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如何让你的大脑青春永驻

更新时间:2017-1-4 19:53:25 来源:纽约时报中文网 作者:佚名

How to Become a ‘Superager’
如何让你的大脑青春永驻

Think about the people in your life who are 65 or older. Some of them are experiencing the usual mental difficulties of old age, like forgetfulness or a dwindling attention span. Yet others somehow manage to remain mentally sharp. My father-in-law, a retired doctor, is 83 and he still edits books and runs several medical websites.

想一想你生活中的那些年龄不低于65岁的人吧。他们中的某些人正面临在老年群体中颇为常见的精神障碍,比如健忘或者注意力集中的时长变短。但其他一些人则以某种方式成功地保持了头脑的敏锐。我的公公是一名退休医生,现年83岁的他仍然在做图书编辑工作,并运营着几个医学网站。

Why do some older people remain mentally nimble while others decline? “Superagers” (a term coined by the neurologist Marsel Mesulam) are those whose memory and attention isn’t merely above average for their age, but is actually on par with healthy, active 25-year-olds. My colleagues and I at Massachusetts General Hospital recently studied superagers to understand what made them tick.

为什么一些人老年时思维依旧敏捷,另一些人却每况愈下呢?“超级老人”(Superager,由神经学家马塞尔·梅苏拉姆[Marsel Mesulam]造出来的一个词)是指记忆力和专注力不仅超出老年人的平均水平,还与健康活跃的25岁年轻人不相上下者。我和麻省总医院(Massachusetts General Hospital)的同事们最近对超级老人做了研究,以便弄懂他们何以有这样的表现。

Our lab used functional magnetic resonance imaging to scan and compare the brains of 17 superagers with those of other people of similar age. We succeeded in identifying a set of brain regions that distinguished the two groups. These regions were thinner for regular agers, a result of age-related atrophy, but in superagers they were indistinguishable from those of young adults, seemingly untouched by the ravages of time.

我们的实验室使用功能性磁共振成像扫描并对比了17名超级老人和其同龄人的大脑。我们成功地确认了把两个群体区别开来的一组脑部区域。年龄相关性萎缩会让普通老年人脑部的这些区域变得较薄,而超级老人脑部的这些区域与年轻的成年人别无二致,似乎没有受到时间的摧残。

What are these crucial brain regions? If you asked most scientists to guess, they might nominate regions that are thought of as “cognitive” or dedicated to thinking, such as the lateral prefrontal cortex. However, that’s not what we found. Nearly all the action was in “emotional” regions, such as the midcingulate cortex and the anterior insula.

大脑中这类至关重要的区域都是哪些呢?如果你让大多数科学家猜猜看,他们可能会提到大家心目中的“认知性”区域或致力于思考的区域,比如外侧前额叶皮质。但我们发现并非如此。几乎所有的一切都和“情绪性”区域有关,比如中扣带皮质和前脑岛。

My lab was not surprised by this discovery, because we’ve seen modern neuroscience debunk the notion that there is a distinction between “cognitive” and “emotional” brain regions.

我的实验室并未对这一发现感到惊讶,因为我们看到,现代神经科学已经打破了人们关于“认知性”和“情绪性”脑部区域之间存在差别的错误认知。

This distinction emerged in the 1940s, when a doctor named Paul MacLean devised a model of the human brain with three layers. An ancient inner layer, inherited from reptiles, was presumed to contain circuits for basic survival. The middle layer, the “limbic system,” supposedly contained emotion circuitry inherited from mammals. And the outermost layer was said to house rational thinking that is uniquely human. Dr. MacLean called this model “the triune brain.”

这种差别是在上世纪40年代进入人们视野的。当时,一位名叫保罗·麦克莱恩(Paul MacLean)的医生设计了一个共有三层的人类大脑模型。古老的内层承袭自爬行动物,被认为包含着关乎基本生存能力的神经回路。中层是“边缘系统”,被认为包含着承袭自哺乳动物的情绪神经回路。最外边的一层据说掌管着为人类所独有的理性思维。麦克莱恩医生把这个模型称作“三重脑”。

The triune brain became (and remains) popular in the media, the business world and certain scientific circles. But experts in brain evolution discredited it decades ago. The human brain didn’t evolve like a piece of sedimentary rock, with layers of increasing cognitive sophistication slowly accruing over time. Rather (in the words of the neuroscientist Georg Striedter), brains evolve like companies do: they reorganize as they expand. Brain areas that Dr. MacLean considered emotional, such as the regions of the “limbic system,” are now known to be major hubs for general communication throughout the brain. They’re important for many functions besides emotion, such as language, stress, regulation of internal organs, and even the coordination of the five senses into a cohesive experience.

三重脑开始在媒体界、商界和某些科学圈子里流行开来(至今依然颇有市场)。但研究大脑的专家早在数十年前就对它提出了质疑。人类的大脑并非沉积岩,其进化也不是认知成熟度随着时间的推移逐层缓慢累积的过程。相反(用神经科学家耶奥格·施特里特[Georg Striedter]的话说),大脑是像公司一样进化而成的:它们一边拓展,一边重组。人们现如今已经知道,麦克莱恩医生眼中掌管情绪的脑部区域,比如“边缘系统”内的区域,是脑内常规通信的主要中枢节点。除了情绪,它们还关乎很多重要功能,比如语言、压力、内脏器官的调节,甚至关乎把五种感官体验协调融汇成一种综合性体验。

And now, our research demonstrates that these major hub regions play a meaningful role in superaging. The thicker these regions of cortex are, the better a person’s performance on tests of memory and attention, such as memorizing a list of nouns and recalling it 20 minutes later.

现在,我们的研究显示,这些主要的中枢区域对于超级老人的表现极具意义。这些区域越厚,受试者在参加记忆力和注意力测试时,比如记住一长串名词并在20分钟后加以复述,表现得就越好。

Of course, the big question is: How do you become a superager? Which activities, if any, will increase your chances of remaining mentally sharp into old age? We’re still studying this question, but our best answer at the moment is: work hard at something. Many labs have observed that these critical brain regions increase in activity when people perform difficult tasks, whether the effort is physical or mental. You can therefore help keep these regions thick and healthy through vigorous exercise and bouts of strenuous mental effort. My father-in-law, for example, swims every day and plays tournament bridge.

当然了,关键问题是:如何才能成为超级老人?如果有些行为能增加你在上了年纪以后保持头脑敏锐的机会,那它们是什么?我们仍在研究这个问题,目前所能给出的最佳答案是:努力做点儿什么。很多实验室都已注意到,当人们执行困难的任务时——不论是需要付出体力还是脑力——这些关键的脑部区域的活动都会增加。因此你可以通过剧烈运动和大力用脑来帮助这些区域维持其厚度。举个例子,我公公每天都会游泳,还喜欢参加桥牌比赛。

The road to superaging is difficult, though, because these brain regions have another intriguing property: When they increase in activity, you tend to feel pretty bad — tired, stymied, frustrated. Think about the last time you grappled with a math problem or pushed yourself to your physical limits. Hard work makes you feel bad in the moment. The Marine Corps has a motto that embodies this principle: “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” That is, the discomfort of exertion means you’re building muscle and discipline. Superagers are like Marines: They excel at pushing past the temporary unpleasantness of intense effort. Studies suggest that the result is a more youthful brain that helps maintain a sharper memory and a greater ability to pay attention.

不过,变成超级老人的道路并不平坦,因为这些脑部区域有另外一个有趣的属性:当它们的活动增加时,你会觉得非常糟糕——疲惫,为难,沮丧。想想你上一次绞尽脑汁地做一道数学题或者挑战体力极限的情形吧。努力做事会让你在当下不太好受。海军陆战队(Marine Corps)的一句格言很好地体现出了这一原理:“疼痛是虚弱离开身体的表现。”也就是说,运动带来的不适意味着你正变得更强壮、更有纪律性。超级老人就像海军陆战队员一样:他们善于承受付出巨大努力所带来的暂时的不快。一些研究显示,其结果是拥有更加年轻的大脑,有助于保持敏锐的记忆力以及更强大的注意力。

This means that pleasant puzzles like Sudoku are not enough to provide the benefits of superaging. Neither are the popular diversions of various “brain game” websites. You must expend enough effort that you feel some “yuck.” Do it till it hurts, and then a bit more.

这意味着数独之类令人愉悦的谜题游戏还不足以让你享有成为超级老人的好处。各种“益智游戏”网站上的那些颇受欢迎的玩乐也不行。你必须付出足够多的努力,直到会在心中默念“可恶”的程度。要做到觉得受了伤害为止,然后再多做一点。

In the United States, we are obsessed with happiness. But as people get older, research shows, they cultivate happiness by avoiding unpleasant situations. This is sometimes a good idea, as when you avoid a rude neighbor. But if people consistently sidestep the discomfort of mental effort or physical exertion, this restraint can be detrimental to the brain. All brain tissue gets thinner from disuse. If you don’t use it, you lose it.

在美国,我们对幸福感分外着迷。但研究显现,随着年龄的日益增长,人们会通过回避令人不快的境况来制造幸福感。有时,这堪称一个好主意,比如在避开粗鲁邻居的时候。但如果不停地回避与脑力活动或者体育锻炼相伴而生的不快,这种抑制就会对大脑造成损害。疏于使用会让脑组织变薄。如果不用它,你就会失去它。

So, take up a challenging activity. Learn a foreign language. Take an online college course. Master a musical instrument. Work that brain. Make it a year to remember.

所以,投入到一件具有挑战性的事情中去吧。学一门外语。参加在线大学课程。熟练掌握一种乐器。让大脑动起来。让这一年成为值得铭记的一年。

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