How to have a better brain

Sian Williams on how to stimulate your mind and slow down deterioration — and her fascinating discovery about the use of "smart drugs"

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What’s it like to lose your mind? Scilla knows. Day by day and bit by frustrating bit, her memory is failing her although she still seems incredibly sharp. She often can’t remember what she’s eating or whether she’s taken the dog for a walk and it’s threatening her very sense of self. Scilla knows what’s happening to her because she’s a former consultant psychiatrist who was used to dealing with the mental battles of other people. Now she’s fighting her own.

It was her daughter, Dr Catherine Loveday, who first spotted the symptoms of her mother’s accelerated decline. Catherine’s a neuropsychologist at the University of Westminster and I first met her two years ago while I was studying for an MSc in Psychology, trying to understand some of the mysteries of the brain. How does this jelly-like organ provide consciousness? Is it set for life or can we re-form it and help it develop? Are there ways we can halt its deterioration?

First, we need to move. Research from Edinburgh University suggests exercise stimulates neural development, so even if you’re in your 70s you can fire new nerve cells and spark connections by doing something as simple as walking. The general advice is around 20 minutes of walking, five times a week.

How we relax is key, too. A healthy sleep routine means going to bed every night at a similar time, with electronic devices turned off. Our mobiles may be quiet but our brains are still buzzing. Sleep helps cement what’s happened during the day, consolidating our memories. Equally important is how we wake up. Gradual exposure to early morning light can change the speed of our thinking later in the day. If we wake up “badly” it can affect us well into the afternoon.

Puzzles and “brain training” games are very popular at the moment with claims that they improve our minds, but some scientists argue that we usually get better at what we practice and that the skills don’t transfer to unrelated brain functions. We’ll have to wait for more research on those.

What about what we eat? We’re told that fish, nuts and berries will boost our thinking and they’re all important for brain development. However, identifying which specific food makes a difference to our brains can be tricky because so many other factors are involved. Coffee is a stimulant and works for some. I certainly did better on cognitive tests after caffeine, although it can have side effects.

And then there are the drugs. One of the most fascinating discoveries that I made during the making of my new Radio 4 series, How to Have a Better Brain, is the use of so-called “smart drugs”. These are prescription pills and one well-respected scientist tells me that some of her healthy colleagues are popping them regularly to give their brain a boost.

Professor Barbara Sahakian, a researcher in neurology and psychiatry at the University of Cambridge’s School of Clinical Medicine, calls them “professor’s little helpers” and says that one day they’ll be so commonplace we will go into our regular coffee shop and ask for a “caramel macchiato with a shot or two of cognitive enhancers”. However you’ll have to wait for the results of long-term tests before these drugs become readily available over the country.

And some have ethical questions over their use. Until then, for Scilla and for many of us who want to build a better brain, a walk, a healthy diet and a good snooze will have to do.

How to Have a Better Brain is at 1.45pm on Monday 17th until Friday 21st August on Radio 4