What is the brain? Our brain is an amazing organ that embodies our idea of what makes us ‘Us’ – intelligence, creativity, emotions, memory, action, and experience, to name a few. The complexity of the brain can be judged by the fact that within its 1.4 kg size, it houses more than 100 billion nerve cells!
The brain is made up of three different kind of cells. When people refer to ‘grey matter,’ it’s actually a reference to the cell bodies on the neurons. The ‘white matter’ is the branched network of tendrils which interconnect the neurons. The glial cells, which outnumber the neurons, are responsible for amplifying neuron signals.
The brain consists of the Cerebrum, which is further divided into the left and right cerebral hemispheres. Each containing an outer layer of grey matter covering a core of white matter. The left and right parts of the Cerebrum are thought to be differently oriented, with the left dealing with speech and language, and the right with spatial and body awareness. Underneath the cerebral cortex, lie the structures dealing with urges and appetites, and primarily with emotions and new memories. At the base of the cerebral cortex also lies the hypothalamus, which regulates bodily functions through the action of hormones released from the pituitary gland.
The back of the brain has the Cerebellum, which stores patterns of movement, habits, and repeated tasks. The human cerebellum does not initiate movement, but contributes to coordination, precision, and accurate timing
Chemical messengers and Diseases of Brain
The brain cells communicate with the help of several chemical messengers called neurotransmitters. Lack of these transmitters in the brain leads to several cerebral diseases.
Acetyl choline is the neurotransmitter responsible for initiating muscle activity. An alteration in the levels of its production is associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
Serotonin, a derivative of Tryptophan, is a neurotransmitter thought to be a contributor to the ‘happy feeling’ or feeling of well being. A deficiency of serotonin in the brain is associated with the feeling of depression.
Dopamine is an organic chemical which works as a neurotransmitter in the brain. Any altered levels of dopamine can cause Parkinson’s disease or Schizophrenia.
Fuel for the brain
The brain consumes about 20% of the total energy consumed by the body. It relies almost exclusively on glucose, requiring about 120 gms/day for its performance. Only during prolonged periods of starvation, it switches to ketones for its energy needs with a reduced need of glucose. The blood brain barrier cannot be crossed by the LCFAs (long chain fatty acids), but these are broken down by liver to produce ketones which the brain can use during duress. Some short chain fatty acids and MCFAs (medium chain fatty acids) can cross the blood brain barrier. The glucose transporter to the brain gets saturated quickly, thus ensuring a more or less constant supply of glucose to the brain.
The brain starts to atrophy with age just like muscles do. With age, the brain shrinks in size and there are molecular and morphological changes. The cognitive ability of the brain reduces, inducing a general slowdown and memory loss. The best defense against brain atrophy is leading a mentally and physically healthy life with a good diet comprising of brain boosting foods.
Some researchers believe that just like exercise for skeletal muscles, brain exercises can be used to preserve its cognitive powers. There are numerous ways to exercise the brain.
John E. Morley, MD of St. Louis University’s Division of Geriatric Medicine and author of ‘The Science of Staying Young,’ recommends the following exercises to sharpen your mental skills:
- Test your recall. Make a list — of grocery items, things to do, or anything else that comes to mind — and memorize it. An hour or so later, see how many items you can recall. Make items on the list as challenging as possible for the greatest mental stimulation.
- Draw a map from memory. After returning home from visiting a new place, try to draw a map of that area; repeat this exercise each time you visit a new location.
- Do math in your head. Figure out problems without the aid of pencil, paper, or computer; you can make this more difficult by walking at the same time.
- Challenge your taste buds. When eating, try to identify individual ingredients in your meal, including subtle herbs and spices.
- Take a cooking class. Learn a new way to cook. Cooking uses a number of senses: smell, touch, sight, and taste, all of which call for the use of different parts of the brain.
- Create word pictures. Visualize the spelling of a word in your head, then try and think of any other words that begin (or end) with the same two letters.
- Learn a foreign language. The listening and hearing involved stimulates the brain.
- Let the music play. Learn to play a musical instrument or study music.
- Refine your hand-eye abilities. Learn a new skill that involves fine-motor skills, such as knitting, drawing, painting, assembling a puzzle, etc.
- Engage your senses. Try activities that involve as many of your senses as possible, such as gardening.
- Learn a new sport. Take up an athletic exercise that utilizes the mind and body, like golf or basketball.
The brain is a marvellous piece of work. It has capabilities that still remain unplumbed and science has only uncovered a fraction of its powers. Whether telekinesis or telepathy becomes a possibility in the near future, we cannot say for sure. However, what we can achieve with the little part of the brain that we activate on a daily basis – that itself is limitless.
So exercise your grey and white matter and take care of this amazing evolutionary boon to be the best that you can possibly be!
Article Credits – Arunava Chatterjee