Kamini Krishnan, PhD is a board-certified clinical neuropsychologist and an Assistant Professor of Neurology at Cleveland Clinic. She is primarily a clinician with a specialization in neurodegenerative disorders. She filled us in on how and why learning new things or trying fresh activities may help improve our brain health.

Read the Q&A with Dr. Krishnan below.

WAM: Summer is almost over, and as we head back out into the world of work and school, tell us why our brains will benefit from new challenges. We hear a lot about brain plasticity. What does it mean, and how are we helping our brains by improving it?​
Dr. Krishnan: The brain is a fascinating organ, in that we know more now than we did 20 years ago about how it works, but there is still much that is unknown or uncertain. What leads to improved brain health or neural plasticity is unclear but there are two main areas of focus. One is an increase in the thickness or volume of a particular structure in the brain and another is changes in the amount of activity or connectivity between neural regions. One hypothesis on how brain plasticity is accomplished is through formation of new neurons and degradation of other neurons. The proteins responsible for the processes of cell birth and cell death are called neurotrophic factors and one such protein is brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF). Decreased level of BDNF has been associated with neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. However, it is not clear if increasing BDNF levels will reverse or even prevent these conditions.

One of the reasons the brain is so complex is that there is considerable variability in how an individual experiences aging in the brain. There are a few theories that hypothesize why this might occur. One is the concept of cognitive reserve, which maintains that there may be protection from expected age-related cognitive decline through specific actions or experiences such as a demanding career, high levels of education, and an active lifestyle. The more you challenge your brain, the more reserve you build up to draw on later in life. Another concept of brain plasticity is how to draw more efficiently from existing brain networks and better harness their power.

WAM: Do different ways of exercising and challenging our brains use and affect different parts of the brain? 
Dr. Krishnan: Sure, different activities can engage different regions of the brain. However, there is no guideline that neural plasticity in one area of the brain is more important than another. If the goal is maintaining or improving your brain health, consider tasks or activities that are new and challenging to you. For example, guitar lessons may not be particularly new or challenging to a musician who already plays multiple instruments, but it may have significant benefit for a novice in that field. Generally, brain plasticity can be expected when there is a considerable and prolonged demand on an individual’s cognitive system that they have not previously experienced.

WAM: Do online brain games work as well as other forms of learning? 
Dr. Krishnan: Possibly, but not necessarily. Most brain games such as those offered by websites like Lumosity or Brain HQ generally help improve attention and processing speed. This essentially helps one focus on one task and get better at it. Those specific sites are also designed to keep the games challenging but not too difficult, to help you stay engaged. Improving these aspects of cognition can have a positive impact on other cognitive abilities such as memory. So, if you can focus better or process information faster, you may learn or remember more information and then feel like your memory has improved. While brain games can improve those cognitive functions in the short-term, the long-term benefits are unclear.

Online brain games are not the only way to stimulate your brain. What’s important is to find a challenging activity or hobby that gives you pleasure so that you’re more likely to do it. Some other good examples of activities include doing puzzles, brain games, watching something (movie/documentary) and discussing it after the fact, learning something new- be it sport or skill. Travelling, learning about new cultures and foods is good, as well as meditating, engaging in a new exercise regime. Just try not to get stuck in a rut. For example, playing the same card game with the same group of people where you win most of the time suggests it might be too easy. Lastly, finding a purpose or a way to give back to those around you such as volunteering in an organization where you are engaged in a new activity such as teaching or administrative work can also be cognitively stimulating and have the added benefit of increased social activity.

But never forget some of the basic ways to address neural plasticity which include adequate quantity and quality of sleep, regular physical exercise, and a well-balanced diet.