Studying the Brain
Neuroscience is a specific branch of biology - it is the scientific study of the brain and nervous system. This includes the brain, spinal cord, and all the networks of sensory nerve cells, or neurons, throughout our body. Humans have around 100 billion neurons which make up all the functional units of the nervous system. Neurons connect with each other and communicate by transmitting electrical signals across the networks they make up. The brain should not be seen as an isolated organ. The neural networks that make up the brain extend to all parts of our body via the nervous system. The body and brain are intimately linked with neural feedback loops continuously monitoring and responding to what we need.
Neuroscientists have the daunting task of deciphering the mystery of this most complex of all machines: how as many as 100 billion nerve cells are produced, grow, and organise themselves into effective, functionally active systems that ordinarily remain in working order throughout a personís lifetime. Through their research, neuroscientists work to understand in ever greater detail how our brain and nervous system develops and functions throughout our lives. They also try to find ways to prevent or cure illnesses associated with the brain and nervous system.
The human brain is incredibly adaptive. Every time you learn something, neural circuits are altered in your brain. Our mental capacity is exceptionally large. So far no limit on brain capacity has been found. The brainís ability to continually remember new information, learn new skills and build up life experiences is known as brain plasticity or neuroplasticity. This characteristic allows the brainís estimated 100 billion neurons to constantly lay down new networks so that we can keep up with and actively participate in life. Learning new skills requires large collections of neurons to be active simultaneously to process information; the more neurons activated, the better we learn. Without the ability to make such functional changes, we would not be able to think, have conversations or live in our ever changing environment.
Neuroplasticity works both positively and negatively. It cleans out old connections as frequently as it enables the creation of new ones. This process is called synaptic pruning. The brain assumes that what is not used is not needed. Connections that are infrequently used are allowed to diminish, while neurons that are highly active are strengthened and preserved. The more regularly the neural network is used, the more connections are made, the stronger it becomes and the longer it takes to diminish. Understanding the key principles of neuroplasticity will assist you in learning how different types of mental exercise will benefit you.
Keeping Your Brain in Peak Condition
Research on brain plasticity proves that no matter how old we are, we can enrich our brains. Thanks to the latest developments in neuroscience we are now beginning to think of brain fitness in much the same way as physical fitness. We now know that we can train our brains as effectively as our bodies and enhance many of our mental capabilities. Elite sporting teams are beginning to add scientifically validated brain training regimes to complete a holistic fitness schedule and gain a competitive edge. Proactive Ageing can show you a range of activities to help you become more brain healthy and mentally agile both for today and for your future.
Our Command Centre
The human brain is the centre of our nervous system. It monitors and regulates all of the body's actions and reactions. It continuously receives sensory information, even when we are asleep, rapidly analyses this data and responds, controlling all of our bodily actions and functions. To support this mammoth task our brains contain more than 100 billion neurons, each of which is connected to around 10,000 others, making up the most complex processing network known to man.
The brain has four major anatomical parts. (1) The brainstem which controls breathing, heart rate, and other autonomic processes that are largely unconscious. (2) The cerebellum which is responsible for the body's balance, posture, and the coordination of movement. (3) The limbic system is a set of structures in the centre of the brain which support emotion and memory. (4) The neocortex which covers most of the outside of the brain provides our higher level consciousness and thinking, including learning, planning, attention, personality, creativity, etc....
Memory is our ability to encode, store and retrieve information. Scientists believe that there is not a single location in the brain where memory is stored, but that different types of memory are stored in different places across the brain.
Integrated Brain and Body
Our nervous system is one of our most important body systems. It contains a network of specialised cells called neurons that transmit signals and coordinate actions between our brain and all the different parts of our body. Neurons exist in a number of different shapes and sizes and are classified by their function. Some common neurons types include:
∑ Interneurons connecting various neurons within the brain and spinal cord.
∑ Sensory neurons carrying signals from the outer parts of our body (periphery) into the central nervous system.
∑ Motor neurons (motoneurons) carrying signals from the central nervous system to the outer parts (muscles, skin, glands) of our body.
∑ Receptors which sense the environment (chemicals, light, sound, touch) and encode this information into electrochemical messages that are transmitted by sensory neurons.
The nervous system is divided into the central nervous system (CNS) and peripheral nervous system (PNS). The brain and spinal cord make up the central nervous system (CNS). The peripheral nervous system (PNS) structures extend from the CNS throughout the rest of the body.† The PNS is also divided into two parts Ė the somatic and autonomic nervous systems. The somatic division consists of the nerves that consciously activate our muscles and sense touch through our skin. The autonomic nervous system contains the nerves that more unconsciously control our internal organs, blood vessels, and glands. The autonomic nervous system itself consists of two parts - the sympathetic nervous system which stimulates us for action (fight or flight response) and the parasympathetic nervous system which calms us down (rest and digest response).
Having a basic knowledge of how the nervous system works is important in helping you to proactively manage stress.
What We Learn from Brain Research
Some of the major areas of Neuroscience research includes :
∑ Neuronal cells and their chemistry (including their genetic, molecular, neurotransmitter and metabolic interactions)
∑ Neuronal networks and brain maps
∑ How the brain develops and changes from conception to death
∑ How our sense organs work and how the brain perceives what we sense (sight, hearing, balance, taste, smell, touch, pain)
∑ How we move and feel in our external environment
∑ How we engage and sense our internal environment (e.g. maintaining our bodyís homeostasis)
∑ Our emotions
∑ How we remember, learn and engage with people
∑ How we manage stress and sleep
∑ Illnesses of the brain and mind (for both prevention strategies and cures)
What it Means for You
We all naturally create new brain cells every day and make more connections (synapses) between brain cells whenever we learn anything new or refine an existing skill. We also know that positive emotions and a balanced nervous system generate the right neurochemicals to maximise brain cell creation, survival and connections. Proactive Ageing will make it easy for you to understand the science and what it means for you. Our training will translate the technology into simple principles you can understand and incorporate into your daily life. Our goal is to give you enough knowledge to comfortably make the lifestyle choices that are right for you.
How the Science is Advancing
Why is neuroscience suddenly a hot topic ? In recent years there has been an enormous advance in our understanding of the brain. This is due mainly to the development of machines that now allow scientists to directly measure and monitor neurons and their networks throughout the body. The emergence of these powerful new tools are allowing scientists to generate progressively more data at ever greater resolutions. This is enabling new hypothesis to be formed and tested that were not possible even a few years ago. Some of the machines contributing to these recent advances in neuroscience include:
∑ Positron Emission Tomography (PET) measures blood flow or energy consumption in the brain
∑ Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) provides a high quality, 3D image of internal organs and structures and reveal tiny changes that occur over time
∑ Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) compares brain activity under resting and active conditions.
∑ Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy (MRS) measures the concentration of specific chemicals (e.g. neurotransmitters) in different parts of the brain
∑ Magnetoencephalography (MEG) reveals the location of the magnetic fields emitted by active neurons
∑ Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) works by inducing electrical impulses in the brain by modulating magnetic fields testing the function of specific brain regions
Leading Scientific Institutions
Given the increasing number of neuroscientists that study the nervous system, several prominent neuroscience organisations have been formed to provide a forum to all neuroscientists and educators. Some of these include :
∑ The Society for Neuroscience (USA)† www.sfn.org†††
∑ The International Brain Research Organisation (Europe) www.ibro.info†††
∑ The Brain and Behaviour Society (Europe) www.ebbs-science.org†††
∑ The Howard Florey Institute (Australia) www.florey.edu.au†††††