How Exercise, Fewer Calories, Plant Toxins May Protect Our Brains

Intermittent fasting is beneficial to man and
beast, Dr. Mark Mattson has found.
Intermittent fasting is beneficial to man and beast, Dr. Mark Mattson has found.

Outside of the lab, neuroscientist Dr. Mark Mattson loves to go running. In fact, NIH’ers may have seen him and his Baltimore-based lab mates compete in the annual NIH Institute Relay on campus, where they have placed in the top 3 of about 100 teams for the past 3 years.

In the lab, Mattson and his colleagues are racing to uncover the potential of exercise, fasting and consuming certain plant chemicals to improve brain function and thwart neurodegenerative disease.

“These energetic challenges—[fasting and exercise]—enhance synaptic plasticity, protect neurons during aging and maybe protect against neurodegenerative disorders,” said Mattson, chief of NIA’s Laboratory of Neurosciences. He spoke at a Jan. 6 seminar titled, “What Doesn’t Kill You…Why Some Plant ‘Toxins’ May Bolster Brain Health.”

Exercise, Fasting May Improve Brain Function

As modern medicine helps more people live longer, more men and women are in danger of neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, for which there’s still no effective treatment. But do lifestyle habits affect brain health? They very well might.

As we age, brain cells endure oxidative damage and local inflammation that can compromise synapse function and cause degeneration. Mattson’s research has shown that exercise and intermittent fasting can activate adaptive stress response pathways and may promote optimal function of cells.

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Planning to Handle the Unplanned Like a Pro

“Motivational improviser”
Avish Parashar
“Motivational improviser” Avish Parashar

How good are you at handling a sudden change in plans? What if your success at work depended on it? At a recent Deputy Director for Management Seminar, the self-described “world’s only motivational improviser” Avish Parashar offered a few suggestions.

“Life isn’t scripted—no matter how much we want it to be, with our agendas and our to-do lists and our productivity apps and our bigpicture vision boards,” he said, holding up a concierge-style bell. “Life is the ultimate improvisation. Just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, the universe comes in and goes, ‘DING! Now deal with this.’ Sometimes ‘ding’ happens.”

Learning a few techniques to make better snap decisions can help everyone in every situation, Parashar noted.

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