The New Understanding of a Properly Functioning Brain
Thursday, April 07, 2011
Board Certified Clinical Nutritionist Byron J. Richards,
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Perception and consequent understanding is relative. The state-of-the-art understanding of the human brain’s function just two years ago is now outdated. Way back then we were just getting better at tracking the flow of neurotransmitters and the function of glial cells. Now we have diffusion tensor imaging and we can perceive for the first time the connections in real time between various brain regions. Not surprisingly, a whole new understanding1 of the brain is emerging.
Many separate regions in the brain carry specific functions relating to perception, computation, memory, language, intelligence, etc. As an analogy we could say that each of these brain regions is a city. Connecting them is a vast network of roads and highways, because almost every city needs information from another city to reach a correct and timely conclusion or understanding – which equates to potential cognitive ability. As it turns out, based on the new ability to actually measure this network of roads and highways, the speed with which information moves is the single most predictive measurement of cognitive ability.
“We found that the efficiency of the whole brain network of cortical fibre connections had an influence on processing speed, visuospatial function—the ability to navigate in space—and executive function,” said study first author Dr Wei Wen. “In particular greater processing speed was significantly correlated with better connectivity of nearly all the cortical regions of the brain.”
“While particular brain regions are important for specific functions, the capacity of information flow within and between regions is also crucial,” said study leader Perminder Sachdev. “We all know what happens when road or phone networks get clogged or interrupted. It’s much the same in the brain. With age, the brain network deteriorates and this leads to slowing of the speed of information processing, which has the potential to impact other cognitive functions. We know the brain is not immutable; that if we work on the plasticity in these networks we may be able to improve the efficiency of the connections and therefore cognitive functions.”
The take home message is – improve brain plasticity and you will improve the speed of flow in your brain’s networks and thus the potential for intelligent function of your mind AT ANY AGE and will certainly have the best chance of preserving higher-level brain function in old age.
Another study also helps explain the new emerging understanding of our brains. It also places more emphasis on a free flowing network as the target for improvement. It has long been assumed that nerve transmission is a one way flow. The nerve cell body creates a signal, such as a dopamine or serotonin neurotransmitter. It then sends that signal down a long projection called an axon, which then jumps across to another nerve cell and stimulates another neurotransmitter to flow.
New research has shown that the axons can actually send signals in reverse2, back into the nerve cell. Furthermore, the researchers figured out that axons could talk to each other completely independent of a simulation from a neurotransmitter originating in the nerve cell itself. This is a dramatic discovery and will require the re-writing of neurology textbooks. It speaks to the power of the network.
The initial understanding of axons acting on their own and with each other, apparently involves a slower speed and is retaining information for longer periods of time. In other words, while network speed might be the important element, the brain network needs to keep track of what it is doing and that function may rely on axons doing their own networking.
Yet another study indicates that the process of sleep3 is a regrouping time for the nerves, which includes a data dump out of the nerves into the “hard drives.” Successful sleep enables the brain network to press the reset button – while simultaneously trying to integrate the day’s experiences and knowledge with what already exists on the hard drives. Researchers have found this is based on very speedy surges of brain waves in non-REM sleep that occur up to 1000 times per night, a unique process of integrating and clearing data from the network. In other words, proper sleep is vital for learning and preparing your brain to be ready for the next day. Not getting enough sleep or poor quality sleep are sure to reduce cognitive ability sooner or later, and minimally are going to keep you short of your optimal potential.
Quite frankly, this information revolutionizes the subject of mental health. The concept of propping up neurotransmitters with drugs (antidepressants), reducing action potentials in the brain by reducing histamine (the now top selling atypical antipsychotic meds), stimulating brain speed with inflammatory chemicals (ADHD meds) or simply knocking out the entire brain network with sedation (anti-anxiety meds, narcotics, and sleeping pills) are in the best light, a temporary solutions for a crisis. They are not substitutes for a healthy brain and solve nothing over the long term. Generally, they will make brain function worse over time if not immediately.
The golden key to a healthy brain, involves maintaining and restoring plasticity so as to enable brain networks to function in harmony at optimal speed.
Factors that damage plasticity are obvious; too much stress, environmental chemicals and pollution, toxins from the gut crossing the blood brain barrier, low grade infections, acute infections, too much alcohol, lack of sleep, street drugs, and the majority of prescription medications. It is not that your brain can’t handle stress. Yet, too much revs up your glial cells into an inflammatory state, in turn damaging your network capacity to function at optimal speed. Highly acute damage from trauma or long-term chronic stress of any type can knock down bridges and highways so that it is not just a matter of slow speed, it is now a matter of a bad storm blowing through your brain’s neighborhoods (i.e., post traumatic stress disorder).
Regardless, your brain can be repaired and rejuvenated. Walking and aerobics are vital. Learning new physical skills are highly advised – even if it is a game or new sport activity. Hobbies are essential for anyone who is really struggling. Getting enough sleep and any activity that is relaxing or rejuvenating is helpful as long as it isn’t involving drugs and excess alcohol.
Many nutrients contribute to brain plasticity. Chief amongst them are DHA Docosahexaenoic acid Essential omega 3 fatty acid integral to the health of all cell membranes, nerve and brain function. Must be gotten through the diet via cold water oceanic fish or some very limited plant sources or taken as a supplement., pantethine, phosphatidylserine, acetyl-l-carnitine, tocotrienol Specialized form of vitamin E. Powerful antioxidant showing positive benefits for cholesterol, cardiovascular, neurological health and cancer risk reduction. E, carnosine, lipoic acid, blueberries, curcumin, Alpha GPC, B vitamins, grape seed extract, resveratrol Natural phenol or type of antioxidant found in red grapes, red wine. Research has shown beneficial effects as anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory agents along with supporting healthy blood sugar and cardiovasculature function., and likely many more.
Anything you do to improve your energy level automatically helps communication flow better in your brain because cellular energy (ATP) is actually the primary communication molecule needed by your brain’s networks – a subject that includes optimizing thyroid function. Don’t waddle through life with a bad mood and compromised cognitive skill, only to wind up as an Alzheimer’s statistic. You have lots of options!
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