Sunday, August 17, 2008

5 Ways to Beef Up Your Brain

Forget where you left your keys this morning? Or maybe you left your umbrella in the office before a rainy evening.

Don't worry, it's probably not a sign of Alzheimer's - everyone is a little forgetful now and then.

But the prevalence of Alzheimer's and other types of dementia, which slowly deteriorate the brain's capacity to make new memories, retrieve older ones and perform other mental and physical tasks, is on the rise as the baby boomer generation hits retirement age. A 2007 Alzheimer's Association report estimated that more than 5 million Americans were currently living with the disease and that that total could reach 16 million by 2050.

Scientists are still trying to unravel the many mysteries of the brain - how our brain processes information, how memory works, how the brain ages and how diseases like Alzheimer's develop - so that we better understand our own minds and how to keep them healthy.

But while there is still a lot to learn about our noggins, several studies have worked out a few ways to help keep your thinking organ in shape, now and as you age.

1. Eat Your Brain Food

You are what you eat, or at least your brain is. A diet of junk food can junk up your brain, as things like trans fats and saturated fats, common in heavily processed foods, can negatively affect the brain's synapses. Synapses connect the brains neurons and are important to learning and memory. On the other hand, a balanced diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids - found in salmon, walnuts and kiwi fruit - can give the synapses a boost and help fight against mental disorders from depression to dementia.

2. Hit the Gym

Giving the rest of your body a workout can also improve your memory, make you think more clearly and decrease the risk of developing cognitive diseases, several studies have suggested. Because exercise is a mild stressor to your body, eating up the precious energy needed by the brain, it triggers the release of chemicals called growth factors that make the brain's neurons stronger and healthier. Half an hour every other day will do it, experts say. And don't forget to stretch: Stretching can help reduce stress, which can impact the memory centers of your brain.

3. Mind Benders

Give your brain a workout, too, with brainteasers, crossword puzzles and memory games - studies have shown that using these tools to stay mentally active can reduce the risks of developing dementia by building and maintaining a reserve of stimulation in your brain. Even following the current political campaign can provide a boost to the systems that control attention and learning that are hard-wired into the brain.

4. Memory tricks

Keeping information stored in your memory banks and retaining that memory with age may also be a simple matter of mind control. For example, confidence in your cognitive abilities could actually affect how well your memory functions, particularly for the elderly. Because some older adults tend to blame memory lapses on age, regardless of whether or not that is the cause, they can keep themselves from even really trying to remember. Prediction can also enhance memory: If you have a good idea of the information you'll need to recall later, you're more likely to remember it.

5. Give it a Rest

Sleep gives your brain a chance to replay the memories of the day and consolidate them for long-term storage. One study suggested that the brain can do its reviewing much faster when you're asleep than when you're wide awake - so no more all-nighters, students. A 90-minute mid-afternoon nap can even help solidify long-term memories, such as events or skills you are trying to master. Siesta anyone?

Of course, none of these mind-enhancing tips is fool-proof. Some studies have suggested that developing Alzheimer's and other types of dementia is partly a matter of genetics.

One such study, presented in July at the Alzheimer's Association'
s International Conference on Alzheimer's Disease, hinted at a connection between mothers who develop Alzheimer's and the chances their children will become afflicted in old age. Another suggests that having a specific pattern of proteins is a risk factor for the debilitating disease.

But for now, no one can predict exactly who will or won't develop dementia. While scientists work on better indicators and cures, doing your own part to keep your body and brain healthy is probably the best you can do.

August 15, 2008 in Health |

Antibody Drug Unleashes Tumor-Killer T Cells

Trial of a two-pronged antibody that attacks late-stage cancer finds it is safe and effectiveeven at relatively low doses

By Nikhil Swaminathan

cancer antibody lymphoma Micromet

CANCER KILLER?: A biotech company, Micromet, has designed an antibody-based drug that seems to seek out and kill cancer cells.

Scientists have developed a two-pronged protein that grabs immune system cells with one arm and introduces them to cancer cells it has snagged with the other. The result: eradicated tumors—at certain doses.

The technology is only in early human clinical trials, but if it proves effective, this new antibody—a protein employed by the immune system to ferret out foreign invaders—could offer way to stop non-Hodgkin's lymphomas, a type of cancer, in its tracks.

More than 65,000 Americans have been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma thus far in 2008, according to the National Cancer Institute, and nearly 20,000 have died from it. The standard care for this type of cancer is a course of the antibody-based drug Rituxan combined with four chemotherapy agents; the latter compounds often kill normal cells, along with cancerous ones.

Researchers at Bethesda, Md.–based biotechnology company Micromet, Inc., report in this week's Science that in a 38-person trial designed primarily to determine the safety of their drug blinatumomab (which incorporates the protein), 11 showed significant responses to therapy that included a shrinking of cancerous lymph nodes.

Here's how it works: The two-pronged protein is part of a fleet of such antibodies that Micromet calls BiTEs (bispecific T cell engagers), which like to stick to proteins on the surfaces of cancer cells and T cells—the immune system cells that coordinate and attack foreign invaders. Whereas the T cell prong remains the same in each BiTE, Micromet can change out the other end to target specific types of cancer—blinatumomab specifically looks for lymphoma, for example. When the cells are brought together, the T cells are transformed into vicious killers—literally called killer T cells, because they do the dirty work of wiping out the cancer cells

All of the patients in the Micromet trial had advanced stage lymphomas and had been through at least one standard treatment course—most likely involving a harsh chemotherapy that wipes out normal cells in addition to the cancers it's been sent to eradicate. Some of the patients had been through up to 12 treatment regimens without their cancer responding.

In the trial, patients wore port systems where blinatumomab was continuously pumped through their chests and into the bloodstream by pumps on their belts. The patients were split into several groups with some receiving a low daily dosage, as little as 0.01 microgram, up to a high of 0.1 microgram. All of the patients that received the highest dose of blinatumomab responded well to treatment, with one person remaining in remission for more than a year.

Micromet was surprised to see a response at such a low dose, says Patrick Baeuerle, the company’s chief scientific officer and a co-author of the Science paper.

The treatment was not without side effects, though Baeuerle calls them "manageable." Patients reported chills, fever and fatigue—a normal consequence of the immune system activating. In addition, he notes, some volunteers experienced flulike symptoms as well as disorientation, speech impediments and tremors—though all these behaviors diminished a few days after treatment began.

Cassian Yee, an immunologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, said the new antibody is convenient and appears to be effective at low doses. He did caution that because T cells are converted into tumor killers only when it is in the bloodstream, patients may need to continue treatment even after their cancer has gone into remission.

Next, Baeuerle says, the Micromet team will increase the dosage in patients, to figure out the highest dosage of blinatumomab that a person can tolerate. He notes that because the drug is still in early testing, its cost to patients—should it be approved for use—"is a moving target."

He adds that attacking lymphoma is just the beginning. Micromet will soon be testing similar drugs against lung and skin cancers.


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