12/17/2010 10:16 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

This Holiday Season, Boost Your Brain by Giving of Yourself

When Emily Lewis moved her mother, who'd been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, to a nursing facility, her own physical symptoms began.

At night she'd wake with a start, terrified: Her mother's care cost some $6,000 a month, and the trust her father had left them was dwindling. "I can bluff my way through a lot, but the reality was, how was I going to pay for next month?" she says. Her blood pressure soared -- and for the first time in her life she had to take blood-pressure medication.

She began seeing a psychotherapist and turned to her three dogs for comfort. But she also coped by giving support.

She volunteered as an assistant dog trainer at a club near her home in tiny Rushville, Ohio and joined a program that taught prison inmates to care for abandoned dogs and prepare them for adoption. Later, she became a medical guardian for the Honor Flight Network, which flies World War II veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit their memorials.

Soon she was able to cut her blood-pressure medication in half. "I'm like my mother," she says. "If I help people, that's a good thing for Emily."

A new study from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health shows that it's a good thing for all of us.

As the holidays approach and we stress over not just what gifts to buy but how, in these tough economic times, we'll pay for them, consider this: Giving of ourselves provides huge benefits to us as well as our recipients, making us healthier in both mind and body. Indeed, it can actually change our brains, rejuvenating broken connections and building new ones.

Just how does such doing get under not just the skin but the skull? Michelle C. Carlson, Ph.D. tunneled into the brains of adults ages 55 and over to find out.

For her study, Carlson, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, turned to a program called Experience Corps (EC), co-founded in 1995 by Linda P. Fried, Ph.D., then also at Johns Hopkins. EC places older volunteers into underserved public elementary schools across the U.S. to work as tutors and mentors to youngsters through third grade. Volunteers work 15 hours a week for at least one school year. The giving and getting goes both ways: The kids get one-on-one help with reading, library activities, and conflict resolution, and the adults increase their social engagement, thereby exercising both their bodies (supervising recess, shelving library books) and brains (working memory, problem-solving skills and brain flexibility).

"The goal of the program is to provide the older adults with social, cognitive, psychological, and physical engagement to hopefully enhance their aging," says Teresa Seeman, who collaborated with Carlson on a pilot study investigating how integrated programs such as EC affect cognition.

"To what degree did they have increased social interaction with people, both in school and outside? Does being involved in something like this enhance their sense of mastery and efficacy because they feel they're doing something important? At the same time, the aim is to benefit the children by improving their academic achievement."

Carlson recruited eight female EC volunteers from the Baltimore community and matched them with a control group, women who would become EC volunteers the following year. All participants were African American and had low income and a low education level. Mental state was only so-so, indicating risk for cognitive impairment. In particular, Carlson wanted to learn if over the six-month trial the EC volunteers would show increased activity in the prefrontal cortex, which oversees executive functions, including working memory, planning, scheduling, recognition of consequences and dealing with ambiguity. It's a region known to show substantial age-related degeneration.

"We wanted to see if those at greatest risk for dementia as exhibited through memory impairments could, through this intervention, have enduring changes in brain plasticity," says Carlson. Earlier studies had shown that, as a group, those who scored lower on executive-function measures showed the most benefit short-term because they had so much room for improvement.

At the start of the study, Carlson did brain scans -- specifically, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) -- of all the participants. An fMRI looks at the brain in slices, front to back, like a loaf of bread, and tracks blood flow to its various parts. She noted similar brain patterns for both the volunteers and the controls. She then scanned them all again, after the EC volunteers had been working with students in the Baltimore schools for six months.

She was "pretty shocked" at the results. The EC volunteers -- but not the controls -- showed increases in brain activity precisely in the areas targeted by the intervention: the left prefrontal cortex (executive-function territory) and the anterior cingulate cortex, an area implicated in efficient filtering or inhibiting of conflicting information (say, focusing on a single voice amid a cacophony of exuberant young conversations, and remembering what page you're on in "Chicken Little.")

The scientists acknowledge that the sample size was small and specific to women. But it provided "proof of concept" and lay the groundwork for a larger, even more rigorous trial.

The bottom line: Volunteering in Experience Corps reversed cognitive decline by waking up neurons that had been napping. One EC volunteer put it more simply: "It removed the cobwebs from my brain."

Here are some ways to give to receive, integrating EC elements (tie these up with a bow!). You can offer to:

  • Round up a group to go caroling, plotting the route and selecting songs

  • Run a playgroup in your home for your friends' children for a set period of time
  • Be the housecleaning service for a relative, along with a helper or two
  • Watch your sister's children so she and her husband can have a month's worth of nights out on the town
  • Walk the neighbors' dogs (yes, dogs are social beings too!)
  • Take charge of errands for folks who are stretched to the limit