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Reversing Memory Loss

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Over the weekend, I read a very interesting book called Reversing Memory Loss (1992) by the neurosurgeon Vernon H. Mark, who was one of the pioneers of research into electroencephalographic (EEG) recordings of the skull in the 1960s and 1970s.

In his book, which has a compendium of fascinating case histories and different accounts mainly dealing with the history of Dr. Mark's practice, he makes some interesting observations about the treatment methodologies for various neurological disorders. However, one of the key features he writes about in detail is that memory loss, despite that they might have various causes, are often due to a vitamin B-complex deficiency, lack of nutrition, dehydration and consequences from taking a combination of prescription drugs. Alcoholics often are deficient in vitamin B-complex and many may suffer from intermittent memory loss to full lapses in memory. In addition, Dr. Mark writes that he had seen many cases in which alcoholism and depression were often misdiagnosed when there were actually underlying undiagnosed states of hypothyroidism. Hypothyroidism could produce clinical symptoms resembling those of alcoholism and Alzheimer's disease, and hyperthryoidism could cause a range of symptoms, including lack of concentration and hyperdistractibility with secondary memory loss. In fact, Dr. Vernon Mark writes that most memory loss is reversible with the right nutrition and avoidance or reduction in the usage of pharmaceutical drugs.

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Lack of hydration leads to an electrolyte imbalance that results in shrinkage of the brain.

One of the primarily causes of memory loss in people is something that we don't think about everyday: hydration and drinking pure water. People of all ages often they forget to hydrate themselves during hot days and the imbalance of electrolytes leads to confusion and symptoms of dementia. However because seniors are particularly susceptible to the effects of many drugs, these too often lead to memory loss and brain functioning. According to Dr. Mark, many seniors in nursing homes are there due to symptoms of memory loss derived from either malnutrition or through continual dehydration which eventually leads to a diagnosis of dementia or other neurological conditions.

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The best performance enhancer of the brain is not a nootropic nor any drug. Rather the brain is a sensitive organ that needs the right amount of glucose, oxygen, water, sodium, potassium and vitamins in order to function optimally.

The brain is an organ that needs precise amounts of glucose (sugar), oxygen, water, sodium, potassium and vitamins in order to function and when deprived of fluids, it begins to shrink and cannot work properly. In addition, Dr. Mark also makes the observation that often depression can also be an underlying cause of memory loss, mainly due to the treatment of depression itself. Anti-depressants prevent the brain from properly utilising acetylcholine, which eventually leads to memory loss. Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter that is released by nerve cells to send signals to other cells; anti-depressants interfere with this neurotransmitter, hence leading to eventual lapses in both short-term and long-term memory. Dr. Mark writes that often the onset of depression, compounded with treatment via anti-depressants eventually lead to the underlying causes of memory loss in many people, and in his experience, people who eventually end up with dementia diagnoses had a pre-existing condition and treatment with anti-depressants several years or decades before.

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Common prescription drugs that result in memory loss and loss of intelligence. Many drugs interfere with the brain's ability to utilise acetylcholine​, a neurotransmitter necessary for nerve cells to send signals to other cells.

Another facet of controversy is the usage of drugs used to prescribe for attention deficit disorders. Dr. Mark also writes very cogently about the effects of stimulants, in particular, the widespread usage of amphetamines within the medical community to "improve" thinking and memory or just to feel better and be more energetic. He elucidates an example of a particular case history of a 25 year old medical student named Jerry who became addicted to amphetamines in order to increase his performance to remain in medical school. However, Dr. Mark makes the obsevation that although:

"In small amounts, [amphetamines] did speed up his mental processes, allowing him to focus more intently on the subjects and to retain the information well enough to pass tests. But then he forgot everything he had learned very quickly and had to start all over again for the next examination." Dr. Vernon H. Mark, neurosurgeon in Reversing Memory Loss, pp. 77

Dr. Mark remarks that the effects that amphetamines have are not unusual, and that the initial dose, particularly if small will enhance memory function and increase concentration with an elevation of mood, but as the dose is increased the three elements of memory, acquisition, storage and retrieval begin to deteriorate; and performance, with regard to new learning, becomes diminished. Dr. Mark also writes that repeated use of these types of stimulant-type drugs only enhances their negative effects and the elevation of mood proceeds too far, and leads to hyperexcitability, which in turn leads to distraction, not concentration, thus setting a pattern of difficulty in the acquisition of new information for storage in the memory bank. Amphetamines and methylamphetamines are actually detrimental to memory and brain integrity and can cause lasting disturbances in brain functioning.

(p.77-78, 79)

Other drugs that have lasting effects on memory loss and brain functioning are depressants and sedative drugs, such as barbiturates, sleeping pills and tranquilizers, such as Valium, Ativan, Librium, Serax, Xanax and Atarax. 

"Most of these drugs," Dr. Vernon H. Mark writes, "produces substantial memory impairment after the first day of administration. In some cases, the impairment may be so severe that whole episodes of the patient's life are forgotten." (p.81)

Another interesting aspect of depression in patients that Dr. Mark cites is a study by Dr. Shealy of Massachusetts General Hospital. He had found that in 11 out of 14 long-term depressive patients had dramatically increased levels of serotonin whilst cholinesterase declined, whereas in normal patients, there were no substantial change in blood levels of serotonin, beta endorphins, norephinephedrine and cholinesterase. This suggests that increased serotonin is in part, responsible for depressive states, in addition to a decreased production of cholinesterase.

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Polypharmacy is a term that refers to patients who are on a cocktail of several different medications. Dr. Mark makes the curious observation that, "doctors who prescribed these medicines weren't particularly concerned about their effects on the brain because none of the drugs were primarily for brain functions." However a compendium of several different medications also decrease and have an effect on memory abilities and intellectual capacity. In one case, he describes Jim, who had a significant decline in memory and brain functioning from the three medications he had been taking: one for his heart, one for his high blood pressure, and one for his asthma. Dr. Mark writes that oftentimes, the combination of these drugs are more toxic to your brain than a single drug alone.

In the final analysis, Dr. Mark advises patients on the necessity of self-reliance and that the best safeguard is to question your doctor carefully every time a new drug is prescribed or the dosage is changed. (p.94) He ends the book with remarks upon the potential of transcranial direct electrical/current stimulation (tDCS) in the treatment of various neurological disorders. Previously, I had written about tDCS here. One of the problematic areas of tDCS is that because that is great variability between the brains from one person to another that the effects of tDCS are not consistent. Currently, I am informally advising a Founder of a biotech startup based in South Korea called Neurophet who is working on solving this very problem, but as I am under NDA, I am not able to divulge any information of their research at this time; however, I think if tDCS becomes standard treatment for neurological and psychiatric disorders, then there would be a significant decline in the usage of psychiatric drugs across many nations such as in the U.K. and in the U.S.

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As another bit of anecdotal information, a friend in the startup space told me several months ago that the brains of the current population are vastly different from before the era of mobile phones and texting; as via texting, people are more inclined to use both their thumbs to send messages, and in brain scans, researchers were able to determine that due to this activity, the frontal lobes responsible for the movement of thumbs became enlarged than in previous eras. 

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Google keyboard focuses on the index finger to swipe, as opposed to using thumbs to "type".

Currently, I am using the Google keyboard on all my mobile devices- which is more of an expansive swipe than typing- so perhaps, if this way of typing becomes more prevalent, our brains too, will alter with time.