This is why you should be putting brain health first

This is why you should be putting brain health first
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Backstage at Christian Dior haute couture autumn/winter '18/'19. Image Credit: Jamie Stoker

What would you do for a sharper memory or faster cognition? Jody Scott explores why brain hacking is the latest self-improvement goal.

Shoulders, legs, midriff, arms, neck, back, boobs and… brains. Just like accessories, fashion’s erogenous zones change with the seasons. But the latest must have can’t be bought or borrowed. You can’t buy a cheap knock-off on the high street, either. In fact, it may take even longer to attain than a Birkin bag (waitlist: approximately six years). Welcome to the designer brain. While slow fashion is hot, slow thinking is not. And a beautiful mind has become the most covetable accessory of them all.

It’s a trend that has been building steadily. Christopher Kane caught our attention in 2013 by embroidering colourful MRI scans on silk organza tops and dresses. The same year, Oscar-winning actor George Clooney fell in love with a brilliant human rights lawyer called Amal Alamuddin. And his buddy Brad Pitt is apparently smitten with Neri Oxman, an American–Israeli architect, designer and professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s MediaLab. On the red carpet, the most impressive arm candy now has serious cognitive credentials.

The arrival of these brainy days heralds a welcome shift of focus in the wellness world, too. Lately, the race to be our best selves has become a little too brawny and back-bendy. After all, don’t we want to be smarter as well as better, faster and stronger? And surely being calm, compassionate and more content are equally important markers of good health?

The recent rise of meditation and mindfulness studios, e-courses, apps, podcasts and retreats signalled a collective craving to go deeper, offering internal transformation (including a thicker prefrontal cortex) with a side serve of enlightenment – and a respite from unrelenting technology. Meditation has also been shown to decrease volume in the amygdala region of the brain, which governs our fear, anxiety and stress responses. Om to that.

But the pace of modern life is demanding more from usthan a Buddhist monk. We can’t retreat to a mountain top, and we’re toggling screens like there is no tomorrow. Hence an urge to upgrade our human software, which has launched a whole new category of cognitive enhancers.

Worldwide sales of brain health supplements promising to boost our mental performance – known as nootropics –are expected to be worth almost US$12 billion by 2024, up from $2.3 billion in 2015, according to Dublin-based analysts Research and Markets. Based on these estimates, it appears that millions of people are feeling overwhelmed right now. Interestingly, ‘noo’ comes from the Greek word for mind and ‘tropics’ means bend or turn, so it’s a good name for this mind bending 21st-century trend.

Of course, Silicon Valley execs have been obsessed with upgrading their own operating systems with smart drugs and supplements for years. Now, thanks to the addictive devices and super-sticky algorithms they invented, the rest of us are also desperately seeking faster processing speeds, mental stamina, clarity, creativity, enhanced memory capacity, better moods, more motivation, less procrastination and lower cortisol levels. (Meanwhile, Silicon Valley is now experimenting with mildly euphoric, micro-doses of hallucinogens, but that’s another story you can read about in Michael Pollan’s new book: How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence.)

Some of the hottest nootropics are not new. Adaptogenic herbs, spices, berries, mushrooms, roots and resins have been used in ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicine for centuries to help improve moods, aid memory, boost immunity, calm the nervous system and regulate our adrenal response to stress. All of which makes it easy to position common adaptogens, such as ginkgo biloba, licorice root, ashwagandha, rhodiola, Siberian ginseng and schizandra berry, as antidotes to our high-tech times.

Amino acids such as l-theanine (stress-lowering) and phenylethylamine (stimulating) and neuro-protective omega-3 essential fatty acids such as DHA are also trending. Expect to see these neuron-nourishing ingredients in everything from supplements and smoothies to soups, chocolate bars and bliss balls at your local wellness hub.

Even the world’s most widely used psychoactive drug, caffeine, is getting an upgrade via superfood-infused coffee blends that include adaptogens, mushroom powders, collagen and essential fatty acids. Bulletproof coffee is also still going strong with converts spiking their brews with butter, ghee, coconut oil or ‘brain octane oil’, a medium-chain triglyceride oil made from refined coconut palm oil, believed to improve concentration, energy and immunity and suppress appetite.

The urge to supersize our brains is also good news for the fitness industry, as aerobic exercise has positive effects on brain structure, function and the generation of new neurons (neurogenesis) in the hippocampus (the centre of learning and memory). Neural-enhancing retreats and brain wellness spas are offering a more extreme kind of mind maintenance.

At Flow Dojo Camps in the US, you can spend a week learning how to tap into the ‘flow state’ of mind enjoyed by athletes and creatives to release the feelgood neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, norepinephrine, anandamide and endorphins. Meanwhile at Field, a “neuro-enhancement company” in midtown Manhattan, members can have their brains mapped and then dial up their cognition or dial down anxiety via targeted transcranial magnetic stimulation.

If you don’t fancy prodding your brain with electrical impulses, you could get a brain-boosting IV infusion of NAD+, derived from a naturally occurring vitamin B3 (niacin). While it’s a relatively new therapy, NAD+ is being used to treat everyone from stressed executives to people suffering from addictions, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression and neurodegenerative conditions.

“It’s a powerful neurotransmitter,” says Ageless NAD+’s medical director Dr Jeremy Cumpston, who is based in Sydney. Basically, NAD+ (nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide) is produced naturally by our body to aid communication between cells, but our supplies dramatically decline with age.

Rising rates of anxiety and depression, plus a healthy fear of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, are looming large in our ageing population. All the more reason to tune into our brain health.

“Increasing rates of dementia are making people aware of what happens when your brain downgrades,” says Baroness Susan Greenfield, a British neuroscientist, broadcaster and author. “Dementia is not a natural consequence of ageing, but it’s a disease that occurs in older people,” she says.

According to Dementia Australia, dementia is the second leading cause of death, and in 2016 became the leading cause of death in Australian women. In 2018, it’s estimated there are more than 425,000 Australians living with dementia, with numbers rising by 250 each day. Without a major breakthrough, these statistics are expected to rise to more than 530,000 by 2025 and almost 1,100,000 by 2056.

Sadly, there are no medical breakthroughs on the horizon, says Professor Simon Lewis, a specialist neurologist who specialises in dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease at the University of Sydney’s Cognitive Neuroscience faculty. But, he says, there are simple things we can all do to lower our risk of dementia. These include reducing cardiovascular risk factors, exercising vigorously at least three times a week for 30 minutes (at a level where you cannot hold a conversation), practising good sleep routines and having regular social interaction with others.

“People with higher IQs generally fare better with dementia, so cognitive training is probably helpful, too, for example, [brain-training programs] BrainHQ or Lumosity,”says Professor Lewis, who uses a rowing machine for 30 to 60 minutes most days while watching an educational podcast.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given his area of expertise, Professor Lewis believes we need to focus less on upgrading healthy brains and more on preventing neurodegenerative diseases.

“How are we going to find ways (cure is a four-letter word) to prevent the loss of function?” Professor Lewis asks rhetorically. “A breakthrough treatment for dementia would sure come in handy, don’t you think?”

Baroness Greenfield, who wrote a science-fiction novel, 2121: A Tale from the Next Century, about a dystopian future where internet addiction disorder brings about the downfall of humanity, says we need to focus less on trying to compete with computers and more on strengthening our human traits such as resilience and intuition.

“People confuse speed with efficiency,” Greenfield says.“Information isn’t knowledge or wisdom. Let computers do what computers do. And let people do what people do best. That is, fall in love, be creative and find new ways of joining the dots. Computers are very efficient at information, but they don’t have intuition or commonsense, and we work with those two things all the time.”

Yet there are others in a hurry to re-wire us for the future. “Amplifying human intelligence will be one of the largest industries, if not the largest industry to ever emerge,” said American technology entrepreneur Bryan Johnson in an interview in 2016. Johnson was explaining why he spent $100 million launching Kernel, a human intelligence company that aims to develop the world’s first neuroprosthesis (a tiny chip implant) to supercharge the human brain and enhance cognition.

Initially, the chip will be implanted in the brains of people who have suffered neurological damage caused by strokes, Alzheimer’s or concussions. But in the long term, Johnson hopes it will help boost intelligence, memory and other cognitive tasks in healthy people, too.

Meanwhile, SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk latest ambitious venture, Neuralink, aims to create brain implants to help humans merge with software and keep up with artificial intelligence.

In his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari ponders whether in the future we might see a superhuman elite with enhanced abilities that only the rich can afford.

“Throughout history, the upper classes always claimed to be smarter, stronger and generally better than the underclass,” he writes. “They were deluding themselves. A baby born to a poor peasant family was likely to be as intelligent as the crown prince. With the help of new medical capabilities, the pretensions of the upper classes might soon become an objective reality.”

Let’s hope that tomorrow never comes …

This article originally appeared in Vogue Australia's July 2018 issue.

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