cant-rememberFor many people, the word “neuroscientist” conjures up the images of men in white coats dispassionately conducting research in a lab. Sue Halpern, on the other hand, took a much different approach to learning about the brain. The author of Can’t Remember What I Forgot: The Good News from the Frontlines of Memory Research, Halpern put her own gray matter on the line, undergoing radioactive brain scans and swallowing untested pills to discover what we can do to preserve memory and other cognitive abilities.

Although Halpern’s intimate approach her research is unusual, it makes perfect sense: Understanding the brain-and memory in particular-is a very personal issue for her. “My dad was starting to have serious memory problems,” she says, “and they weren’t just your typical ‘I can’t find my keys’ kinds of problems. They were more like not being able to find his way home from the train station that he had driven to everyday for 30 years, things that were both troubling to him and to us as his family.”

She may have started to write her book to understand the cognitive issues affecting her father, but Halpern also noticed that many of her friends were starting to have concerns about forgetfulness, too. “Almost everyone I knew over 40-years-old was starting to worry about their memory, and invariably someone would forget the name of a person they met at a party three days before and jump to the conclusion that they were on the fast track to Alzheimer’s disease,” she says. “I just wondered ‘Were we were all destined to get Alzheimer’s’? What was going to happen to us as we got older?”

Everyone experiences a gradual decline in memory, concentration, language use, and other brain functions as they get older, but Halpern believes people still have a hard time accepting cognitive changes do come with age. “We haven’t really embraced the idea yet that our brains also get older and maybe don’t function as well. Our brains do age-parts of it get smaller, we have less brain volume-but these are normal changes,” she says. “Instead of thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I must be abnormal, I must have a disease,’ you need to think ‘okay, I have this normal problem, in the way that my vision isn’t as good as it used to be so I got glasses.’ You have to think ‘I have a normal problem. What am I going to do about it?'”

“Normal is the New Frontier”
The past few decades have seen amazing advances in the field of neuroscience. Doctors now have more surgical tools and methods available to treat strokes, traumatic brain injuries, and other serious damage to the brain that may have been fatal a generation ago. Interestingly, as Halpern points out, these advances have meant that little scientific attention has been devoted to what happens in a normally aging brain. “There’s a lot of work and money being devoted to the abnormal parts of neuroscience, whether its brain injury or brain disease,” she says. “At the same time, people who are studying the brain left behind this question of what’s ‘normal,’ in part because it’s really hard to figure out what’s normal. Normal is in some sense a moving target because being ‘normal’ depends on your age, education, where you live, and normal isn’t one thing. It’s been very hard to define.”

Researchers are now beginning to fill in some of those gaps and define what’s normal with new testing technology like brain imaging scans. To understand how these new tools worked, Halpern subjected herself to MRIs, fMRIs, PET scans-where she had radioactive dye injected into her bloodstream and set off alarms when she left the lab-SPECT scans and other tests. The experience left her shaken. “Overall, my brain was pretty dull, but every single time I was terrified something abnormal would show up on the scan. I was scared the technician would know something about my brain before I did.”

Despite her fears, Halpern believes brain scans and other new testing technology will expand the neuroscientific community’s understanding of the “normal” brain and how to care for memory as the mind undergoes the normal processes of aging. “Our memory is really the repository of our sense of ‘self,’ who we really are,” Halpern says. “The fact of losing that, even losing pieces of that, is devastating and terrifying. It gives everyone the willies… but once you take on this problem pragmatically, there’s plenty for you to do to and that’s a good thing. Instead of worrying, you can get proactive.”

Halpern’s recommendations for proactively addressing the issue of brain health are straightforward: Brain healthy foods like blueberries and fish, regular physical exercise, and brain exercises that are backed by solid scientific evidence have all been shown to help the aging brain. Halpern also points out there is no quick fix for the normal cognitive changes that affect older brains. “There is no drug proven to help normal memory loss that comes with age,” she says. But, ultimately, she also believes this is a reason for optimism: “You don’t need a pill to fix your brain. You can do it all yourself.”

References:
This article is based on an interview done with Sue Halpern for the Brain Health Education Forum, a series of presentations with experts in the field of brain health produced by Posit Science. For more information about Sue Halpern or Can’t Remember What I Forgot, please visit: http://www.suehalpern.net/