars) who claim that they have the secret to weight loss, fat loss, better health or whatnot. The only secret is that if their claims were true, legitimate nutrition researchers would be all over it and it wouldn’t BE a secret.

    Getting Off the Ground

    If you eat lots of veggies at lunch and dinner, include some fruit, and limit the food that’s lacking in nutritional value to a tiny part of your diet, you can round out the rest of your calories by plucking from the many types of healthy carbohydrates, proteins and fats as you see fit. Some people feel better when they eat more protein, other people feel best with more whole grains. Some people thrive on a vegetarian diet, others need animal protein.

    If you feel irritable, shaky, heavy, bloated, tired or hungry after a meal, then you may need to take a hard look at whether your meals are carb heavy or protein heavy, and experiment with shifting them the other way.

    Here’s The Bottom Line

    For the vast majority of people, eating more vegetables, fewer nutrient-poor foods and upping their time spent in at least light physical activity will result in improved health, and possibly weight loss (if that’s a priority). Very few people have some physical/genetic/hormonal issue that stands between them and a healthy weight. Very few. Yes, you may have to find ways to deal with cravings and occasional hunger, but that has much more to do with motivation, preparation and external eating cues (parties, donuts in the break room, popcorn at the movies).

    By Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, CD




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