UVic researcher hopes to prove we can doctor our brain health

Few options for adults experiencing mental deterioration

One UVic researcher is hoping to prove that meditation over medication can aid in preventing brain deterioration in older adults.

Few options for adults experiencing mental deterioration   

How well is your brain functioning these days? If you’re an older adult in Victoria, one UVic researcher and her team would like to find out exactly how you feel about your emotional and mental well-being.

Dr. Colette Smart, an assistant professor in UVic’s Department of Psychology, has organized a new breed of study to examine how our brains work as we age: eight weeks of mindfulness meditation and brain-education classes, combined with a broad spectrum of cognitive functioning tests. By the end, Smart hopes to prove that there’s a lot we can do to harness our own brain health.

“The thing about diagnosing patients with deterioration in their thinking abilities, is that often we view medication as the only option, and that is very disempowering to people — that’s not something people really have a lot of control over,” says Smart. “But the idea that we do have a lot of control over the health of our brain lets people play an active role in their mental health. Even just learning about the normal signs of aging can be very empowering.”

The study, “ProjectSMART,” is seeking people between the ages of 65 and 80, who are in relatively good health, to sign up for the course. Smart is looking for adults who have no current complaints about their thinking or cognitive abilities, and those who do. With the number of older individuals in Canada growing, and cases of Alzheimer’s and dementia along with it, Smart hopes to see at least 50 willing seniors be the guides in helping to identify early markers of brain deterioration (before obvious symptoms appear), as well as prove what counts as “normal” wear and tear on the brilliant organ, and whether or not cognitive decline can be prevented in those who may be at risk.

“People often complain about word-finding problems, like when you can’t think of the word you are trying to say, or longer processing times, where it just takes you longer to do something than it used to,” Smart says. “What we don’t often realize is that this is normal and nothing to be concerned by — it’s when it starts disrupting your life and daily functioning that this becomes a problem.”

Participants will first undergo a series of paper-and-pen, computer and skills tests, as well as an MRI scan of their brain function and an EEG test, which Smart says is like wearing a swimming cap full of activity-measuring electrodes while performing basic tasks. The adults will then take part in an eight-week course, starting in April, designed to enhance mental and emotional well-being, which offers either mindfulness and meditation training, or a psycho-educational workshop about how the brain works. Participants will be tested again after the courses to see how their  brain activity has been impacted, if at all.

Smart, who originally hails from Scotland but spent 11 years in the U.S. training and then working as a clinical neuro-psychologist, says she started the study after feeling frustrated when she had to give patients a “medication sentence” without being able to do anything more for them. With her background in meditation and rehabilitation, Smart saw plenty of healing options for people suffering from brain injuries, but few options for older adults experiencing mental deterioration.

A study using mindfulness like this is the first of its kind at UVic, and within the 65-to-80 age range, although similar work with education about brain health has been done in Toronto. Smart and her team of graduate and undergrad researchers plans to release their findings in spring of 2013. She hopes this will become the pilot project to a much larger study that would track the progression of many more seniors’ brains over the course of three to five years.

“Our purpose is to focus on what we can do with prevention, rather than waiting until it’s too late for our brains,” says Smart. “We’re hoping to see real results in our participants. And whether they just learn a few tips, like using a note pad to jot down memories, or educate themselves on how their whole mental function works, we hope they will really get something out of this, too.” M

To participate in the study, call Smart at 250-472-4194, or email smartlab@uvic.ca.

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