Tag Archives: Brain

Neuro-Genesis

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Your brain creates the world in which you live. Image by jdurham at morguefile.com.

Brand new baby brain cells (neurons) are crawling around inside your head as you read this!

This process, called neurogenesis, is very exciting because neurons create your world, and the birth of new neurons  is like a re-creation of the world taking place in your very own brain.  Let’s pause to consider this.

Most everyone is familiar with the account in Genesis of how the world was created.  In this account man was created on the sixth day.  But what is not mentioned is that once man was created, the whole world had to be re-created inside his head.   We cannot perceive objective reality directly.  In Kantian philosophy, this objective reality that is unknowable is referred to as the noumenal world.  Neurons are the living entities responsible for creating the subjective or phenomenal world which we can perceive.  The phenomenal world created by neurons is a simulation of the noumenon, and it includes everything that is perceivable through the senses, thoughts and emotions.

Thus each individual is the creator of a unique phenomenal world.  Although neurogenesis refers only to the birth of neurons in the brain, in reality we can extend the significance philosophically by thinking of it as neuro-Genesis, the re-creation of an individuals phenomenal world by the brain.

Unlike the noumenal world that is made up of objects, the phenomenal world is made up of memories.  It is very important to appreciate how our worlds are constructed by a constellation of living entities (neurons) each assembling memories like LEGO blocks to create a phenomenal world.

When neurons involved in this process die or malfunction our world shrinks.   This is why a patient with Alzheimer’s, though technically not blind, can forget how to see.  At first the patient may fail to recognize new acquaintances.  As the disease progresses, family members are not recognized, and finally even the concept of a face is forgotten as neurons continue to die or malfunction.

The Birth of Worlds

Research published this month by David Briley, et al., at the Mitchell Center for Neurodegenerative diseases, Department of Neurology, University of Texas Medical Branch, has shown that the birth of new neurons in the hippocampus may be responsible for preventing symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) in individuals with brain degeneration  that is normally associated with full AD symptoms.  These rare individuals were referred to as  Non-Demented with Alzheimer’s disease Neuropathy (NDAN).  This research shows the importance of promoting the continuous birth of neurons throughout life for retaining mental health in increasingly toxic environments that we are creating.

The perspective I am promoting is that the birth of neurons in the brain is like the birth of new worlds, because these cells directly create our phenomenal world.  This can work in two ways.  The first is that death of cells which would cause our world to shrink can be counteracted.  The second is that our world can continue to expand as these new neurons find their place in our phenomenal world of memories.

In her Ted Talk (see link below), Sandrine Thuret mentions the strategies we can employ to promote the birth of new neurons in our brains.  She discusses research showing that aerobic exercise (running) is is a potent method for stimulating neuronal birth when compared to sedentary behavior.

Her list of do’s and don’ts for birthing brain cells include the following:

Do’s

  1. Learning
  2. Sex
  3. Running (Aerobic Exercise)
  4. Omega 3 fatty acids, blueberries, curcurmin, resveratrol (skin of red grapes, etc.
  5. Intermittent Fasting (increased spacing between last meal and first meal the next day)

Don’ts

  1. Stress
  2. Sleep Deprivation
  3. Alcohol
  4. Vitamin Deficiencies (A,B,E)
  5. High Sugar

Ultimately the best strategy for keeping your world growing is to protect both your old neurons as well as promoting the birth of new neurons.  Some neuroscientists think the birth of new neurons is hyped by the media of wishful thinkers.  According to these researchers the best advice is to take good care of the neurons you already have rather than hoping to gain new ones.  However, mounting evidence indicates we are in for more budding heads in the future, as the stream of baby neurons explore their place in the palace of our memories, our phenomenal world.  Enjoy!

The Organ That Pleases Itself

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Intimacy releases endorphins and oxytocin resulting in bonding and improved health. Fraternal Twins By MultipleParent (CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Your brain is like a labyrinth that hides, deep within it, the Holy Grail of life. Simply put, your brain has secrets that it doesn’t want you to know!

“But why?” you ask, “would my brain keep secrets from little ol’ me?”

It boils down to this, your brain has to perform functions that your conscious ‘self’ may not like very much.  In order to accomplish its goals it is best if the conscious ‘you’ is left in the dark.

This strategy is an act of genius for survival of social organisms where the individual is important but secondary to the needs and survival of the group.  An example of this strategy is found in the cellular communities within our bodies where cells undergo apoptosis or programmed cell death.  There are two pathways for apoptosis, the intrinsic pathway in which a cell kills itself due to internal stress, and the extrinsic pathway in which the cell kills itself due to messages it receives from its neighboring cells.

It is estimated that in adults between 50 and 70 billion cells die every day as a result of this carefully orchestrated process of programmed cell death.  In a similar fashion, there is mounting evidence that the process of aging is orchestrated and programmed by the brain.  The brain doesn’t allow awareness of this orchestration but sometimes we catch a glimpse of the brain’s ability to control disease and aging. Some examples are:

  • The placebo effect – the brain is tricked by the mind into healing the body based on a perceived (but fake) external intervention.   This shows that the brain actively withholds healing from us in many cases.
  • Immunotherapy  –  a type of cancer treatment designed to boost the body’s natural defenses.
  • Spontaneous remission of diseases and cancer.
  • Neurochemicals of happiness – The brain produces or triggers the release of molecules such as endocannabinoids,  endorphins, oxytocin, dopamine, seratonin, gaba and adrenaline,  that play a role in euphoria, contentment, affection, pain reduction, calmness, confidence, energy levels, healing and in slowing down the aging process.

The answer to the question, “Why does the brain promote aging”, may vary depending upon your viewpoint.   From an evolutionary perspective one rationale is that aging and programmed death of the individual allows the species as a whole to progress.   Regardless of how you rationalize death, it is pretty clear that the conscious ‘self’ wants no part in it and thus the brain has kept its involvement a secret, until now.

The Brains Secret Exposed

The brains secret is that it potentially has the power to make us healthier, smarter, stronger and younger than we currently experience and yet it proceeds with its implementation of programmed aging and ultimately death.  However, there is growing evidence pointing to a transitional period in the history of mind-brain interaction.  We can start making use of the brains secret today to improve our brain fitness in the years ahead.  Here’s how:

  • Re-evaluate habits that may simply be ‘giving in’ to the brains hidden aging agenda.  In particular, challenge your overall activity and social intimacy levels as these behaviors can trigger a flood of endorphins that have positive benefits for health and help postpone the aging process.
  • Give and receive at least 8 hugs per day.  A proper hug is deep, where the hearts are pressing together (my youngest daughter Mia is a pro at this).  Hugs boost oxytocin levels and oxytocin has been shown to increase regeneration of muscle.   You can even take this strategy to the  next level by giving and receiving a regular massage.
  • Try being a go-getter by setting goals and achieving them to trigger the release of dopamine.  Set goals related to social interaction for the biggest hit.
  • Practice yoga and meditation to trigger the release of gaba and thus reduce stress and anxiety.
  • Take on activities that challenge your comfort level and confidence, to trigger the release of serotonin and adrenaline.  These are the kinds of activities that keep you evolving as a human being.
  • Add laughter, singing, dance and music (LSD-M) to your daily schedule.  These activities trigger the feel good neurochemicals that may trick your brain into delaying aging.

All in all, remember that you can negotiate with your brain for health, youth and strength rather than just going with the flow.  Let us know what strategies you devise for peering into your brains secrets.

Feed Me Fast

brain (1)Fasting and Brain Fitness

In some cases we can learn about the root cause of chronic disease by looking at how our environment and lifestyle has changed in the last few hundred years.  On an evolutionary time scale of billions of years, a few hundred years is a very short time, and is not long enough for the body design to catch up with environmental changes.

For example in our previous two posts we noted how the body evolved (or was designed ) for continuously challenging movements in the quest for finding food , finding mates, seeking safety from predators and fighting off competitors, and how our current sedentary lifestyle is at odds with our body.

Another anomaly driven by evolutionarily recent changes in food production is the over-abundance of food.  Our ancestors were more likely to face food scarcity, and a feast-or-famine type of existence.  When food was scarce, our ancestors bodies smoothly switched from using glucose as fuel to using stored fat for energy. This means that they were more likely to mobilize reserves of body fat resulting in a higher fat-free mass.

Now the over-abundance of food combined with sedentary lifestyles has created an epidemic of obesity in which the global population of overweight and obese people exceeds that of under-weight people.  Obesity is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, some cancers and emerging evidence suggests that it is also a risk factor for age related cognitive decline and possibly Alzheimer’s.  According to researchers like Mark Mattson (Chief of the Laboratory of Neurosciences at the National Institute on Aging)  and Bert Herring (Physician and Medical Writer), the root cause of the problem is not the excess storage of fat but rather, that the body needs fasting just like the muscles need exercise.

The idea of using fasting to improve health has existed for thousands of years as evidenced by the following quotes:

  • “Humans live on one-quarter of what they eat; on the other three-quarters lives their doctor.” – Egyptian pyramid inscription, 3800 B.C.
  • “Fasting is the greatest remedy– the physician within.”  Philippus Paracelsus, one of the three fathers of Western medicine
  • “A little starvation can really do more for the average sick man than can the best medicines and the best doctors.”  Mark Twain, in My Debut As a Literary Person.
  • “The best of all medicines is resting and fasting.”  Benjamin Franklin

There is evidence that fasting has positive effects on the whole body such as decreased inflammation, oxidative stress and asthma, increased insulin sensitivity and decreased risk of diabetes, lower heart rate and blood pressure, and increase in human growth hormone.

There is also evidence that fasting helps to improve cognitive function by stimulating the production of neurotrophic factors and can help prevent chronic diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

According to Mark Mattson, the key to understanding how this works is to appreciate that our bodies have another mode of operation where energy is derived from fat metabolism (ketosis) rather than from glucose metabolism (glycolysis).  When we eat three meals a day our bodies never switch over to this powerful mode of operation, because it takes 10 to 12 hours of fasting before the bodies glycogen stores are used up.

Fat is the Wealth of the Body

Every-day-life analogies for these two modes of operation would be like work vs vacation  or like being employed vs unemployed.  When you are in work mode you  save cash for vacations or unexpected loss of income.   As you can see from this example,  each mode of operation  entails a different set of priorities and tasks.

Likewise, fat is the stored wealth of the body and the bodies priorities shift depending on whether it is storing wealth (glycolysis) or using it (ketosis).  Think of a short fast as a vacation mode for your body, while a longer fast may be more challenging (i.e. unemployment).

Mark Mattson promotes the idea that fasting is a challenge to the brain.  This challenge promotes adaptive stress responses and changes in the brain similar to what is seen with vigorous exercise or cognitively challenging stimuli.  This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective.

Using our analogy, an unemployed person is challenged to learn new skills in order to compete for a new job.  Similarly the fasting brain responds to the challenge of acquiring more body wealth (fat), by generating neurotrophic factors that promote the development of new connections and that drive the transformation of stem cells into new brain cells in some regions of the brain.

The neurotrophic factor BDNF that is released during fasting also promotes the increase in the number of mitochondria inside cells.  Because mitochondria are the powerhouses of cells this increases the ability of neurons to grow and develop new connections.

How to Feed Your Brain Fast

Knowledge is power when properly applied, so what is the right way to incorporate fasting into your life.  Just like engaging in new physical activity it makes sense to discuss changes in lifestyle with your health care team.  Care must be taken if you have high calorie expenditure due to athletic endeavors, or if you are taking medications.

Fasting can generally be started by increasing the amount of time between your last meal of the day and your first meal of the subsequent day.  One could limit meals to an 8 hour window or less each day.  This is the approach that I have been using, although my window is currently more like 10 hours.

Another option is to skip the last meal of the day or the first meal of the day once or twice each week.  Just as an athlete must begin with light weights and progress to more difficult challenges in order to avoid injuries, so it is with fasting.  Learn more about it and proceed with caution in order to make sure the body is receiving its needed supply of nutrients.  It could be your ticket to a healthier you.