Why Old Brains Never Die: A Conversation with UCSF Neuroscientist Michael Merzenich

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Michael Merzenich

An old brain is in constant need of a tune-up. That's the message from famed UCSF neuroscientist Michael Merzenich, PhD, who is featured in the May 18, 2007, edition of Science Café and in this latest installment. His work on brain plasticity is also the subject of a cover story in the May 21, 2007, edition of Discover magazine.

Why the blanket coverage? Well, it could be that Merzenich's message resonates with baby boomers worried about the growing number of so-called "senior moments" stacking up like old newspapers.

"The good news," says Merzenich, "is that the brain is plastic until you die." That means you can count on it staying vibrant and alert if you stoke its electric engine with novelty and challenge. Learning a new language is just one of many examples he cites.

The goal, says Merzenich, is to drive our aging and less efficient brains in a "positive and corrective direction." Don't rest on your laurels, he tell us. And, he adds, quit complaining and "buck up."

How to do that is the subject of the second part of my interview with the UCSF Francis A. Sooy, M.D., Chair in Otolaryngology and member of UCSF's W.M. Keck Foundation Center for Integrative Neuroscience.

Science literacy rests, at least in part, on storytelling skills. And, as discussed in a skillful piece on personality by Benedict Carey in the May 22, 2007, edition of the New York Times, it is the narrative that teases the brain into awareness. With that in mind, we should note that England's Royal Society General Prize for Science Books has this year gone to Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness.

A summary from the BBC World News article on the prizewinners describes Gilbert's book as follows:

Psychologist Daniel Gilbert reveals how and why the majority of us have no idea how to make ourselves happy. The drive for happiness is one of the most instinctive and fundamental human impulses. In this revealing and witty investigation, psychologist Daniel Gilbert uses scientific research, philosophy and real-life case studies to illustrate how our basic drive to satisfy our desires can not only be misguided, but also intrinsically linked to some longstanding and contentious questions about human nature.

Other titles on the short list for General Prize include:

  • A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives
    by Cordelia Fine
  • Bang! The Complete History of the Universe
    by Brian May
  • Francis Crick: Discoverer of the Genetic Code
    (Eminent Lives) by Matt Ridley
  • Giant Leaps: Mankind's Greatest Scientific Advances
    by John Perry
  • Homo Britannicus: The Incredible Story of Human Life in Britain
    by Chris Stringer
  • In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind
    by Eric R. Kandel
  • Lonesome George: The Life and Loves of the World's Most Famous Tortoise
    by Henry Nicholls
  • One in Three: A Son's Journey into the Science and History of Cancer
    by Adam Wishart
  • The Goldilocks Enigma: Why Is the Universe Just Right for Life?
    by Paul Davies
  • The Rough Guide to Climate Change
    (Rough Guides Reference Titles) by Robert Henson
  • The Science of Doctor Who
    by Paul Parson

Titles on the short list for Junior Prize include:

  • Can You Feel the Force?
    by Richard Hammond
  • How Nearly Everything Was Invented by the Brainwaves
    by Roger Bridgman
  • It's True! Space Turns You into Spaghetti (It's True!)
    by Heather Catchpole
  • Natural Disasters
    (Kingfisher Knowledge) by Andrew Langley
  • My Body Book
    by Brita Granstrom
  • Electricity
    (Science Investigations) by John Farndon

The full article can be found at the BBC World Service News site. And if you happen to like lists as much as I do, you might be interested in the biology section of Science Channel's 100 Greatest Discoveries, based on a series that ran several years ago.

Curious about their choice for number one? The prize went to Anton van Leeuwenhoek for his accidental discovery of microorganisms in a water drop. While Copernicus and Galileo and others are rightly praised for their observations and discoveries about the external universe, van Leeuwenhoek's supremely serendipitous stumble into the inner world in 1674 opened doors that he could not have imagined, and we have never looked back.

Looking back and looking forward, we want you to help us shape the future of Science Café as we close in on month nine of its existence. A reader survey will soon be incorporated into these pages. And, as always, we welcome email comments and questions.

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Related Links

Video Games vs. the Aging Brain
Discover, May 21, 2007
This Is Your Life (and How You Tell It)
New York Times, May 22, 2007
Happiness wins science book prize
BBC World Service News, May 15, 2007
Science Channel's 100 Greatest Discoveries
The Science Channel