I’m at the University of Cambridge, having a panic attack. I can’t breathe, my head’s spinning, my heart’s going like the clappers and there’s a psychiatrist standing next to me who’s provoked it. Deliberately.
Dr Annette Bruhl works at the Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute and she’s examining what happens to our brains when we’re under pressure, to try to help those with anxiety. Some stress is vital — we need it to react to threat — but prolonged levels can affect our thinking, memory and decision-making processes.
So Dr Bruhl is giving me cognitive tests to monitor changes in the way my brain works when it’s tested to its limits. I’m inhaling a mixture of oxygen and carbon dioxide: the gas is not dangerous, but designed to induce panic. Fifteen minutes later, the results show just how differently my brain works from when it’s relaxed. Without the gas, a numbers task was straightforward, but with the mask on I make lots of mistakes.
I finished an MSc in Psychology at the University of Westminster last year and am still studying, trying to understand how the brain provides consciousness and what affects it. As a journalist, I want to find out if mental decline is inevitable or whether we can rewire our brains to halt it — and even stimulate growth.
During my academic work I first met Dr Catherine Loveday, a neuropsychologist and an expert on the ageing brain. She introduced me to her mother Scilla, a former consultant psychiatrist, for my new BBC Radio 4 series “How to Have a Better Brain”.
Scilla tells me how frustrating her memory loss is. She finds the simplest things take her twice as long. When she’s cooking, she forgets what ingredients she’s put in. One Christmas the turkey came out raw. Scilla is fiercely bright and shows me her computer, where she’s got four games of online Scrabble on the go, against her three daughters and a friend in the village. She’s winning every one of them. Sometimes the words come easily; on other days her brain lets her down and she can’t remember what she’s done.
Catherine spotted her mother’s deterioration a few years ago and gave her a series of tests. These showed Scilla was up to 95 per cent better than those of her age in tasks such as planning, reasoning and attention. On memory she was 99 per cent worse. Together, they’re using their knowledge of psychiatry and psychology to try to halt the decline.
“Memory is so important for our sense of self,” Catherine says, “so we’re doing every evidence-based thing we can to hold on to it.” That includes exercise, and when we take Mimi the dog for a walk, Scilla says getting out in the fresh air makes her feel happier and think more clearly.
The science shows that physical activity doesn’t just make us feel better, it also helps protect the brain. Dr Alan Gow, associate professor at Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University, and part of a team investigating memory loss, tells me that even the simple act of walking can lead to brain functions improving.
Tests on people in their 70s suggest that those who exercised had less brain shrinkage. “Those who did a bit more exercise were better in terms of their speed of thinking and their general reasoning,” he says.
The team followed the results with brain scans and found that those who were more physically active had a higher volume of grey matter and less damage to the white matter, the connective tissues that wire the brain.
Dr Gow is cautious when I ask if physical activity can halt our mental decline but the results so far, he says, are “tantalising”. Catherine agrees and says when we’re outside we’re getting many benefits. It’s better for our cardiovascular health and we’re not only carrying oxygen and glucose to the brain but also creating new connections and possibly growing new brain cells.
That’s why physical activity is one of the many strategies they’re trying to boost Scilla’s brain and their tactics are ones we can all use, to help us function at our best.
Those online word-games she’s playing help, too, although the research behind “brain training” is mixed. The games are fun and the more you practise, the more you’ll improve, but whether we also get better at other tasks is debatable. Many scientists say you’re better off learning a new skill or socialising.
Another key to Scilla’s brain function is music. She runs a choir and gets great joy from it. “I just love music and singing,” she tells me. “It’s giving voice to something, I’m expressing part of my own soul.” It’s also helping with her organisational skills.
Recent research suggests learning music may enhance general cognition. Musical memory is often the last to fade in conditions such as dementia. One of the most fascinating discoveries I made during this Radio 4 series was to do with sleep. I spent 11 years getting up at 4am to present “BBC Breakfast”, so I know how a bad night can affect our mental function for the rest of the day.
Going to bed at the same time and resisting lie-ins means better quality sleep. The right amount? Well, teenagers need eight to 10 hours, but the rest of us don’t need quite as much. Less than five and we may not be as alert, more than 10 and we can feel jet-lagged.
Almost as importantly, though, is how we wake up. I did an experiment as part of a study into the stress hormone cortisol, which affects every cell in our body. When we’re asleep, our cortisol levels need to be low, but a strong, steady surge of it when we wake seems to set our brains up for the day and make us think more clearly.
Professor Angela Clow, from the University of Westminster, has been researching this stress hormone for 20 years. When she gives me a battery of reasoning, decision-making and processing tests after a night when I’ve woken to gradually increasing morning light — which best primes the brain for this cortisol surge — I do much better than when I wake in darkness under an eyemask.
It explains why it’s best to turn computers off at night, too. Morning light is blue; evening light falls into the red spectrum. Electronic devices naturally emit the blue light, giving your brain all the wrong signals and priming it to stay awake.
Scilla’s sleep routine is also based on research. Every night, since Catherine first noticed accelerated memory loss, her mother has written a diary, as sleep helps to cement our memories. “They so easily slip away,” explains Catherine, “so by writing this regular diary, it means that just before bed Mum is having to relive her day. It’s not someone delivering those memories to her and saying, ‘This is what happened.’?”
I learn a lot from being with Scilla and meeting all the other brilliant minds who are coming up with ways to protect ours. Dementia will affect one in three of us over the age of 65. That’s frightening, but being acutely stressed about it will only make our cognitive function worse.
Scilla takes time to relax, sleep well, walk and see friends — as good a way as any of not just protecting our brains but getting on with life.
–The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2015