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Our Latest Brain News and Commentary

This will be one of our regular pages that summarize some of the latest news about the brain, intelligence, and related topics. You will notice a difference with the newest pages, which is that there will be fewer links to original sources or at least to exact pages for them. This is because many websites have been changing the URLs of their pages, and rather than trying to keep up with all the bad links on this site, we'll link to just the homepage or mention the source. Rest assured that if you want to get the original articles you can always search at Google or elsewhere using a clip of what is quoted here or the name of the study in order to locate the primary sources.

On this page (written in November 2013), we look at whether quitting an addictive drug cold turkey can cause a mental decline, how obesity may be bad for the brain, and the question of how early retirement affects brain function. We wrap things up with research into IQ and longevity, with this authors thoughts about the matter.

Cold Turkey Brain Damage

Researchers at Georgetown University Medical Center, in animal studies, found that managing withdrawal from morphine addiction resulted in better outcomes than taking the animals off the drug all at once. The study was reported in Brain, Behavior and Immunity. Italo Mocchetti, PhD, and his colleagues, have suggested there research on animals challenges the idea that addictive drugs alone are the cause of mental decline in those who abuse them, suggesting that withdrawing too quickly might be partly to blame.

After treating animals with morphine and while allowing them to withdraw from the substance, they measured pro-inflammatory cytokines in the brain. These can cause damage and cell death. They also looked at CCL5, a protein which protects the brain. Mocchetti says...

Interestingly, we found that treating the addicted animals with morphine both increased the protective CCL5 protein while decreasing pro-inflammatory cytokines, suggesting a beneficial effect...

More research will have to be done, especially to discover if the same effects are seen with withdrawal from other drugs. In the meantime it seems that, if you want to quit, it might be wise to ease off of cigarettes, alcohol, or any other drugs that you might be addicted to (easing off certainly made it more comfortable the last time I quit caffeine).

Is Obesity Bad for Your Brain?

In recent years several studies have looked at the brain and how it is affected by being overweight. The conclusion (in general) is that being obese is bad for your brain. One study of 6,500 people in California, for example, found that those who carried too much weight around their mid-section in middle age were more likely to have dementia when they were older. A Swedish study found that when compared to thinner people, those who were overweight in their 40s had a faster decline in brain function in the decades that followed.

A study reported on by the BBC Online last year came to similar conclusions. Shirley Cramer, who works with Alzheimer's Research UK says: "We do not yet know why obesity and metabolic abnormality are linked to poorer brain performance, but with obesity levels on the rise, it will be important to delve a little deeper into this association."

Other studies have shown that obese people often have signs of brain damage. Research done on healthy adults in their 20s and 30s found that the fatter subjects had lower gray-matter densities. A study of 114 people between the ages of 40 and 66 found that the obese subjects had, on average, smaller and more atrophied brains when compared with the thinner subjects.

It isn't entirely clear why fat affects the brain negatively. More importantly, the causal connection is not clear. Some research suggests that a gene called "FTO" affects both weight gain and brain function, and that one version of the gene may be the problem. People with two copies of the "bad" version gain weight more easily. They may also have more brain problems. This means that there may not be a direct causal connection between gaining weight and diminished brain function, since they both could be caused by particular version of the FTO gene that some people have. Thus, losing weight or gaining weight may have no direct effect on the brain. I'll report more on this in the future.

Work More to Keep Your Brain Healthy?

A study of 429,000 retirees in France, subjects who were chosen specifically because they were previously self-employed, found that they were less likely to have dementia if they continued to work for a longer period. Carole Dufouil, the lead researcher, was quoted by as saying, "...all other risk factors being equal, those who retired at 65 years old had a 14.6 percent lower risk of getting dementia than those who retired at 60..."

Now, I understand the basic idea here, and I'm not even surprised by the findings (probably nobody really was). Many of have seen or heard about the man or woman who retires and starts mentally declining quickly. But I suspect that if they studied those who continued versus those who stopped formal employment or business activities in favor of other engaging mental activity (writing, volunteering as a mentor, traveling the world), they would find no difference. It seems very unlikely that work alone is what's of value here, and more likely that many people just don't know how to find sufficient purpose and identity beyond their work.

IQ and Longevity

Researchers from the University of Glasgow and other universities in Scotland found that IQ level may be related to longevity. They published their findings quite a few years back (September 2003 issue of Psychosomatic Medicine), but it seemed worth reporting on this again. The study used data from a 1932 test of 87,498 Scottish school children born in 1921, as well as other data, and they tracked their subjects over a 70-year period.

What did they find? When born in wealthier neighborhoods, people's life spans were the same regardless of IQ level, but when born in a poor area, a person had a definite advantage in longevity if he or she had a higher IQ in childhood. There are several speculations as to why this should be, ranging from the hypothesis that a higher IQ leads to adopting better health habits to idea that those with higher intelligence are better able to cope with many adverse situations in life.

It makes sense that it would increase lifespan in a poor neighborhood and not in a wealthier one. Regular visitors to this website and readers of the Brainpower newsletter know I'm not a big believer in the value of a high IQ alone, without the "software" or thinking habits that really make a difference. But having better basic "hardware" has to be of some value. It could certainly make it easier to find a way to live more like the people in the wealthier areas, and so extend one's life (lifespan differences between the poor and wealthy have been well documented).

It's also interesting that people with a lower IQ who already lived in wealthier neighborhoods had no longevity disadvantage from having less intelligence. Once again, this supports my idea that it is our habits (both physical and mental) that are more important, even if there is some marginal advantage to being born with a better brain. Once we are beyond a certain level of raw intelligence it is how we use it that matters most.

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