The brain is a hot topic. And it has been ever since new brain-imaging techniques allowed scientists to map this formidable but formerly impenetrable organ.
Decoding the brain
Science writer, lecturer and broadcaster Rita Carter points out that before these techniques emerged, the brain was largely considered a rather unexciting part of the human body. Very understandable, methinks.
Slicing into the 1300–1400 grams of what basically looks like wobbly tofu cast in a walnut mould, wouldn’t have made even the most excitable of humans (and their brains) any the wiser. Until about 25 years ago. This was when the likes of EEGs, PET scans and MRIs started emerging.
With the help of these new techniques and instruments, researchers started uncovering the secrets of the brain and its complex system of signal-sending neurons.
Perhaps not appreciated by the general public (I never knew before I was diagnosed and started reading up on the disease), people suffering from MS may experience significant mental changes in their brain.
This occurs when their own immune systems attack the protective myelin surrounding neurons, thereby impairing and sometimes even blocking nerve signals.
The resulting cognitive problems can be very debilitating and deeply affect quality of life. I refer you to The National MS Society, which gives a good overview:
Possible cognitive changes affecting MS patients
• Memory (acquiring, retaining and retrieving new information)
• Attention and concentration (particularly divided attention)
• Information processing (dealing with information gathered by the five senses)
• Executive functions (planning and prioritizing) • Visuospatial functions (visual perception and constructional abilities)
• Verbal fluency (word-finding) These potential challenges make it all the more important for us MS-ers to (also) make brain health a priority.
OMS Program boosts brain health
Extensive research has been conducted into the adult brain and what happens when we age (whether or not we happened to have developed a disease or not).
Brain health seems to depend largely on the following lifestyle habits: exercise, rest, diet and mental fitness. Logic would have it that what is good for aging brains, is also good for the MS brain.
Good news: the OMS program goes a long way in keeping the brain healthy; no need to add to those already long forgotten (and, if you’re anything like me) rather lengthy lists of 2017 new year resolutions!
Healthy body, healthy mind
Researchers at MS Brain Health conclude in their report Brain health: A guide for people with Multiple Sclerosis that MS-ers should ‘embrace a brain-healthy lifestyle that includes keeping physically active, keeping your weight under control, keeping your mind active, not smoking, watching how much you drink and taking any medications prescribed for you.’
This underlines the importance the OMS program places on exercise. And other big brains in the world of MS research agree. For example, in a recently recorded podcast uploaded to the MS Society website, psychologist Robert Motl and physical therapist Mandy Rohrig show that exercise is beneficial for addressing the various cognitive challenges people with MS might face.
Meditation is another building block of the OMS program and will help, amongst other things, to keep those stress levels at bay – something my little brain cells are very thankful for. And, finally, I’ve found that keeping to the OMS diet, automatically helps me maintain a healthy weight (if I lay off the nuts, that is).
That leaves us with keeping mentally fit. How to go about this? A few years ago every person I knew had one of those little consoles with brain training games. I remember spending every waking moment compulsively trying to choose ‘yellow’ whenever I saw the colour yellow spelled out as b-l-a-c-k. (That’s a confusing sentence to write down, much less to understand). Scan the internet today, and there are many, many brain training websites and platforms (offering paid or free memberships alike). Brain training has definitely become big business. The jury is still out on whether or not these specific brain-training games actually change the brain structure or even help with daily cognitive performance, but mental exercises are generally considered beneficial to brain health. So for all of you chess grandmasters, jigsaw puzzle pros, crossword crazy connoisseurs, or multiple language-learning alpha geeks, you’re set for life!
For the rest of us, it’s also fine to lower expectations just a tad. The most important thing is to enjoy whatever form of mental exercise you choose to undertake.
The benefits of learning an instrument
Perhaps playing an instrument is something you could try? My parents spent 10+ years paying for my piano lessons when I was young.
Unfortunately the amount of money invested didn’t quite match my level of talent nor my skillset. I distinctly remember one multicultural evening at secondary school when I was performing a piano piece.
Sweating in all places where you shouldn’t, I eventually managed to stumble through the notes. Relieved to hear the polite clapping of audience members (visibly relieved that their own child hadn’t signed up for anything), I hurried off the stage almost bumping into a small, weedy-looking boy just coming onto it.
He sat down at the very same piano and then, like Mozart-reincarnated (or Beethoven, whichever you prefer), started playing a ludicrously difficult piece OFF THE TOP OF HIS HEAD.
Faultlessly. Now, you’d think that after that I would never ever touch another piano key again. But on reading quite a few articles on the brain benefits of playing an instrument, I recently decided to face this particular unresolved teenage trauma head on and borrow an electric piano (with headphones – no need to agitate the neighbours).
What’s more, a small-scale randomised trial also showed that playing a musical keyboard could help with the functional use of hands in subjects with MS. So I now try to practice regularly, perhaps not every day, but at least every week.
Sometimes I’m very proud to near the erratic level I had managed to attain by the tender age of 15, at other times my left hand and sticky fingers will not want to work together to perform even the most simplest of scales.
But I’m encouraged – not by what I’m hearing – but by me visualising all those neurons working up a little sweat each time I make myself fondle those little black-and-white fake-ivory slabs.
And while prevention is always preferable to cure, if the brain fog and cognitive issues associated with MS do already find you flustered and forgetful on occasion, then these little life hacks might help to make day-to-day tasks a little more manageable.
Tips to tackle brain fog
• Make lists. Whether it’s shopping, general to-do, or the points you want to raise in a conversation with a family member, colleague, or neurologist, write everything down and check your lists regularly to refresh your memory
• Cut out the clutter. An organized environment can help concentration, and so can restricting visual and audible distractions too. At times when you need to focus, make sure that any unnecessary noise and activity is kept away. Turn the radio off, and close the window if it’s open on to a busy street.
• Forget multitasking. Do one thing at a time, and if you’re forced to abandon it momentarily, leave yourself a note or reminder about where you were so you can pick it up again easily.
• If something is important, repeat the information to yourself, write it down, or even tell someone else as a way of reiterating it. Take a moment to log the information properly in your own mind so you can recall it later. Don’t move on too quickly.
• Use technology. If you want to get something done in the morning, text or email yourself at the time it occurs to you, but leave the message unread until you wake up. • Take someone with you to important meetings, or even record the event so you are not distracted by trying to note things down or remember the specifics, and can refer back to it all in its entirety when needed.
• Visualise and associate. Most people remember images better than verbal or written communication. So when you need to remember someone’s name, or have important information to retain, associate it with an image (the bigger or sillier, the better!) and think back to that when you need to recall it, and the information should follow.
• Make the important things into a routine. If something needs to happen regularly (such as taking medicine, or sitting down to meditate) do it at the same time each day so it becomes a routine you are less likely to overlook. If you have your own tried and tested memory and concentration techniques, then please do share them with us so we can all keep on the ball! We’d also love to know your tips for keeping mentally fit (and don’t say it happens automatically when you have kids)…
Anneloes van Iwaarden
Resources and websites: Carter, R. (2014). The Brain Book, 2nd Edition. London, UK: Dorling Kindersley Limited New Multiple Sclerosis Study Findings Have Been Reported by B.M. Sandroff and Colleagues (Exercise and cognition in multiple sclerosis: The importance of acute exercise for developing better interventions). (2016). Health & Medicine Week, 849 Chopra, D. and R. E. Tanzi (2012) Superbrain. New York, USA: Harmony Books Gatti, R., Tettamanti, A., Lambiase, S., Rossi, P., & Comola, M. (2015). Improving Hand Functional Use in Subjects with Multiple Sclerosis Using a Musical Keyboard: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Physiotherapy Research International, 20(2), 100-107.