This wonderful article was forwarded to me by the illustrious psychologist Ken Pope.

The UK Guardian includes an article: "How 'superagers' stay sharp in their later years; A new study shows how strenuous mental and physical exercise keeps your brain firing on all cylinders” by Lisa Feldman Barrett.

Here are some excerpts:

[begin excerpts]

When it comes to retirement, experts recommend that everyone do some hard thinking. By this, they mean you should plan your finances responsibly, consider carefully where to live, and decide what colour beach chair to sit in all day as you sip strawberry daiquiris in the sun. But there's another reason to think hard about these details: hard thinking by itself—a strenuous mental workout—is good for your ageing brain.

My collaborators and I at Massachusetts General hospital and Northeastern University in Boston study people over 65 who have incredible memories for their age, on a par with healthy 25-year-olds. Scientists call them "superagers" (a term coined by neurologist Marsel Mesulam at Northwestern University in Chicago). 

While nobody knows exactly why some people are superagers, we believe that one common factor is that they engage in demanding mental exercise. 

They continually challenge themselves to learn new things outside of their comfort zone.

Beginning in middle age, research shows, many people take steps to avoid unpleasantness: they quit their irritating jobs; take relaxing holidays instead of vigorous ones; they pursue happiness. Scientists call this phenomenon the "positivity effect".

Nobody wants a life filled with stress, so it's reasonable to indulge the positivity effect and divest yourself of negative things. In fact, stress that continues for a long time, a condition known as chronic stress, is toxic to your brain—it literally eats away at critical brain regions.

Not all stress is bad, however. Research suggests that you need some amount of stress in your life if you want to stay mentally sharp—in particular, the momentary stress that comes with hard work. 

Your nervous system evolved so that occasional bouts of stress, where you tax your body and brain for a short time, is necessary to keep your brain healthy as you age.

To understand why this is the case, consider how your memory works. Whenever you remember something, like where you left your car keys, you aren't retrieving a memory wholesale from some distinct crevice in your brain; instead, you construct memories in the moment, out of bits and pieces gathered from around your brain. This construction process is launched by an ensemble of brain regions that, according to our research, are thicker and better connected in superagers. Perhaps you've heard of some of these regions, which include the hippocampus, the anterior insula, the midcingulate cortex, and the medial prefrontal cortex, among others.

The same "superager ensemble" of brain regions also assembles your thoughts, emotions, decisions, dreams, sights, sounds, smells, and everything else you perceive, using the same construction process that makes your memories. 


In addition, the superager ensemble performs the vital task of regulating your organs, hormones and immune system. These brain regions are responsible for predicting your body's energy needs in advance, to keep you alive and healthy. 

If you're getting the idea that they are hugely important, you're right: they are major hubs that coordinate communication throughout your brain. They show up in thousands of neuroscience studies on diverse topics. 


All in all, when the key regions of your superager ensemble are thick and well connected, your brain can regulate your body and construct your experiences faster and more efficiently. 

But it's not always easy to keep these regions in good shape, because they also create the stressful feelings that you have when exerting yourself. 

Thinking hard can make you feel unpleasant in the moment, just as strenuous physical exercise can make you ache for a time. 

These unpleasant feelings invite you to stop working hard. 

Based on research in my lab, however, if you want to realise the brain benefits of superageing, you must push past the momentary discomfort. 

In many cases, the unpleasant feeling is a false alarm, and you actually do have the mental or physical resources to continue exerting yourself.

What enables superagers to persevere in the face of unpleasantness? 


Scientists have found that if they electrically stimulate one of the regions of the superager ensemble— the midcingulate cortex—subjects report a feeling of motivation to overcome difficult challenges. The psychologist and author Angela Duckworth calls this feeling "grit".

In the past, some researchers have described grit as the ability to regulate your emotions by thinking rationally. Modern neuroscience, however, has established that the human brain has no dedicated areas for thinking versus feeling. Our research suggests that grit is not so much a grand battle between cognition and emotion; it's more the ability to use your unpleasant feelings as fuel rather than as a reason to apply the brakes. Superagers, and other people who regularly cultivate grit, treat their unpleasant feeling as a signal to keep going.

So, what can you do to increase your chances of being a superager? While there are no guarantees, here are some tips.

*First, engage in strenuous mental activity on a regular basis, enough to make you feel unpleasant in the moment. Pick a topic that has always interested you, whether it's chemistry or gardening or sports statistics, and dive into it until your brain hurts. 

Take classes that you find challenging, or work on a project that's difficult. Learn to play a musical instrument, or study a foreign language. If you fail at your task, don't fret, just try something else. The key is to push past the discomfort that comes with learning a new subject or skill.

The head of my daughter's karate school, Grandmaster Joe Esposito, has a saying about pushing past discomfort, when he speaks to his nervous students before their black belt test: "Make your butterflies fly in formation." I suspect that superagers keep their butterflies exceptionally well trained.


*Second, if you aren't exercising regularly, begin doing so if you can. Studies show that vigorous physical effort, again past the point of unpleasantness, may have similar effects on your brain as hard mental effort. The mechanisms are not yet known, but demanding exercise appears to improve the thickness and connectivity of the same brain regions. For example, in one study, people who exercised regularly in their 60s were more likely to be mentally fit in their 90s. (Of course, check with your GP before beginning any new programme of physical exercise, especially if you're near or past retirement age. Superageing is much less satisfying when accompanied by pulled muscles or broken bones.)

*Third, eat healthy food and get enough sleep. Several studies have shown that a Mediterranean diet, rich in vegetables, fruits, fish and healthy fats like olive oil, is associated with better memory, less cognitive decline, and less brain atrophy in general. Sufficient sleep is known to be important for a healthy memory, and it even clears out certain "wastes" from your brain, known as beta-amyloid plaques, that are linked to dementia.

I'll also offer some non-advice. You may hear that you can exercise your brain by playing sudoku and visiting "brain game" websites. These relatively mild activities are not likely to increase your odds of becoming a superager, because the level of difficulty is too low. You have to work hard enough to feel the strain of effort.


Damage to the superager ensemble is associated with a long list of serious disorders, including depression, schizophrenia, autism, dyslexia, chronic pain, chronic stress, dementia, and Parkinson's disease.


History is full of people who flourished late in life, such as Julia Child, who published her first cookbook when she was nearly 50, and Teiichi Igarashi, who climbed Mount Fuji at 99. Tolkien published The Lord of the Rings in his 60s. Artists such as Mary Delany, who created 1,700 meticulously crafted paper flowers, and Louise Bourgeois, the sculptor of the giant metal spider Maman, did their most skilled work in their 70s and 80s. 


Personally, I would love to test Judi Dench, who at 82 is still wowing audiences in a field that requires lots of memorisation. (On the other hand, a certain 70-year-old president of the United States, who seems to change his mind every 10 minutes, is almost certainly not a superager.)

So, if you want to stay mentally healthy into old age, don't just retire: rewire. 

Help to build up your brain circuitry through regular sessions of vigorous effort, whether physical or mental. Keep up the hard work, push past momentary discomfort, and have a happy "rewirement”.

[end excerpts]

The article is online at: 


The 36 Questions That Lead to Love

한국어로 읽기 Read in Korean

点击查看本文中文版 Read in Chinese

Modern Love


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UPDATED: You can now hear the essay “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This” read by the actress Gillian Jacobs in Modern Love: The Podcast. Look for the “play” button below or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play MusicTo try the 36 questions described below, download our free app for your phone, tablet or other device.




"To Fall in Love, Do This"

Episode 30Hear the actress Gillian Jacobs read "To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This."


In Mandy Len Catron’s Modern Love essay, “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This,” she refers to a study by the psychologist Arthur Aron (and others) that explores whether intimacy between two strangers can be accelerated by having them ask each other a specific series of personal questions. The 36 questions in the study are broken up into three sets, with each set intended to be more probing than the previous one.

The idea is that mutual vulnerability fosters closeness. To quote the study’s authors, “One key pattern associated with the development of a close relationship among peers is sustained, escalating, reciprocal, personal self-disclosure.” Allowing oneself to be vulnerable with another person can be exceedingly difficult, so this exercise forces the issue.

The final task Ms. Catron and her friend try — staring into each other’s eyes for four minutes — is less well documented, with the suggested duration ranging from two minutes to four. But Ms. Catron was unequivocal in her recommendation. “Two minutes is just enough to be terrified,” she told me. “Four really goes somewhere.”

Set I

1. Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?

2. Would you like to be famous? In what way?

3. Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why?

4. What would constitute a “perfect” day for you?

5. When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?

6. If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year-old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you want?

7. Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?

8. Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common.

9. For what in your life do you feel most grateful?

10. If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?

11. Take four minutes and tell your partner your life story in as much detail as possible.

12. If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?

Set II

13. If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future or anything else, what would you want to know?

14. Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?

15. What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?

16. What do you value most in a friendship?

17. What is your most treasured memory?

18. What is your most terrible memory?

19. If you knew that in one year you would die suddenly, would you change anything about the way you are now living? Why?

20. What does friendship mean to you?

21. What roles do love and affection play in your life?

22. Alternate sharing something you consider a positive characteristic of your partner. Share a total of five items.

23. How close and warm is your family? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other people’s?

24. How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?


25. Make three true “we” statements each. For instance, “We are both in this room feeling ... “

26. Complete this sentence: “I wish I had someone with whom I could share ... “

27. If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know.

28. Tell your partner what you like about them; be very honest this time, saying things that you might not say to someone you’ve just met.

29. Share with your partner an embarrassing moment in your life.

30. When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?

31. Tell your partner something that you like about them already.

32. What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?

33. If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t you told them yet?

34. Your house, containing everything you own, catches fire. After saving your loved ones and pets, you have time to safely make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be? Why?

35. Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?

36. Share a personal problem and ask your partner’s advice on how he or she might handle it. Also, ask your partner to reflect back to you how you seem to be feeling about the problem you have chosen.


The *New York Times* includes an article: "Writing a 'Last Letter' When You're Healthy" by V. J. Periyakoil, M.D., who is Director of the Stanford Palliative Care Education & Training Program and the founder of the Stanford Letter Project.

Here are some excerpts:

[begin excerpts]

Over the last 15 years, as a geriatrics and palliative care doctor, I have had candid conversations with countless patients near the end of their lives. The most common emotion they express is regret: regret that they never took the time to mend broken friendships and relationships; regret that they never told their friends and family how much they care; regret that they are going to be remembered by their children as hypercritical mothers or exacting, authoritarian fathers.

And that's why I came up with a project to encourage people to write a last letter to their loved ones. It can be done when someone is ill, but it's really worth doing when one is still healthy, before it's too late.

It's a lesson I learned years ago from a memorable dying patient. He was a Marine combat veteran who had lived on a staple diet of Semper Fi and studied silence all his life. A proud and stoic man, he was admitted to the hospital for intractable pain from widely spread cancer. Every day, his wife visited him and spent many hours at his bedside watching him watch television. She explained to me that he had never been much of a talker in their 50-plus years of marriage.

But he was far more forthcoming with me, especially when it became clear that his days were numbered. He spoke of his deep regret for not having spent enough time with his wife, whom he loved very much, and of his great pride in his son, who had joined the Marines in his father's footsteps.

One afternoon, when I mentioned these comments to his wife and son, they looked incredulously at each other and then disbelievingly at me. They thanked me for being kind but stated that my patient was incapable of expressing such sentiments.

I wanted to prove my credibility and to make sure that his wife could actually hear her husband professing his love. I knew he was unlikely to speak to them directly. So I took my huge family camcorder with me the next morning on medical rounds and - with the patient's consent -- recorded an open letter from him to his family. When I gave them the taped letter as a keepsake, both his wife and son were moved to tears.

The experience inspired an idea that has grown into the Stanford Friends and Family Letter Project. With guidance from seriously ill patients and families from various racial and ethnic groups, we developed a free template for a letter that can help people complete seven life review tasks: acknowledging important people in our lives; remembering treasured moments; apologizing to those we may have hurt; forgiving those who have hurt us; and saying "thank you," "I love you" and "goodbye."

While these may seem intuitive, many people don't complete these steps before they die, leaving their family members with unanswered questions and regret.

The letter template, which is available in eight languages, allows writers to express gratitude, forgiveness and regret. In one letter, a participant wrote to his wife, Lily, "I wish I had loved you more."

Many writers use the templates to express pride in their children in ways they might not do in person. One wrote to a son, Michael: "You are so courageous to change your major and do what it takes to be successful to reach your dreams." Another wrote, "Life for us was never easy but you overcame obstacles."

And some apologize. A man named Tyrone Scott wrote to his daughter, "I'm sorry that I wasn't there when you were growing up. If I could relive my past, I would not have let your mother take you away from me."

The letters can be a chance to let go of grudges. Shirley Jones wrote, "To Harold: You have forgotten to repay some of the personal loans you obtained from us. We are wiping your account cleared."


It may take tremendous courage to write a life review letter. For some people, it evokes deep and troubling emotions. Yet it may be the most important letter you will ever write.

[end excerpts]

The article is online at:

Ken Pope


The *New York Times* includes an article: "Vitamin B12 as Protection for the Aging Brain" by Jane E. Brody.

Here are some excerpts:

[begin excerpts]

The ability to absorb B12 naturally present in foods depends on the presence of adequate stomach acid, the enzyme pepsin and a gastric protein called intrinsic factor to release the vitamin from the food protein it is attached to. Only then can the vitamin be absorbed by the small intestine.

As people age, acid-producing cells in the stomach may gradually cease to function, a condition called atrophic gastritis.


"Depression, dementia and mental impairment are often associated with" a deficiency of B12 and its companion B vitamin folate, "especially in the elderly," Dr. Rajaprabhakaran Rajarethinam, a psychiatrist at Wayne State University School of Medicine, has written.

He described a 66-year-old woman hospitalized with severe depression, psychosis and a loss of energy and interest in life who had extremely low blood levels of B12 and whose symptoms were almost entirely reversed by injections of the vitamin.

European researchers have also shown that giving B12 to people deficient in the vitamin helped protect many of the areas of the brain damaged by Alzheimer's disease.

In a two-year study at the University of Oxford of 270 people older than 70 with mild cognitive impairment and low B12 levels, Dr. Helga Refsum, a professor of nutrition at the University of Oslo, found reduced cerebral atrophy in those treated with high doses of the vitamin.

"A B12 vitamin deficiency as a cause of cognitive issues is more common than we think, especially among the elderly who live alone and don't eat properly," Dr. Rajarethinam said.

The academy estimates that between 10 percent and 30 percent of people older than 50 produce too little stomach acid to release B12 from its carrier protein in foods, and as the years advance, the percentage of low-acid producers rises.


Evidence from a study of young adults called the Framingham Offspring Study suggests that insufficient absorption of B12 from foods may even be common among adults aged 26 to 49, so the following advice may pertain to them as well.

The academy recommends that adults older than 50 get most of their daily requirement of B12 -- 2.4 micrograms for people 14 and older, slightly more for women who are pregnant or nursing -- from a synthetic form of the vitamin found in foods fortified with B12 or in a multivitamin supplement. Synthetic B12 is not attached to protein and thus bypasses the need for stomach acid. Given that I eat very few fortified foods, a supplement with B12 is likely to be my best option.

Certain groups besides older people are also at risk of a B12 deficiency. They include vegetarians and vegans who consume little or no animal foods; people with disorders of the stomach and small intestine like celiac disease and Crohn's disease; chronic users of proton-pump inhibitors to control acid reflux; and people whose digestive systems were surgically reduced for weight-loss or treatment for cancer or ulcerative colitis.

Among those most likely to be B12 deficient are the older patients in nursing homes whose diets are limited, and this deficiency may account in part for the symptoms of cognitive dysfunction so common among nursing home residents.

While a B12 deficiency can take years to develop, encroaching symptoms can be distressing and eventually devastating. It can also be challenging to link such symptoms to a nutrient deficiency.

In an online posting in July, David G. Schardt, the senior nutritionist for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, noted that symptoms of B12 deficiency include fatigue, tingling and numbness in the hands and feet, muscle weakness and loss of reflexes, which may progress to confusion, depression, memory loss and dementia as the deficiency grows more severe.

Early symptoms can be reversed by treatment with high doses of B12, usually given by injection. But symptoms related to nerve damage and dementia are more likely to be permanent. Thus, it is especially important for people at risk of a B12 deficiency to have their blood tested for it periodically. For example, experts at Kaiser Permanente in Oakland, Calif., suggest that chronic users of proton-pump inhibitors should have their B12 level tested every two years.

Vegetarians and vegans need not despair. In addition to B12 supplements, various commercially prepared plant-based foods, like some breakfast cereals, nondairy milks and soy products and one type of nutritional yeast, are fortified with synthetic B12. The Vegan Society recommends eating two to three servings a day of fortified foods to get at least three micrograms of B12.

However, Dr. Ralph Carmel, a retired hematologist now affiliated with New York University who studied the effects of B12 for decades, cautions against taking megadoses of the vitamin.

He said in an interview that too often, "People who really need B12 don't get it, and those who don't need it, like athletes, often take huge doses -- 2,000 or 5,000 micrograms a day. We don't know what such doses can do in the long run. If an older person has low-ish B12 levels, I don't object to taking 500 or 1,000 micrograms a day, but 5,000 is ridiculous."

[end excerpts]

The article is online at:



Music Changes the Way You Think

Different music encourages different frames of mind


By Daniel A. Yudkin, Yaacov Trope on June 24, 2014

The chords could change your mind Credit: Thinkstock


Hum the first two notes of “The Simpsons” theme song. (If you’re not a Simpsons fan, “Maria” from West Side Story will also do.) The musical interval you’re hearing—the pitch gap between the notes—is known as a “tritone,” and it’s commonly recognized in music theory as one of the most dissonant intervals, so much so that composers and theorists in the 18th century dubbed it diabolus in musica (“devil in music”).

Now hum the first few notes of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, or, if you prefer something with a little more street cred, the “I’m sorry” part in Outkast’s “Ms. Jackson.” This is the “perfect fifth.” It’s one of the most consonant intervals, used in myriad compositions as a vehicle of resolution and harmony.

Is it possible that hearing such isolated musical components can change the way you think? An ambitious new paper recently published by Jochim Hansen and Johann Melzner

in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology argues precisely that. The researchers brought pedestrians into a laboratory and played them a short, stripped-down piece of music consisting of a series of alternating chords. Some people heard chords including the tritone; others the perfect fifth. A couple other tweaks were also made: in the tritone condition, the chords were played slowly—only once every four-beat measure—while in the perfect fifth condition, the chords went by rapidly, sounding every beat. Further, a “reverberation” effect was added such that the tritone chords sounded like they were being played in a cavernous cave and the perfect fifth chords in a carpeted closet.

What the scientists found is that the simple act listening to either of these two chord sets changed how people processed information in a very basic way. For example, the researchers asked people to take a list of shopping items and organize them into groups. Think detergent and paper towels: same kind of thing, or different? Results showed that “tritone” people formed fewer categories than “perfect fifth” people, indicating that they were thinking in broader, more inclusive categories than their counterparts.

In a separate measure, the scientists asked people to imagine buying one of two imaginary toasters. These toasters varied in what is known as “aggregated” versus “individualized”

information. Do you know how on you can learn the average star rating of a given item? This is aggregated information; it’s pooled from a wide range of sources. Individualized information, by contrast, would be the customer reviews that appear at the bottom of the page. Which do you pay more attention to when these give conflicting messages—when, say, the aggregated information is largely negative but there is a single glowing customer review? Turns out that people who are exposed to “tritone”-type music samples are more likely to be swayed by aggregated information, and “fifth” people by the reverse.

Underlying these seemingly disparate questions is a relatively new theory in social psychology that has shown itself capable of explaining an impressive variety of human behaviors. It’s known as construal level theory, and its core premise is that there’s a link

between how far things are from people and how abstractly they construe them. Distant things—a Hawaii vacation next year, say—appear to us general and decontextualized, their basic features (the beach, the sun) forefront in our minds. As they draw near, however, elements we never before considered (the packing, the possibility of rain) suddenly demand our attention. The forest, in other words, becomes the trees. Overall, the theory helps explain many seemingly disparate phenomena, like why we’re bad at predicting how

long it’ll take us to fix the kitchen sink, why absence makes the heart grow fonder, and why

we rarely follow through on New Years resolutions. In all these cases, what seemed a

certain way from afar turns out, up close, to be a different beast entirely.

How does all this relate to repeating chord patterns? What the researchers have done, cleverly, is consider music’s ability to conjure up highly specific mental states. Tiny, almost immeasurable features in a piece of music have the power to elicit deeply personal and specific patterns of thought and emotion in human listeners. (One need only listen to Astrud Gilberto’s Grammy-winning performance of the Girl from Ipanema to re- appreciate music’s ability to capture strange and mysterious moods.) Hansen and Melzner have exploited this fact to provoke in listeners thought patterns corresponding to precisely those mapped by construal level theory.

Ponderous, resonant, unfamiliar tonalities—the proverbial “auditory forest”—cause people to construe things abstractly. By contrast, the rapid, consonant, familiar chords of the perfect fifth—the “auditory trees”—bring out the concrete mindset. The groups of shopping items, the reviews of toasters—these correspond to measures of abstractness that have


been developed in experimental psychology. When you group a shopping list into only a few categories, it suggests that you are considering the list abstractly, clustering items according to a common core. And heeding aggregated (versus individualized) information implies the same: you’re seeing the forest rather than being swayed by a single tree.

That music can move us is no surprise; it’s the point of the art form, after all. What’s new here is the manner in which the researchers have quantified in fine-grained detail the cognitive ramifications of unpacked melodic compounds. This investigation of music’s building blocks may be more relevant than you suppose. Nowadays, experts in the production room can hone a track—the timbre, tone, rhythm, phrasing—with digital precision. These songwriters and producers are the true geniuses behind the success of popular music today, and they seem to have an intuitive grasp of the phenomena underlying the findings of this psychology article. An extra breath-sound here, a pitch adjustment there—these additives pepper the songs we hear on the radio. So the next time you hear a piece of music from the Billboard Top 40, it may be interesting to wonder, how many components were manipulated just so, in order to change the way I think?

Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT or Twitter @garethideas.




Daniel Yudkin is a doctoral candidate in social psychology at New York University and a jazz pianist. He graduated from Williams College, was a Fellow at Harvard University, and once attempted an eleven-country European busking tour funded entirely by street-coins. More here.

Yaacov Trope is a Professor of Psychology at New York University. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan and is a member of the American Association for Arts and Sciences. He has edited several books, including Dual-Process Theories
in Social Psychology (1998), Self Control in Society, Mind, and Brain (2010), and Dual- Process Theories of the Social Mind (2014). His general areas of interest are social cognition, motivation, and self-control.





Strenuous Exercise Can Help Regulate Your Mood (duh!)



Strenuous Exercise Could Help Regulate Your Mood, Study Suggests

March 2, 2016 | by Ben Taub

photo credit: Exactly what happens in the brain when we exercise is still something of a mystery. Syda Productions/Shutterstock

There’s no question that regular exercise is beneficial for the body, but a new study now adds to the growing evidence that working out could have positive health effects for the mind as well. According to the research, which appears in the Journal of Neuroscience, strenuous activity stimulates the production of two key brain chemicals that are known to play a role in regulating mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.

Exactly how exercise affects the brain has had scientists scratching their heads for some time. Several studies have shown that intense physical activity causes metabolic changes in the brain, which increases its anaerobic, or without oxygen, consumption of carbohydrates, meaning its uptake of glucose begins to exceed its uptake of oxygen.

While precisely what happens to the energy obtained from this glucose remains a mystery, several scholars have hypothesized that it could be at least partially used to stimulate the synthesis of the brain's chemical messengers, or neurotransmitters. These molecules diffuse across the gaps between neurons – known as synapses – in order to transmit signals around the central nervous system.

The two most abundant neurotransmitters are glutamate and GABA. Though these are involved in a number of key processes, a deficiency of these compounds has been linked with poor mental functioning and mood disorders.

To test whether exercise causes an increase in levels of these vital neurotransmitters, researchers used a process called magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) to measure their concentrations in the brains of participants following a workout. Results showed that levels of both chemicals were elevated 18 minutes after exercise, returning to normal at about 34 minutes.

Neurotransmitters like glutamate and GABA diffuse across the gaps between neurons in order to carry signals around the central nervous system. nobeastsofierce/Shutterstock

These increases were particularly notable in two brain regions called the primary visual cortex – which processes visual information – and the anterior cingulate cortex. The latter of these forms a key part of the brain’s limbic system, which is responsible for the regulation of emotions, as well as learning and memory. Deficiency of glutamate and GABA in this part of the brain has previously been associated with depression.

In contrast, participants who did not take part in any exercise exhibited no increase in these neurotransmitters, and where level changes did occur, they were always in a downward direction. These results suggest that some of the energy produced in the brain during strenuous activity does indeed contribute to the synthesis of neurotransmitters.

However, since the average increase in glutamate levels following exercise was only 4.9 percent, the study authors suggest that this neurotransmitter boost can only account for a modest 15 percent of the increased carbohydrate uptake in the brain. What happens to the remainder of this energy remains a mystery.

Building on these results, the study authors asked participants to complete a questionnaire in order to obtain information about their daily exercise routines, and found that those who were more active had higher resting levels of glutamate. As such, they conclude that regular physical activity generates lasting increases in glutamate and GABA concentrations throughout the brain, and may therefore have therapeutic potential for those suffering from poor mental health.

It is worth noting, however, that the researchers did not assess participants' mental health during this experiment, and that while these findings are significant, they are by no means conclusive in relation to the role of exercise in treating mood disorders. Indeed, conditions like depression and anxiety are produced by a complex array of factors, and it is likely that neurotransmitter levels regulate symptoms in delicate ways. For instance, while a glutamate deficiency in the limbic system has been linked to depression, an excess of glutamate can cause some neurons to become over-excited, potentially damaging synapses and leading to cognitive impairment or emotional dysregulation. 








Why You’ll Live Longer If You Take Music Lessons

Studies show all kinds of mental and physical perks when you pick up an instrument

January 15, 2016

Credit: Thinkstock


My first instrument was a used bass guitar I bought in high school for $70 at Florida Discount Music in Melbourne, where I grew up. I never took any lessons. Instead, I spent hours next to my turntable and tried to mimic the riffs from U2, the Who and Cream. (My attempt at “Sunshine of Your Love” lasted about 10 minutes).

The bass proved an entertaining hobby, yet by the time I got to college it was demoted to garage sale status, and ever since my music-making ability has consisted of downloading from iTunes.

But now is the best time to find that beat again.
As we age, our cognitive skills weaken. It’s the adage: Use it or lose it. Learning a musical instrument can be one of the best workouts for your mind, and as research has revealed, it also can soothe an aging body and even rekindle the soul.

MOREWhen Music Becomes Your Medicine

Just look at what making music can do:

Playing a musical instrument reduces stress more than other traditional relaxing activities, like reading a newspaper or magazine.

Better Memory and Hearing

A 2011 study from Northwestern University looked at musicians age 45 to 65 and found that their auditory memory and ability to hear speech in noisy environments were better than those of non-musicians of the same age.

The reason, says Nina Kraus, director of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern, is that music training “fine tunes” the nervous system. She equates the effect to how painters are attuned to the visual aspects of their craft. They are laser-focused on the slightest differences in paint texture, the lines of a subject’s face, and how light affects a setting. This same reaction can occur when music is the main point of reference.

“When the material you work with is sound then it makes sense that your ability to take it in, remember it, and relate to it should be sharpened,” Kraus says.

MORE95-Year-Old Jazz Pianist Gets the Band Back Together

Better Physical Health

Research from the Music Making and Wellness project — a five-year study that involved music experts from universities and colleges across the country — shows that the level of human growth hormone, or HGH, increased 90 percent in seniors who were given keyboard lessons. HGH is an essential chemical that helps slow many aging conditions, like osteoporosis, loss of muscle mass, and aches and pains. HGH decreases with age. After 40, as much as 50 percent.

Better Mental Health

It has been well documented that listening to music relaxes the mind, reduces anxiety and depression. And it doesn’t matter if those soothing and inspiring tunes come from an iPod or live from a Steinway. This effect can even be more satisfying and powerful if the music emanates from you. “Hearing music by pushing a piano key or strumming a guitar creates an instant gratification,” says Jennifer Diedrich, a piano and violin instructor with Suzuki Strings in St. Petersburg, Fla. “There is that rush where you say to yourself, ‘Hey, I made those sounds!’”

Research led by Dr. Barry Bittman, of the Mind-Body Wellness Center in Meadville, Pa., found that playing a musical instrument reduces stress more than other traditional relaxing activities, like reading a newspaper or magazine.

Getting Started on an Instrument

Even when adults have the required dedication to learn an instrument, it is important to also tap into their child-mind, Diedrich says. “Many adults are analytical — they want the music to be perfect and they miss the joy of just making music,” she says. “If kids mess up they just plow through it. They act first and think later, and adults should follow that lead and always remember that making music should be enjoyable.”

You can’t learn without a good teacher. When choosing an instructor, Diedrich says, make sure he or she complements your goals and interest. One obvious example: If you want to play jazz piano, don’t hire someone who specializes in classical. If possible ask to observe a teacher to get a feel for chemistry and his or her approach to teaching.

Finding the Ideal Instrument

What’s the best instrument to play? The one you are excited to learn. After all, it will take practice and persistence to improve and perhaps master, so you don’t want to embrace something you might regret after a few months. (So maybe think twice about the five-piece drum set.)

Diedrich says the piano and acoustic guitar both are ideal as they often require minimal movements to produce pleasing sounds. More complex instruments like, say, the violin have so many specific physical requirements — how to handle the bow and where to place your fingers — that you may end up focusing too much on technique rather than the music.

But once you decide you want to learn, locating the instrument that will be your musical soul mate should come easily.

I have already found mine. It hangs in the window of a St. Petersburg guitar shop, which is run by two guys who I am sure were roadies for Lynyrd Skynyrd. It’s a bitchin’ Fender Precision Bass. On sale. All black and shiny and majestic.

I think it’s time I give “Sunshine” another try.

© Twin Cities Public Television - 2016. All rights reserved.




(From the NY Times, via Ken Pope):

The *New York Times* includes an article: "How Meditation Changes the Brain and Body" by Gretchen Reynolds.

Here are some excerpts:

[begin excerpts]

The benefits of mindfulness meditation, increasingly popular in recent years, are supposed to be many: reduced stress and risk for various diseases, improved well-being, a rewired brain.


This month, however, a study published in Biological Psychiatry brings scientific thoroughness to mindfulness meditation and for the first time shows that, unlike a placebo, it can change the brains of ordinary people and potentially improve their health.

To meditate mindfully demands ''an open and receptive, nonjudgmental awareness of your present-moment experience,'' says J. David Creswell, who led the study and is an associate professor of psychology and the director of the Health and Human Performance Laboratory at Carnegie Mellon University.

One difficulty of investigating meditation has been the placebo problem. In rigorous studies, some participants receive treatment while others get a placebo: They believe they are getting the same treatment when they are not. But people can usually tell if they are meditating. Dr. Creswell, working with scientists from a number of other universities, managed to fake mindfulness.

First they recruited 35 unemployed men and women who were seeking work and experiencing considerable stress. Blood was drawn and brain scans were given. Half the subjects were then taught formal mindfulness meditation at a residential retreat center; the rest completed a kind of sham mindfulness meditation that was focused on relaxation and distracting oneself from worries and stress.

''We had everyone do stretching exercises, for instance,'' Dr. Creswell says. The mindfulness group paid close attention to bodily sensations, including unpleasant ones. The relaxation group was encouraged to chatter and ignore their bodies, while their leader cracked jokes.

At the end of three days, the participants all told the researchers that they felt refreshed and better able to withstand the stress of unemployment. Yet follow-up brain scans showed differences in only those who underwent mindfulness meditation.

There was more activity, or communication, among the portions of their brains that process stress-related reactions and other areas related to focus and calm.

Four months later, those who had practiced mindfulness showed much lower levels in their blood of a marker of unhealthy inflammation than the relaxation group, even though few were still meditating.

Dr. Creswell and his colleagues believe that the changes in the brain contributed to the subsequent reduction in inflammation, although precisely how remains unknown.

[end excerpts]

The article is online at:

Ken Pope


"When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life.  When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up.  I wrote down, 'happy'.  They told me I didn't understand the assignment and I told them they didn't understand life."


From this month's Scientific American


Panic Attacks as a Problem of pH

Study casts new light on the brain mechanisms behind recurrent bouts of intense anxiety

"My heart starts to race, I can't breathe, I get all sweaty, and I feel very scared - like I am about to die." 
This is how one of my patients recently described her panic attacks. Her diagnosis is panic disorder. The cause of this condition is still not understood, but we have long known that the vulnerability to panic disorder is strongly genetic. Now, a recent study from the laboratory of John Wemmie at the University of Iowa may have revealed an important new clue to the underlying cause of recurring panic attacks: It may, in effect, be a problem of pH -- of acidity at key junctures in the brain.
The amygdala, an almond-shaped structure deep in the brain, has a critical role in the circuits that control the experience of fear, both instinctive fear (like being afraid of snakes or large carnivores) and fear that is learned from life experiences. The Iowa study shows that a very basic metabolic factor, pH -- acidity -- also has an essential role in fear
In general, the pH of our brain is carefully regulated. A large increase or decrease in brain acidity can seriously disrupt brain functioning. This new study indicates that pH can sometimes rise and fall in synapses, the points of communication between individual neurons in the brain. Some synapses include specialized proteins that "sense" acidity.  These proteins (called "'acid-sensing ion channels", or ASICs) stimulate neurons when increased acid is detected. 
The Iowa study shows that genetically modified mice lacking these acid-sensing proteins have a greatly reduced capacity to show either instinctive or learned fear.  When the researchers restored the ASIC gene only in the amygdala of these genetically modified mice, they observed a normalization of fear behaviors. So their studies suggest that the ability to detect changes in synaptic pH in the amygdala is essential for normal fear behavior. 
The Iowa paper also examined another element in the panic equation: Carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide acts like an acid in the body and the brain. Several of the experiments described in the Iowa paper showed that inhaling elevated concentrations of carbon dioxide triggered strong fear reactions in normal mice, and that some of these fear reactions required the presence of the acid-sensing protein in the amygdala. 

These experiments are especially relevant to understanding panic disorder. One of the most consistent findings in patients with panic disorder is that they are unusually sensitive to carbon dioxide inhalation and other laboratory procedures that increase brain acidity. Most patients with panic disorder will experience a panic attack when they inhale air containing 35% carbon dioxide, while most healthy volunteers will not.  
Interestingly, the close relatives of panic patients will also panic during carbon dioxide inhalation, even if they have never suffered from an anxiety disorder.  A hypersensitivity to acid in the brain appears to be part of the inherited vulnerability to panic attacks. The recent studies in mice lacking the ASIC protein add further credence to this understanding of why some people are more prone to having panic attacks.

The Iowa findings might help explain the significance of another curious observation: patients with panic disorder tend to generate excess lactic acid in their brains. Scientists have long hypothesized that an abnormality affecting basic cellular metabolism or pH lay at the heart of the genetic vulnerability to panic disorder.  One of the products of glucose metabolism is lactic acid, or lactate. Lactate is constantly being produced and consumed during brain activity, but if it accumulates in the brain, it will make the brain more acidic.  Recent studies have shown that patients with panic disorder consistently build up excess lactate in their brains during ordinary mental activities. The results of the Iowa studies suggest that one of the triggers for “spontaneous” panic attacks in patients with panic disorder might be lactic acid accumulating in acid-sensitive fear circuits.    
Although there are several effective treatments available for people with panic disorder, current treatments do not work for all patients. It is unlikely that any of the current treatments specifically act on the underlying genetic vulnerability in panic disorder patients. The new studies show that brain pH changes are a crucial part of the mechanism of many fear behaviors. At present, no available medications affect the responses of acid-sensing ion channels in the brain. It may be possible to develop medications that inhibit these ASICs or otherwise modify the metabolic or neurochemical pathways involved in the regulation of fear and anxiety by brain acidity. 

For example, one of the many beneficial effects of aerobic exercise training (like running or cycling) is that metabolically active tissues (including the brain) become more efficient at consuming -- removing -- lactic acid. There is growing evidence that exercise training has powerful anti-anxiety and anti-panic effects. This invites the speculation that exercise training may reduce anxiety in part by improving the brain's ability to prevent excess acid accumulation in acid-sensitive brain regions involved in fear. If experiments support this idea, then specific exercise training regimens could be designed to take maximum advantage of this anti-anxiety mechanism.

This is just one example of what are sure to be many new ideas about treatment to arise from our growing understanding of the fundamental role of brain pH in fear. Already, even with those treatments still only on the horizon, people with panic disorder, like my patient, may find some comfort in the mounting evidence that what they experience is not just “in their head” -- it is in their acid-sensing ion channels.

Rights & Permissions


Richard Maddock is a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Davis who studies brain metabolism in psychiatric disorders, including panic disorder.


I am starting a new high-functioning psychotherapy process group on Wed. March 2nd, from 5pm to 7pm weekly.  There are a few spaces left; let me know if you are interested!  As all of you know by now, I am passionate about group psychotherapy.  Here are some particular benefits of group therapy and some protocol examples that group members make with each other by consensus:


Psychotherapy groups have many significant advantages over individual psychotherapy (although they need not be mutually exclusive).  People in therapy groups learn very quickly that they are not “alone” with their problems, issues, and fears. Just becoming aware of that can be surprising reassuring and relieving.  Group members receive ongoing consensual validation from others who are not being paid to “be nice” at the cost of being helpful, which unfortunately can happen more than we think in individual therapy.  Often, we can learn about aspects of ourselves we have not been conscious of by seeing ourselves in another member of the group.  Poignantly, many folks in my prior groups come in to our once/week group saying that “this is the only place I feel I can be myself”.    

We all develop behaviors in our early lives that are adaptive in the environments in which we are raised.  These behaviors help us survive difficult home environments.  We start to experience confusing problems when, in early adulthood, these same survival behaviors no longer seem to have their desired effect on others.  In fact, it is these very behaviors that can cause continual problems in interpersonal relationships once we are in relatively healthier environments.  Participating in group psychotherapy is one of the most efficient ways we know of to help us re-wire our brains to serve our survival in our adult environment, instead of holding on to what may be now dysfunctional behavior that USED to be functional.

Daniel Siegel, a prominent neurologist at UCLA, has written at length about how, if we’re trying to “re-wire” our brains in order to learn to react in healthier, situation-appropriate ways in our lives, the group setting speeds up the re-wiring process exponentially.  This happens because when we take emotional risks in group, we absorb the positive reactions of all the group members, as opposed to a single therapist.  It’s a form of multiple reinforcement.  Similarly, when we take inappropriate emotional risks in groups, we absorb the reactions of caution from the other group members— in a form of multiple lack of reinforcement. 

Each new therapy group establishes, by consensus, general protocol guidelines.  These guidelines can be changed at any time by mutual consensus of everyone in the group.  Some examples of typical guidelines of my past groups have been:

1)  Everyone in the group commits to being fully honest (once they feel safe) about their own feelings and about their reactions to others’ feelings and behavior.

2)  Everyone in the group agrees to abstain from any contact with each other outside the group.  If inadvertent contact occurs (e.g., you run into each other at the supermarket), this gets brought back to the group at the next meeting.  Similarly, if there is any discussion of the group after each group ends and folks head out to the parking lot to get in their cars, the details of these discussions be brought back to the next group.  This significantly decreases the likelihood of sub-grouping, keeps everyone on the same page, and thus contributes to the safety that is felt in the group.

3)  Each group member will let the other members (including the facilitator) know their preference should there be inadvertent contact between group meetings.  For example, if both people are alone, both people are usually comfortable saying “hi” and moving on.  But if one or both people are accompanied by others, some people may prefer not to say “hello” in order to avoid explaining to their friend(s) how they know each other.

4)  Each group member makes a commitment to NEVER talk to a loved one or a friend about what transpires in the group.  People generally feel OK if, when talking about the group, you limit your discussion to what you’re learning about yourself ONLY.  No names are to be used; no quotes from others are to be used; no identifying information whatsoever can ever be shared about the other group members.  Also, people are generally OK if group members talk to their individual therapists about what’s happening in the group, if it pertains to what they’re learning about themselves, given that that communication is protected by strict confidentiality.

5)  Group members use first names only.  If members wish to share information about what kind of work they do (which comes up frequently if there are problems at work), they don’t have to identify specifically where they work.  This contributes to all overall feeling of safety in the group, as members can remain as anonymous as they choose.  Along these lines, I will never knowingly invite people into a group if I have any concerns that they might know each other.  This has never happened to me in my 30 years of practice, but should it happen that a member knows another member from outside the group, the group will process all aspects of this issue and come up with a consensual solution that everyone is comfortable with.

6)  It is crucial that group members arrive on time for each group.  The group will start exactly on time, and it is very disruptive if latecomers drift in and have to be filled in on what’s transpired so far.  Everyone being on time, perhaps surprisingly, contributes significantly to the feelings of safety and cohesiveness of the group.

7)  If a group member has a work trip or a vacation coming up, they will let the group know with at least two weeks advanced notice of their anticipated absence.  The continuity of the group depends on minimal absences.  If you have a job that will take you out of town on a frequent basis such that your attendance in group will be limited, please do not join the group.

8)  The monthly fee for the two-hour weekly group is $350.  Billing will occur at the end of each month.  Payment will be expected the following week.  If I need to be out of town for a professional meeting or vacation, I will let the group know a month ahead of time, and your bills will be pro-rated accordingly.

9)  Some people love to bring their pets when they come to individual therapy.  The issue of bringing pets into the group will be decided by consensus of the group.

10)  If a group member is also seeing me for individual therapy, I urge them to let the group know this at the outset.  This is the equivalent to having outside contact with each other outside the group.  Anything that a group member brings up in individual therapy will remain confidential to the group unless I feel it would be useful for the individual patient to bring it up in group, in which I will encourage (but not force) them to do so.

11)  Most therapy groups meet for an hour and one-half each week.  I have specifically scheduled this group to meet for 2 hours, as, in my experience, the group will coalesce more quickly and intensively with this extra time together.



The *Washington Post* includes an article: "Five myths about our habits" by Wendy Wood.

Here are some excerpts:

[begin excerpts]

Each year, nearly 50 percent of Americans vow to change their behavior come Jan. 1, resolving to lose weight (one-third of us want to slim down every year), get more organized or fall in love. Odds are, they won't succeed.

Just 8 percent achieve their New Year's resolutions.

One-quarter give up after the first week.


Many New Year's pledges involve trying to establish new habits or conquer bad ones. And there's a lot of misinformation swirling around about how habits are formed and how they can be changed. Here are some of the most common.

1.A lack of willpower is to blame for our bad habits.

When people fail to change their habits, they often blame their weak wills. One-third of Americans say they lack the self-control they need to accomplish their goals. About one-fourth attribute trouble sticking to a diet, for example, to personal character defects such as laziness.

In truth, many of our behaviors are not guided by self-control. Half the tasks we perform daily are things we do without thinking. And studies show that people with high levels of self-control aren't constantly battling temptation -- they're simply relying on good habits to exercise, make the kids' lunch or pay the bills on time without thinking about it much. In that way, high self-control is an illusion, actually consisting of a bedrock of habitual patterns. That makes sense: It would be exhausting to repeatedly struggle to control our actions to do the right thing.


3. It takes 21 days to form a new habit.

This idea stems from a popular 1960s book by Maxwell Maltz, and it's often repeated today. Self-help books promise that you can fix your marriage, jump-start your exercise routine or cure your money woes in just three weeks.

In truth, there's no magic number when it comes to establishing habits. They are created slowly as people repeat behaviors in a stable context. Some simple health behaviors, such as drinking a glass of water before each meal, had to be repeated for only 18 days before people did them without thinking, according to one recent study. Others, such as exercise, needed closer to a year of repetition.

Researchers found that it took an average of 66 days for a new habit to form.

For most people, more important than repeating an action for a certain number of days is establishing a routine. Doing something at the same location or time of day (like putting on sunscreen before you leave the house every morning) can help outsource control of the action. In a study of regular exercisers, for example, almost 90 percent had a location or time that cued their desire to exercise. For them, exercising was more automatic and required less thought and willpower.

4. The best way to change a habit is to set realistic goals.

In my lab, we recently conducted a study with people who wanted to change some behavior. When asked whether they would prefer a self-help book about goal-setting or one about environmental change, they overwhelmingly chose the book on goal-setting.

This is a mistake. Modifying our environment lets us remake our behavior without over-relying on willpower. Unwanted habits can be disrupted by changing the cues that activate them. People eat less unhealthy food if they put lids on candy dishes at the office and if stores place unhealthy snacks at the back of displays. Altering your surroundings can also set up cues to promote desired behaviors. People who weigh less keep fruit on their kitchen counters. And children without televisions in their bedrooms have lower BMIs than children with. Of course, these sorts of associations don't prove that putting fruit on your countertop or removing TVs will make you thinner. But they illustrate how our environments cue healthy behaviors -- or the reverse.

A study of returning Vietnam War veterans shows just how important environment can be. Twenty percent were actively addicted to heroin while they were serving overseas. But just 5 percent relapsed after they returned home. Researchers concluded that these shockingly low rates were due to the dramatic change in environment vets experienced. Back in the States, the triggering cues all but disappeared.

5. Learning about the benefits of new habits helps change our behavior.

This common misperception forms the basis for a plethora of public health efforts. For example, the federal government's "Fruits and Veggies, More Matters" campaign has tried to educate people about the benefits of eating greens. It hasn't worked. Since its inception in 2007, fruit and vegetable consumption has gone down.


Research has repeatedly shown that educating people about the benefits of a behavior does not translate to changing habits. Habits are formed through doing. And the long-term memory systems involved in habit formation don't shift with new resolutions.

In our research, we've found that old habit associations endure, and hinder behavioral changes, even after people adopt new intentions. For example, once you see a prompt to surf the Web, it's hard to get that out of your head and instead focus on your resolution to stay organized by paying the bills. With habits, we learn not by learning, but by doing.

[end excerpts]

The article is online at:

Ken Pope


The U.K. *Guardian* includes an article: "Paws for thought: how pet therapy is gaining traction" by Olga Oksman.

Here are some excerpts:

[begin excerpts]

Animal assisted therapy, once rare and met with opposition as something unproven that would only bring germs into hospitals, is gaining traction.  Many hospitals and nursing homes now have animal therapy programs in place, including at the Mayo Clinic, despite little evidence into the impact on patients in the long term.

"In the area of therapy animals, practice is far outpacing research. People think it works and like the idea of it, so they do it," explains Maggie O'Haire, assistant professor of human-animal interaction at Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine.


In the past ten years, animal assisted therapy, mostly conducted by nonprofit organizations staffed by volunteers, has expanded far beyond a visit to the surgery recovery room and cancer treatment center. Today, programs exist that provide animals who assist with physical therapy, help tutor children in reading and provide comfort in settings as disparate as disaster zones and university campuses.

While research on the subject still has a long way to go, the idea that animals are good for our health has been around for some time. There are cases of doctors trying to incorporate animals into psychiatric settings as far back as the 1700s, to try to calm patients and improve their quality of life.

More recently, studies have shown that having a pet around can lower blood pressure, and the American Heart Association has stated that owning a dog may even lower the risk of heart disease.

Dogs don't just make us calmer, some studies have shown that they also make us happier. Research has shown that just petting a dog for a few minutes can raise levels of hormones that make us feel better.

Nancy George-Michalson is the director of programs and education at New York Therapy Animals, an organization that sends animals and their human volunteers into hospitals, schools and other settings.

New York Therapy Animals is part of a program called Reading Education Assistance Dogs. Instead of having a child who may be struggling with reading to try to sound out words for a human tutor, the children read stories to a visiting dog, who sits patiently and listens, George-Michalson explains. The kids get so excited by the idea of reading to a dog that they often practice reading their chosen book before the dog's arrival so they can do a better job, says Bridgette McElroy, a teacher whose East Harlem school participates in the program.

The dog never gets frustrated if a child struggles to sound something out. No matter how slowly and with how much stumbling the story is read, the dog is happy to be there, providing both motivation for reading and a nonjudgmental listener.

Anecdotal evidence like this in support of animal therapy is constantly growing. George-Michalson remembers a particular resident at a nursing home where she and her peach-colored toy poodle, Callie, volunteered. The nursing home resident was a 99-year-old woman who did not have many visitors. Every week before George-Michalson and her dog arrived, the woman would ask for her walker and have someone help her down to the lobby so she could see Callie twirl and dance on the lobby carpet when they entered. Not only did the visits cheer the woman up, but seeing Callie's twirling motivated her to keep up her mobility by walking down to the lobby each week.

Getting patients to move is a common theme with therapy animals. Sitting in a sterile hospital room, going through the same motions every day with a physical therapist can be unmotivating. Rachel McPherson, founder and president of The Good Dog Foundation, remembers a particular patient at a hospital where she and her Pomeranian, Fidel, volunteered. The man was recovering from a stroke and needed to regain mobility in his hands. So Fidel would jump into his lap with a ball. The man would try to take the ball and throw it for Fidel to chase after.

At first Fidel had to put the ball into his hand, and it would drop to the floor as he could not grasp it firmly enough, but Fidel never minded. He would jump off the bed, pick up the ball and happily bring it right back to the man in his bed. Week after week, the man and Fidel would play their game until the man regained enough mobility in his hand and shoulder to hold the ball and pet and brush Fidel.

Animal assisted therapy has also been gaining traction at disaster sites. The Good Dog Foundation sent volunteers out during 9/11 and Katrina as well as the Boston Marathon bombing. When something so horrific occurs, people often are unable to immediately process it and speak to a therapist, explains McPherson. At that initial moment of trauma, a lick on the cheek is the most people can handle, she explains.

New York Therapy Animals sent volunteers to help Fema staff cope during hurricane Sandy.  George-Michalson vividly recalls how one of the Fema workers put his arms around a Golden Retriever and started sobbing into its fur. "The dogs offer this unconditional love, and seeing a man bending over a dog and sobbing is extraordinary" she says.

The stories can sometimes be truly heartbreaking. Barker remembers a mother whose daughter had died thanking her for bringing a therapy dog to visit the child before she passed away. That visit from the therapy dog was the last time the mother had seen her child smile, and it brought her some measure of comfort to have seen her daughter happy during her last moments.

Despite the stories and long history of the human bond with companion animals, it was only recently that hospitals started to allow therapy animals on their floors. When McPherson started The Good Dog Foundation 18 years ago, it was still illegal in New York to bring an animal into a hospital, and she worked hard to help change that law. Now most hospitals in New York City allow therapy animals. Some hospitals have even started to allow patients to bring their own pets from home for a visit.

McPherson hopes that the increase in interest in animal assisted therapy will bring with it some standardization to the many programs that now exist. The Good Dog Foundation is working with the NIH to try to create standards for animal therapy that can be applied across volunteer organizations. Standardization of training is one step in a process that she hopes will end with insurance reimbursement for animal assisted therapy, allowing it to become even more commonplace.

Even without standardization and despite variability in training, the requirements to become a therapy dog are steep. While any breed or mutt can be a therapy dog, a certain kind of personality is required. "Visiting unfamiliar people in unfamiliar settings requires a well-trained, healthy dog, with a positive temperament and good manners," says Barker.

After a dog is chosen based on its easy personality and good behavior, it must go through an extensive training program to be a therapy dog and pass a test. The dog has to not just be trained to always follow commands, but to also learn things like how to walk around medical equipment at a hospital so it can be safe in any setting. At New York Therapy Animals, dogs and their handlers go through a six-week program. At the Good Dog Foundation, the dogs and handlers go through 11 classes before they graduate.

While dogs will never replace therapists and teachers, O'Haire hopes to see animal assisted therapy as an increasingly common compliment to existing mental health practices. The benefit from animal assisted therapy seems to be the same regardless of the person's background. Barker has found in her research that there is no difference in benefit from animal assisted therapy for people who do or don't own pets, and that the impact is universal, whatever someone's race or background.

As it turns out, a cold wet nose and a fuzzy face make just about all of us smile. Or, as an interpreter at the 9/11 site told McPherson when she was volunteering there with Fidel: "I don't need to be here with the dog, because the dog is complete love, and that is international."

[end excerpts]

The article is online at:

Ken Pope


The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation released an article: "Weight training may fix age-related 'potholes' in brain's highways; Walking speed often slows about 10 years before cognitive impairment."

Here are some excerpts:

[begin excerpts]

Weight training helps hold off age-related deterioration in parts of the brain, Canadian researchers have shown.

Exercise is known to maintain memory and brain functions needed to solve problems and make decisions. Now investigators are learning how it can also slow disease progression in the brain as one ages.

Older women randomly assigned to weight train for an hour, twice a week showed significantly less shrinkage of the white matter in their brain than their counterparts who spent the same amount of time focusing on balance and flexibility.

These lesions in the white matter are like potholes that can compromise the ability of messages to travel quickly.


Researchers are able to track the progression of lesions in the white matter using MRIs, magnetic resonance imaging.  And scientists expected these brain lesions to expand or spread with time.

"What we found was that with those individuals who were involved in twice-a-week resistance training, their volume essentially remained unchanged over time. And that's pretty critical," Liu-Ambrose said.

"In comparison, those in the balance and tone group actually did increase, so the lesions or the disease did spread to a greater portion of the white matter."

Walking speed

The researchers also studied the participants' walking speed, because gait often slows about 10 years before cognitive impairment. It's increasingly recognized that physical mobility and cognition or brain health share strong links.

In the study, those who did resistance training exercises also maintained their walking speed.

"Our study is really demonstrating that exercise does have a benefit," Liu-Ambrose said. "It's benefiting those individuals who are already demonstrating this condition."

Joyce Mar, 76, was one of the participants. The study motivated her to exercise more.

"Get your butt to the gym and get moving," Mar suggested. "It really does make a difference. I look at people my age who don't go to gym and they really can't move very well. I think I can move fairly well for the age I am."

Dr. William Reichman, a specialist in geriatric mental health at Baycrest Health Sciences in Toronto, was not involved in the research. But he welcomed the findings, particularly for those who have trouble getting their heart rates up due to arthritis or limitations such as heart disease.

"The message that upper body weight training can get positive brain results is really important as an alternative to lower body dependent exercise," Reichman said in an email.

[end excerpts]

The article is online at:

Ken Pope