The brain, our most energy-consuming organ
The brain is one of the largest and most complex organs in the human body. It is powered by glucose and oxygen, which are provided to it in the blood. Weighing only 2% of the total human body weight, the brain is a soft and spongy mass of fat and protein consumes 20% of our energy!
The brain is made up of more than 100 billion brain cells (neurons and glia) that communicate in trillions of connections called synapses. Neurons are unique and excitable nerve cells that conduct electrical impulses. Glial cells, on the other hand, provide structural protection and nutritional support for neurons. The brain is particularly vulnerable to toxic exposure and hypoxic conditions. Therefore, the brain is protected from harmful substances by a layer of tightly packed specialised endothelial cells, known as blood-brain barrier (BBB).
Nerve cells demand lots of energy. They signal to neighbouring blood vessels when they are active, alerting the vessels to dilate to supply more substrates for energy production. Failure of the energy supply to the brain contributes to neurological disorder, such as stroke. In Malaysia, stroke is the third most common cause of death, after heart disease and pneumonia. Scientific evidence shows that glial cells improve post-stroke recovery by preventing immune cell senescence.
Left brain thinker versus right brain thinker
The human brain is a two-sided structure that can be divided into two halves: the right and left cerebral hemispheres. The right hemisphere controls the left side of the body whilst the left hemisphere governs corresponding functions for the right side. It means the right hemisphere receives sensory input from and controls the movement on the left side of the body.
You may wonder whether the right-brain thinker is more creative than the left-brain thinker? Interestingly, there is a specialisation of function (brain dominance or lateralisation) in each brain hemisphere. In general, the left hemisphere is specialised for processing language and speech. When people are described as left-brain thinkers, they can carry out sequential processing of information and have strong math and logic skills (mnemonic : “triple L” for Logic, Language, Linear thinking). Those who are described as right-brain thinkers, on the other hand, are told that their talents are more on the creative side of things (mnemonic : “IMAC” for Imagination, Music & Art awareness, Creativity).
Use it or lose it
The brain is amazing that it can change and adapt (re-wire) itself due to experience. This phenomenon is known as “neuroplasticity”. If we do not continuously challenge the brain, it will become lethargic. Neurons that fire together wire together, meaning that with experience, the connection among the brain cells becomes stronger. This phenomenon is essential in learning and memory, for brain development, sensorial training and recovery from brain injury. It is believed that we were born with almost all the neurons we were ever going to have. Recently, scientists observed another exciting phenomenon seen in the brain: it can give birth to new neurons, termed as “neurogenesis”. This notion may open up new frontiers in the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia.
Simple steps to keep an agile brain
To achieve an agile brain, give our brains proper care. Diet, stress and physical health all have an impact on our mental well-being. When chronically stressed, the body releases an excessive amount of cortisol. A high level of this stress hormone can lead to deterioration of the hippocampus, the brain region associated with learning and memory. Incorporate brain food into your diet. Food that is rich in omega-3 fatty acids (salmon, walnuts, avocados), B vitamins (broccoli), anti-oxidants (berries) are linked to better brainpower and, can fight dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Physical exercise pumps up endorphins, one of the brain’s feel good neurotransmitters. Commit to a regular workout routine to keep our body in shape, it also has stress-busting benefits and helps keep the brains stay sharp.
Finally, another key to unlock optimal brain health is a good night sleep. As important as sleep is for the body, SLEEP is even more crucial for the brain to strengthen memory and to enhance emotional well-being. What are you waiting for? Take action today and sleep your way to a smarter brain. Remember to “relax, turn-off your phone, and, Zzzz….”.
Note: Associate Professor Dr Cheah Pike See (Dr. Pixie) is an Anatomist and Neuroscientist with her research focus to identify and to understand the function of causative genes for neurodevelopmental disorders and neuropsychiatric diseases. As an active member of Young Scientist Network (YSN-ASM), Malaysian Society of Neurosciences (MSN), Asian Pacific Society for Neurochemistry (APSN) and recently as the Chair of the International Brain Research Organization-Asia Pacific Research Committee (IBRO-APRC), she helps to promote collaborative networks between clinical and non-clinical neuroscientists as well as to improve the quality of the neuroscience research in Malaysia and internationally.