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Scientist Reveals How To Regrow Your Age-Shrunken Brain in Just Six Months

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What happens to our brains as we get older? Well, for the most part, they shrink—but not all of this shrinkage is inevitable.

To find out how to slow, and even reverse, age-associated brain shrinkage, Newsweek spoke to Brad Sutton, a professor of bioengineering at the University of Illinois’s Grainger College of Engineering and an expert in the neuroscience of the aging brain.

“The brain is a really complex organ that has lots of components that come together in order to maintain function as we get older,” Sutton told Newsweek. “And we see things with MRI that can reflect changes in the structure of the brain; how it’s put together and changes in how well it can function.”

Happy elderly couple
Stock image of an older couple. While some aspects of aging are inevitable, there are things we can do to optimize the health of our brain.

Fabio Camandona/Getty

At a structural level, our brains undergo a series of changes as they age. “As you get older, your brain tissue gets replaced with water-filled spaces,” Sutton said. “So we see volume reductions.

“Just looking at a structural image of the brain, we can see differences. But if we zoom in, we can measure how our neurons are talking to each other. We can see changes in how those neurons are arranged and how effectively different parts of the brain can communicate together.”

These structural changes also occur at a more systemic level. “Another big area we look at too is blood flow. We can watch how blood is distributed in the brain and how it’s delivered,” Sutton said.

“We can measure things about how the blood vessels are responding to demands to make sure that the neurons in the brain are getting adequate amounts of oxygen and nutrition and the waste products are being carried away. And we can look at regions that are more sensitive as you get older—maybe things start to get blocked or the blood vessels aren’t as stretchy.”

In fact, the heart itself contains a network of neurons that are in constant communication with the brain.

“We’ve been trying to look at how this system can adapt to these challenges and how flexible it can be to reroute oxygen and nutrients to our tissues,” Sutton said.

Cardiovascular exercise has previously been associated with improved cognitive function in the elderly, so Sutton and his team at the University of Illinois have been investigating how physical activity can affect our brain structure.

“Just looking at brain size, we can see older people on these exercise interventions gain brain tissue in as little as six months,” Sutton said. “And usually by the time we can see it in an image, it’s a pretty big effect.”

In other words, just six months of regular aerobic activity can reverse some of the effects of aging on the brain. However, as we age, it can become harder for our bodies to manage aerobic physical activity. Therefore, Sutton and colleagues have set up a clinical trial to investigate whether similar effects can be seen from yoga.

“We’re studying older adults and not all people can do a cardiovascular fitness program. But with the yoga intervention, I think that’s going to open it up to a lot more people. Yoga has different demands on the body. You have to really control your breathing and coordinated movement.”

The trial is still ongoing, but Sutton hopes to see similar results to those that came from regular aerobic exercise. “I expect we’re going to see the same results we saw with exercise. And that will have a transformative effect on a variety of people,” he said.

Sutton said that he hopes studies like this will help people avoid neurodegeneration, thus increasing our health span and cognitive fitness into older age. “I think it’s a promising result because it shows it’s not fixed,” he said. “It’s not, ‘you’ve lost it and it’s gone.’ So there’s hope that you can improve things.”

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