“Spark” Symposium has Aging on the Brain

Dr. Allen Ivey, a distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, speaks Saturday at Bradley’s symposium titled “The Spark of Living and Dying: The Aging Brain.”

By Tim Belter ’13
April 2, 2012

Dr. John Ratey sees a problem in today’s world. People aren’t working their minds because they aren’t working their bodies.

“Exercise enables the brain to be better. Our moving brains evolved and are the same as our thinking brains,” said Dr. Ratey, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of the book “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.” “It’s better to wear out than to rust. We need to continue to make challenges for ourselves to keep our brains moving.”

Dr. Ratey was the keynote speaker at Bradley’s College of Education and Health Sciences and the Center for Collaborative Brain Research’s conference “The Spark of Living and Dying: The Aging Brain.” The two-day symposium explored the issues of the aging brain and included performances of the play “Tuesdays with Morrie,” which deals with the neurodegenerative disease ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

Speakers at the event discussed the growing importance of the study and application of neuroscience as well as how physical exercise and mental activities help keep the body and mind sharp well into old age.

“The more we know about the brain, the more it’s going to change people and counseling,” CCBR Director and Associate Dean of the College of Education and Health Sciences Dr. Lori Russell-Chapin said while introducing Dr. Ratey on Saturday.

Dr. Ratey’s studies show that an emphasis on healthy lifestyles can help people avoid a wide range of illnesses. In addition to preventing physical conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure, exercise has been shown to help lessen the risk of ADHD, depression, cognitive decline and other serious mental problems.

“Exercise is like taking a little bit of Prozac and a little bit of Ritalin,” he said. “With exercise, you can replace many of these drugs.”

Physical and mental exercises help the brain produce chemicals like the brain-derived neurotropic factor, or BDNF—a substance Dr. Ratey calls “brain fertilizer” that acts as an anti-depressant and helps the brain build new cells and synapses.

“The brain is to be thought of as a muscle,” he said. “We don’t learn unless our brain cells grow.”

According to Dr. Ratey, children are particularly susceptible to sedentary lifestyles, and research has shown exercise helps children perform better in school.

“Kids aren’t walking to school, kids aren’t outside,” he said. “We have to get our kids moving, and moving early.”

The husband-and-wife team of Dr. Allen Ivey, a distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; and Dr. Mary Bradford Ivey, a courtesy professor at the University of South Florida, Tampa; presented ways to incorporate neuroscience research and stress management techniques in counseling for a broad array of issues. Dr Allen Ivey focused on reducing stress through counseling and other methods.

“We are heading toward a brain-based approach to counseling and therapy,” he said. “Stress management is a central treatment for all counseling clients.”

Like Dr. Ratey, he cited exercise as an excellent way to reduce stress and produce important chemicals in the brain and referred to five main therapeutic life changes, or TLCs: social relations, sleep, nutrition, cognitive challenge and exercise.

“Exercise can be as effective as therapy or medication in alleviating depression,” he said.

Italian journalist and founder of the neuroscience research organization Associazione BrainCircleItalia Viviana Kasam addressed new concepts being explored in neuroscience research and the new possibilities they offer. Researchers, she said, are seeking cures to Alzheimer’s disease and delving into how the brain forms notions of morality. Some are even using neuroscience to debate the existence of free will.

“I think the whole world should know what’s happening, because neuroscience is going to change humanity,” Kasam said.

Kasam encountered some of research topics as a journalist but wanted to introduce them to a wider audience. For the symposium, Kasam provided in part a display of 50 high-resolution brain scan images, which will be displayed in Westlake Hall once construction is completed.