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The Healthy Brain - tips to maintain brain fitness

Updated on October 20, 2015
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Between your ears,wonderfully complex.

What is it that the brain does that enables us to be conscious? How can consciousness arise from a three pound organ that feels like jelly? How can millions of individually insentient neurons generate subjective awareness? What is it to feel the feelings of an experience like, the redness of red, the beauty of watching the sunset, or the feeling of walking hand in hand with a loved one? Our consciousness is but one part of the many functions our brain takes care of, day in and day out, which enables us to be participants in the game of life. Human history is full of questions about how and what the brain does. Will neuroscience provide us with all the answers? What role will philosophers play with their colloquial reasoning and arguments? Time may tell, and unless you've been living under a rock lately, most of us are aware of the different camps toting the need to nurture and take care of our one most important organ. Sorting through a plethora of information can be challenging and time consuming, maybe, this brief overview will be helpful in making some good healthy decisions. Technology and medical breakthroughs has increased our longevity. We humans are living longer; who doesn't want to keep their cognitive abilities and mental acumen intact for a better and happier quality of life. A little knowledge and perception about this three pound organ between our ears can go a long way in making intelligent decisions when it comes to our brain health.

Right and left hemispheres
Right and left hemispheres | Source

Structure and Function

Looking at the brain from the top down, first thing you notice is a deep grove that divides the brain into two parts called the Longitudinal fissure:A Deep fissure that separates the brain into the right and left hemispheres. Also another feature that stands out is the characteristic folds and wrinkles.The folds in the brain of course have technical names. The higher ridges are called Gyri or Gyrus (singular). The lower 'valleys' are called Sulci or Sulcus (singular). More brain cells equal more potential and these folds and valleys allow for more real estate with-in a given area. The added cortical structure because of these folds gives us a much higher capacity of function, and many believe thats what separates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom.

If you look closely at the Longitudinal fissure you see a thick bundle of nerves deep in the fissure that connects the two hemispheres called the Corpus callosum. This thick bundle of nerves allows both halves of your brain to send messages back and forth, which in turn allows for the smooth integration of all the external and internal stimuli your brain is constantly processing.



Basically, the brain has three main parts, the cerebrum, the cerebellum, and the brain stem.

The cerebrum is the largest part of the brain and also the outer covering ( also called the cortex, which means bark or covering) with all the folds and fissures. The groves called fissures, separate large regions of the brain into four different lobes with there corresponding functions.

Frontal Lobe - involved with decision-making, problem solving, and planning.

Parietal Lobe- involved in the reception and processing of sensory information from the body.

Occipital Lobe- involved in vision

Temporal Lobe- involved with memory, emotion, hearing, and language.

In the lower rear of the brain we have the cerebellum.This area takes care of a number of functions.The smooth execution of body movements and works to maintain balance and posture.

The brain stem, the bottom most part that connects to the spinal cord.It controls messages from the brain and the rest of the body. Also basic function such as breathing,swallowing,heart rate,blood pressure,consciousness,and whether one is awake or sleepy.


How the brain is divided

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This is not meant to be an anatomy class, the idea here is give you a flavor of some of the major parts and how different areas of the brain control different aspects of behavior. The understanding that the brain was divided into different sections and how each section controlled specific behaviors has a long history with many players. I will mention one accomplished neurosurgeon who was instrumental in moving the field of neuroscience forward.

Dr. Wilder Penfield was a pioneering neurosurgeon in Canada. His research and brain surgery skill’s improved the methods used in the middle 20th century, so much so he was dubbed “the greatest living Canadian”. His contributions included mapping the functions of various regions of the brain. Years of brain surgery on different patient’s enabled him to map several areas of the brain with electrical stimulation. The brain has no pain sensors and after the skull cap was removed the patient would be awake during the surgical procedure. Dr. Penfield would apply a light electrical current to different areas and over time developed a map showing what functions and behaviors were initiated from what specific regions of the brain. Dr. Penfield' mapping of the brain is a fascinating story. This is a fun article, check out how your brain sees your body.



Neuroplasticity

Our Brain is Wonderfully Complex, and brain science is only in it's infancy, imagine what we will be capable of in the coming decades. The buzz word in neuroscience today is Neuroplasticity, the brains ability to reorganize itself by making new connections, and it’s capacity to generate new connections to help with injury and disease of the brain. Research is showing that using your brain in different and challenging ways is actually strengthening the connections which builds up a kind of cognitive reserve that keeps us mentally sharp. In other words the brain is like a muscle it gets stronger with use (cognitive exercise, reading, crossword puzzles, learning new activities, anything that stimulates the mind, etc).Remember that old adage "you can't teach an old dog new tricks" well it turns out that is wrong "you can teach an old dog new tricks" .

(LTP) "Long term potentiation" is a strengthening of the connections within the brain, and the more you use them the easier it becomes for the stimulus to flow through those connections (think about a small electrical wire verses a thicker wire, an increase in charges will flow through the thicker wire with less resistance). Neuroscience has shown as we learn and use the different pathways, our brain's connections increase and actually get stronger.

So what about all those companies out there jumping on the bandwagon of neuroscience by selling products that they claim will enhance and increase our brain health? It has become a billion dollar business, but do we need to be spending money on brain games ? There is no consensus on this issue. Some studies are in favor of cognitive games, but the majority claim that the evidence just isn't supporting that notion. Everyone does agree that increased learning and activities that stimulate our thinking keeps us mentally sharp, but whether those brain training games gives us that edge remains to be seen.

This is an interesting article from Scientific American about some of that research. 'Signed by 70 of the world’s leading cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists. Here


Exercise and the brain

How exercise makes your brain grow
How exercise makes your brain grow | Source

Enhanced brain functions

We are all aware of the benefits of physical exercise, cardiovascular health, muscle tone and endurance, the list goes on and on. Did you know that aerobic type exercises stimulates growth and all around good health for your brain? Yes exercise can grow your brain. While engaging in aerobic exercise the increased blood flow bathes your brain in oxygenated blood and nutrients. Also working up a sweat stimulates the release of a protein into the blood stream which stimulates the release of another protein in the brain called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). BDNF in the brain stimulates the production of new nerve cells and also helps maintain the health of existing cells. Bottom line, endurance exercise strengthens and grows your brain. According to psychiatrist Dr. John Ratey the best way to improve brain plasticity is by exercise. Interview with Dr.John Ratey

Other studies have shown how learning and memory is highly enhanced, with exercise. Not only are we taking care of our physical health by exercising, we get the benefit of increased brain health and mental acuity that will go a long way in keeping us on top of our game. The take away message from the research is movement. Findings show just getting out and moving has beneficial effects, walking the dog, doing yard work like raking the leaves, etc, it is all conducive to good health, the key is to get moving.


Relaxation and meditation

Ok you have worked up a good sweat and you are now ready to relax and have some quiet time. Well that to is healthy for you, in fact, studies are showing the positive effects of relaxation and meditation on the mind. There are those who look at meditation as some kind of religious activity, think Buddhism and Hinduism. But the truth is, research is extolling what an asset it turns out-to-be for our mental health. Even though there are numerous types of meditations from mind-fullness to Yoga, there is no lack of positive effects.Some further reading on the benefits of meditation.


 fix your nutrition for better brain health
fix your nutrition for better brain health | Source

You are what you eat

This little three pound organ between our ears consumes 20% of our needed calorie intake; our brain is an energy hog .Research is showing that eating a good healthy diet with the right foods will nourish our brain with nutrients needed for optimal brain health. Healthy eating isn’t always the easiest thing to do, especially in this fast paced Society we live in today. We can aim for a common sense approach. We know that most findings support a diet of vegetables, fruits,seeds and nuts, and healthy fats,and that we should avoid as much as possible, trans fats and saturated fats. Using that common sense approach and staying mindful of this can help us to incorporate more of the healthier foods into our daliy diet. There is quite a list of the so called smart foods for the brain, Blueberries,Wild salmon,Nuts and seeds,Avocados just to name a few.

Incorporating healthy foods into your diet can go a long way in helping with our brain health. For more info on brain health and nutrition. "How diet can help—or harm—your cognitive fitness."


Get some zzzz's

Sleeping puppy
Sleeping puppy | Source

When I was in school (all those years ago) when crunch time came i’d be up all night studying for that big test. I’m sure most of us have been there. The research and findings suggest we would have been better off getting a good night's sleep. It turns out that sleep strengthens new memories and helps develop problem solving and creativity. Studies performed on college students have revealed how those who slept after learning something new performed much better on memory tests than those who weren’t giving the opportunity for sleep before being re-tested. Sleep is critical for our well-being, sleep deprived people have problems with memory and concentration their mood is negatively affected, there productivity decreases, etc.

Another interesting finding is how sleep helps clear the brain, it's analogous to taking out the trash. As we sleep fluid circulates around our brain and clears the toxins that build up through out our day.

Neurogenesis

Can we, as adults, grow new neurons? Neuroscientist Sandrine Thuret says that we can, and she offers research and practical advice on how we can help our brains better perform neurogenesis—improving mood, increasing memory formation and preventing the decline associated with aging along the way. Check out Sandrine Thuret's Ted Video:

Stimulating the brain in a meaningful way activates the production of new nerve cells in an area called the hippocampus. A good example is the study done on London cab drivers.Cab drivers in London show a higher density of brain cells in the hippocampus, researchers postulated that the intense training London cab drivers are put through stimulate their brain growth. Comparisons of London bus drivers showed no significant increase, the hypothesis is the bus drivers are not mentally challenged enough because of drivering the same route over and over.Video from National geographic on the Cab Driver Study


What's a brain to do

Dementia and Alzheimer's is a debilitating disease and there is no magic pill we can take. In other words ,there is no guarantee that you or I will not be afflicted with some form of dementia. We can be pro active and cut our risk factor by engaging our brains in the kind of activities that will stimulate growth and build a kind of cognitive reserve that may help keep us mentally sharp and on top of our game.

The good news being postulated with-in neuroscience is how the brain is malleable (neural plasticity). By engaging our brains in new types of learning and cognitive stimulation the findings support the strengthening of connections and an increase in mental acuity. It seems that the evidence for brain training games (the billion dollar industry) is mixed, most of the studies seem to show a lack of support for said games, it seems you get better at playing the game but the benefits don't transfer to other areas with-in your mental lives. All the evidence does favor taking up mental challenges like learning to play a musical instrument,learning a new language, maybe taking a photography class, reading a stimulating book or doing daily crossword puzzles, anything that engages the mind. Get motivated and find things that challenge your mind and make you think. And very importantly lets not forget about exercise, take some time and go for that walk, maybe you could join a bowling league,how about ballroom dancing, there are many ways to blend exercise into your lifestyle. We don't need to run marathons, the research shows just being active is beneficial, so keep moving. Sleep a factor that looms large in the equation, turn off the tv an hour earlier and get some zzz's, or go ahead and close your eyes and take that afternoon nap, sleep it's good for your brain. Nutritional balance can be a tough one, being mindful of the choices we make can be helpful. Instead of the candy bar substitute a granola bar, those french fries fried in saturated fat maybe a baked potato would be a better choice. Being aware helps us to make better choices

Many things we can do to keep ourselves mentally sharp, having a little knowledge empowers us to incorporate little things into our lifestyle that improves our health and mental well-being, which keeps us on top of our game.

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      Trisha 22 months ago

      This is an easy read and very knowledgeable on how the brain works

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      John 22 months ago

      Great read. I learned a lot , I especially liked the short tour of the parts.