Looking at a picture of Oprah Winfrey (or hearing her name) may spark activity in a specific “Oprah neuron“ in the brain’s hippocampus, a recent study reported. The international team of researchers also found a brain cell that only fired up in response to images of Jennifer Aniston (while shunning those of Brad Pitt), and other individual neurons selectively stimulated by pictures of Bill Clinton, the Beatles, or basketball great Michael Jordan.

Such quirky research may hold clues into the mysteries of memories hidden in the 100 billion neurons packed into the typical human brain. Why do we occasionally blank on the names of acquaintances and even friends? How do our minds encode new data and experiences—and what can we do to rev up recall?

Here’s a look at some science-based strategies from Cynthia R. Green, Ph.D., president of Memory Arts and co-author of Brainpower Game Plan: Food, Moves, and Games to Clear Brain Fog, Boost Memory, and Age-Proof Your Mind in 4 Weeks (Rodale, Inc. 2009):

Move More. Research shows physical activity cuts the risk for Alzheimer’s disease by up to 50%.  Maintaining a healthy weight with a low amount of belly fat also trims risk. More motivation to lace up your running shoes and get your muscles pumping: Exercise is a great way to keep cholesterol in the healthy range. A study found that high cholesterol is linked to increased risk for memory loss.

Play PacMan. Play video, online, card or board games against the clock. Or set a timer and see how fast you can do crossword or Sudoko puzzle. Any timed mental activity, from chess to PacMan, forces you to pay attention and think quickly—otherwise you can’t beat the clock.

Take a Class. Staying intellectually engaged keeps neurons nimble. Think totally outside your comfort zone: If you like to read, consider photography lessons. Or learn a foreign language or take up an unfamiliar sport. Also, experiment with little ways to vary your usual routines, such as taking a different route to work or using your computer mouse with your non-dominant hand.

Master the Name Game. Simple strategies can improve your recall of names. When you meet someone new, repeat the name a few times during your initial conversation and try to link it to something familiar. For example, you might connect the name “Bruce” with the actor Bruce Willis.

Phone a Friend. Remaining socially engaged preserves mental vitality. That’s because having conversations and making social plans provides enjoyable mental challenges. There’s also research showing that the daily give-and-take of married life or cohabiting with a partner wards off mental decline as you age.

CONNECT THE DOTS

The National Institute on Aging has a report on Alzheimer’s disease prevention. For the news and other resources about memory, visit MedlinePlus.