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Building Blocks of the Brain

Greetings Bloggers,

In this blog, I would like to spend some time on our greatest asset – our brain, and its basic building blocks.

In 1993, several experiments were conducted by the United States Army Intelligence and Security Command to asses if individual cells had some type of memory.  White blood cells or leukocytes were scraped from the mouth of a volunteer and centrifuged to separate the solution which was then placed in a test tube.  A probe from a polygraph or emotion detector was inserted in the tube.  The male donor of the cheek cells was secluded in a room over 50 feet down the hall from his donated cells.  He was then shown a television program which contained many violent scenes.  As he was watching specific scenes of violence and killing, the probe from the polygraph recorded extreme excitation in the mouth cells even though they were contained in the test tube down the hall.  In subsequent replications of the experiment, with the donor cells separated by distances of up to 50 miles and up to two days after they were donated, the cells responded with the same energetic excitement.  The army of scientists claimed this was proof of cells having a non local or telepathic connection with each other and they seemed to possess “memory” as to where they came from.

How can these microscopic membranes contain the ability to communicate non locally and to store memories?  In order to answer some of these questions, I turned to a friend and colleague, Cell Biologist Dr. Bruce Lipton, who was a tenured professor at a major medical school and a post-doctoral research fellow at Stanford Medical School.  Dr. Lipton stated that in primitive organisms, all cells function much in the same fashion.  However, in higher organisms with more cells in the community, it is not efficient that every cell be exactly the same and it becomes more efficient for cells to take on specialized jobs.  Similarly, in primitive communities, hunters/gatherers all do the same thing but in more complex societies, people become specialized into potters, artisans, builders, etc.  All cells in complex organisms – like complex societies – differentiate to carry out different and complex functions.  In addition, every cell in our body has its own respiratory, reproductive, skeletal, immune, digestive and excretory systems.  However, when a cell differentiates and specializes it does not lose any of its normal functional requirements.  Instead, it enhances the cell characteristics it will take on.  For example, a muscle cell must be able to move and contract whereas a brain cell does not have or need that attribute.  Thus, a muscle may have 100 muscle units, whereas a brain cell may have only ten muscle units.  But, just like people who are still human beings underneath, despite their immense specializations, some cells are very muscular and some are very brainy but remain fundamentally similar.  In addition, each of our cells (with the exceptions of ova and sperm cells) carry complete sets of our chromosomes – each has the tiny blueprint that makes us individuals.

Another quality of cells is that each is like a miniature battery with a positive charge or polarity outside the cell membrane and a negative polarity inside, in the nucleus of each cell.  We have 75 trillion cells or batteries in our body which generate enough electricity to light a color TV set for 8 hours.  Brain cells also run on electricity and at this moment, your brain is producing enough electrical power to light a 25 Watt bulb indefinitely.

The rhythmic electrical impulses of the brain are evident even in an embryo of 10 to 12 weeks gestation.  If we could tune in with a brain wave amplified and listen to the embryonic brain we would hear an astonishing racket of purposeful activity in the electric crackle and spark of the neurons.  This is far more than the random firing of nerve cells.  These staccato-like bursts are the onset of coordinated pulses of neural activity.  Like a group of people surfing the internet and clicking on various websites over and over from different terminals, neurons keep firing over and over making contacts and connections from different parts of the brain.  These pulses, once considered a random byproduct of the developing brain, actually help to shape it.  The dazzling electrical dance actually carves out the circuit pathways so that they newborn can perceive its mother’s voice or its father’s caress.

Just prior to birth, a baby has approximately 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion glial cells that form a honeycomb network of support cells which protect and nourish the neurons.  This is the largest number of brain cells a human will ever have.  However, billions of these cells will be lost due to skull compression as the brain makes the treacherous and damaging journey through the birth canal.  Millions more neurons are lost when we sneeze, develop a fever, or suffer a bump on the head as infants.

While in its mother’s womb, the infant’s brain has already made its best estimate of the mental circuitry it will need and mapped it out.  The newborn’s brain function, however, is like a telephone system with numerous phone sets – and lots of wiring that has to be hooked up for the system to run properly.  In the first years of life, the brain undergoes extraordinary changes producing a wondrous maze of synaptic connections – trillions more, in fact, than it will ever use.  Since the neural connections that are not used will be pruned and eliminated, a stimulating environment is critical for infants.  For several years, the brain continues to sculpt its circuitry with input from the environment leaving each of us with a unique brain.  Even between twins, no two human brains are ever exactly alike!

Thus, if a child is in a non-stimulating environment, the brain suffers.  Researchers at Baylor Medical School found that children who don’t play much, who are rarely touched and have little stimulation develop brains 20% to 30% smaller than normal for their age.  These findings increase concerns about leaving infants and very young children in the care of others.  The importance of hands-on parenting, cuddling, talking with a toddler and providing stimulating experiences are critical for developing a healthy brain.  This is why there is political debate about developing programs for boosting the brainpower of children born into impoverished rural and inner city households.  By the age of three, a neglected or abused child has a compromised brain development and bears deep cortical scars that are difficult to erase.

So, even if all goes well, as we move into adolescence and adulthood, our brain has been pruned to approximately 10 billion neurons and 100 billion glial cells and we have lost approximately one half of our synaptic connections – mostly from lack of use.  We reach the peak of our mental abilities in our 20’s and by age 30, our brain begins shrinking and, starting in our 40’s and 50’s, our brain shrinks by 2% in brain weight every decade.  Men lose brain tissue three times faster than women and by mid-life, men’s brains shrink t the same size as a women’s brains but one ratio remains the same – 10 glial cells for every single neuron.  This is what may have prompted psychologist William James at the turn of the century to state that we only use 10% of our brains.  I disagree with that statement and feel that we use 100% of our brains but perhaps – are only aware of 10% of our potential.  We have been limited by both our beliefs as to what we can achieve and by what I call the cultural trance – which are the cultural beliefs we subscribe to regarding the perennial puzzle of untapped human potential.

However, the good news is the brain is very malleable and can be molded by the environment.  For over 30 years, University of California Neuroanatomist, Marion Diamond has been researching the influence of environmental stimulation and its effect upon mammalian brains.  Her interest was aroused when she had the opportunity to study Albert Einstein’s brain in the 1960’s.  To her astonishment, she discovered that he had 75% more glial cells in his brain than the average person.  Of course, this led to the perennial question of how much does nature (or heredity) have to do with genius and how much does nurture (or the environment) contribute to intelligence.

To be continued…

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