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The Decade of the Brain -

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Dr Jonica Newby

And by far the biggest discovery that's been made about our brains in the last ten years is just
how changeable they really are. The scientists call it plasticity. We used to think the brain
stayed much the same once it reached adult size at age 12.

Then along came a transformative technology the MRI to show us how wrong we were.

Prof. Christos Pantelis

What we've found to our surprise is that between the age of 12 and young adulthood, there's a loss
of this grey matter. It's losing perhaps 30,000 connections per second.

Dr Jonica Newby

Per second?

Prof. Christos Pantelis

Per second. Scientists were witnessing an unexpected frenzy of brain remodelling. From age 12, the
"grey matter", the thinking part, is being pruned keeping only the most efficient connections.
Meanwhile, whole brain sections are being coated in a white substance called myelin. This "white
matter" speeds up nerve conductance 100 fold, creating fast brain superhighways. But the brains re-
development doesn't stop after adolescence as I discovered a year later, by going head to head with
60 plus baby boomer Richard Neville.

Richard Neville

You feeling confident?

Dr Jonica Newby

Actually, I'm feeling nervous, he's pretty smart. It turns out, brains Richards age are superior at
emotional cognition and verbal tests. More surprising Richard's brain is faster than mine at
putting on the brain brakes.

Dr Jonica Newby

So Richard was actually twice as good as me at inhibiting responses and inhibiting impulses.

Richard Neville

Gee I wish I was competitive, then I could gloat. The reason? We may lose grey matter with age but
up to the age of 50 we continue to acquire white matter the internet cables if you like of the
brain.

Prof. George Bartzokis

Wisdom is having a really fast internet that's on-line and with a huge band-width. That's what
comes with age. Yet perhaps the biggest deal in brain science has been the discovery of these stem
cells in the adult brain capable of what's called neurogenesis.

Dr Jonica Newby

Wow so these are all new nerve cells in the brain?

Prof. Fred Gage

That's right. It opened up the extraordinary possibility one could slow down or even reverse some
aging effects on the brain. Since then we've discovered and embraced the brain boosting effects of
mental exercise and most surprisingly physical exercise.

Prof. Fred Gage

So this experiment specifically shows that it is never too late to begin exercising and that will
have an effect on your brain

Dr Jonica Newby

This was also the decade in which psychology met hard science, so called. Landmark studies have
taken us right from the gene, to the brain chemistry, to how that can shape individual
personalities as I found out all too first hand.

Dr Jonica Newby

It's 2006, and I'm about to take a test that could expose if I'm pre-programmed for depression.
Well, I'll get the results in two days. And I have to say its a little bit nerve wracking.
Scientists in New Zealand had for the first time shown convincingly how environment and genes
interact to influence behaviour. They'd already discovered a gene for violence which is only
triggered if you had a bad childhood.

Prof. Richie Poulton

What you see here is early life events acting as a switch to turn this gene's effects on or off.
Just like if I did this. Okay. Along comes a childhood maltreatment, bang, out of the mist emerges
the gene effect.

Dr Jonica Newby

They then found a gene for vulnerability to depression which operates via a brain serotonin
regulator. Well the test I had earlier was actually for the gene for the vulnerability to
depression and the results have just come through.

Prof. Richie Poulton

Now your genotype is, S.S. So that means short short. So you have the gene that confers
vulnerability to depression in the context of life stress.

Dr Jonica Newby

It was a confronting first hand taste of what it might mean now the psychology gene genie is out of
the bottle. We now have genes for vulnerability to cannabis psychosis, for epilepsy, even for
fathering ability, with many more to come.

Dr Jonica Newby

Then there was this story in 2008.

Chuck Berry

There's a voice on one shoulder going why are you doing this? You're scared and the other voice is
going yeah but I like being scared. And the other voice goes what if your parachute doesn't open?
And this one goes it always does. Scientists are even trying to understand extreme types like Chuck
Berry... who I engage in a bungy-jump off to compare heart rates. It's not yet confirmed, but it
looks like extreme sportsmen have unusually low levels of stress related brain chemicals.

Dr Erik Monasterio

What I suspect is that the low level of these brain chemicals means you can deal with a lot of
stress without being overwhelmed.

Dr Jonica Newby

His went up to 88 mine was 120. I think that says it all.

Dr Jonica Newby

And of course, with all these new technologies, neuroscience is quite frankly fun. When you can
actually see a thought or a feeling happening or mess with someone's head in an amazing new way -
why not do it! We've discovered what makes Maryanne happy.

Dr Maryanne Demasi

I know a new pair of shoes cheers me up.

Dr Jonica Newby

Hmm she's right. Mark has proven himself a trustworthy sort once he's taken the drugs of course.

Dr Mark Horstman

This experiment shows I'm twice as likely to give away all my money. And you know...I feel pretty
good about it.

Dr Jonica Newby

We know Paul is a sucker for hypnosis.

Dr Graham Jamieson

Touch your left ankle.

Dr Paul Willis

It's strange but I can't help but carry out the instructions.

Dr Jonica Newby

While Grahame has a bit of trouble staying in touch with reality

Dr Graham Phillips

I feel like I'm spinning around to the left.

Dr Jonica Newby

And I've discovered I have face blindness, an acute appreciation for ads, and I'm a terrible liar.

Technician

Have you ever been unfaithful to a partner:

Dr Jonica Newby

No.

Dr Jonica Newby

And just in case you were in any doubt about our collective brains, we can definitely prove every
one of us has one.

Technician

It's a little smaller than we expected.

Dr Mark Horstman

Hmmm, I thought so.

Topics: Health

Reporter: Dr Jonica Newby

Producer: Dr Jonica Newby

Camera: Kevin May

Sound: Steve Ravich

Editor: Lile Judickas

Related Info

Dr Erik Monasterio - ORKO

Fred H. Gage

Dunedin School of Medicine