A juggling act to better brain health

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Neils Duinker Juggling

While lockdown has been tough for many, it’s also been a great opportunity to take stock and explore those forgotten things on your to do list. For me, one of them was teaching myself how to juggle. It turns out, this fun little party trick I was working on has more benefit to our wellness journey that we might have first realied.
“We tend to think of the brain as being static, or even beginning to degenerate, once we reach adulthood,’ says Dr Heidi Johansen-Berg of the Department of Clinical Neurology, University of Oxford, who identified changes in white matter of the brain in her study. :In fact we find the structure of the brain is ripe for change. We’ve shown that it is possible for the brain to condition its own wiring system to operate more efficiently. We chose juggling purely as a complex new skill for people to learn. But there is a ‘use it or lose it’ school of thought, in which any way of keeping the brain working is a good thing, such as going for a walk or doing a crossword.”

Brain Function (2)
White matter consists of the bundles (tracts) of long nerve fibres that conduct electrical signals between nerve cells and connect different parts of the brain together, while the grey matter consists of the nerve cell bodies where the processing and computation in the brain is done. Changes in grey matter following new experiences and learning have been shown. But enhancements in white matter have not previously been demonstrated.
Brain White Matter Tract

After the training, there was a great variation in the ability of the volunteers to juggle. All could juggle three balls for at least two cascades, but some could juggle five balls and perform other tricks. All showed changes in white matter, however, suggesting this was down to the time spent training and practising rather than the level of skill attained.

A number of studies have demonstrated the use of juggling-exposure therapy to alleviate anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder, and there have been implications in positive affect on emotional states, sleep quality and blood pressure when measured before and after subjects partook in practice drills.

We know our brains are an efficient machine using up a quarter of our daily calories. Our Neuroplasticity or brain plasticity is a process that re-wires itself and is task specific (eg. juggling, morning mindset routines, work processes) – discarding unused connections (eg. geometry lessons from high school we might not use in everyday life anymore) to strengthening regular ones (eg. the short cut you use when dropping off the kids to school). This is a constant process the brain does wading through sensory and motor signals in paralell. Even when it comes to non-life threatening damage to our brains, (eg. Zika Virus while in utero, blow to the head, trauma), our brains are a sophisticated organ that makes every effort to rewire its neural connections by passing damaged areas of the brain in order to recover lost abilities.

Since our brains are at the centre of all our lives both physically and cognitively, then it makes sense to think about its exercise and nutrition too in our ongoing wellbeing quest for ourselves.
GABA, short for gamma aminobutyric acid, an amino acid, is central to our brains’ proper functioning and is released when neurons in our brain fire. It influences the firing rate affecting how we retain and recall information and perform tasks. Drugs that mimic GABA generally have a calming effect – many of the medications used for relaxation, pain relief, stress and anxiety reduction, blood pressure, and (barbiturates, anesthetics, benzodiazepines, anti-depressants and anti-seizure medicines) target this area.

When it comes to diet, it’s found green, black and oolong tea, fermented products (kefir, yoghurt, tempeh), while a number of foods are said to help boost your body’s production of GABA:

  • whole grains
  • fava beans
  • soy, lentils, and other beans
  • walnuts,
  • almonds
  • sunflower seeds
  • fish including shrimp and halibut
  • citrus
  • tomatoes
  • berries
  • spinach
  • broccoli
  • potatoes; and
  • cocoa.

Brain Food

So in an innocent time of taking up new hobbies, it turns out this juggling act was one big positive in brain health.

Videography: Bristol Neuroscientists, Better than Yesterday

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