Thursday, May 19, 2011

Getting My Brain Back -- Neuroplasticity and Friends.

No, You Don't Already Have All Your Brain Cells

When we were kids they told us we already had all the brain cells we ever would have, that these brain cells would die off over the course of our lifetime, and if we killed them off early, we'd go senile.

Bummer.

I doubt this warning ever really kept anybody home from the kegger.

And as it happens, it is not true.  For those who survived the drive home, our brains were already hard at work, repairing the damage. 

Neuroplasticity

Neuroplasticity is the vocabulary word for the day.  It refers to the brain's ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. Neuroplasticity allows the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment.

BDNF

Think of neuroplasticity as the road repair function inside your head.  BDNF is the crew, a protein that helps the brain grow new brain cells and new connections between the brain cells.  BDNF is one of my very favorite brain things, even if I can never remember whether the D or the N comes first.  I will be writing more about it in the weeks to come. 

Epigenetics

Okay, one more vocabulary word for the day, epigenetics.  This word is about the nature/nurture debate.  Do you have a mental illness because you lost the genetic roll of the dice, or because a hurricane happened later?

Answer: Yes.

Evidently there are on/off switches installed in your genes.  After your DNA was poured, it still wasn't set.  Experiences after conception and into your life can determine which way the genes express themselves.

A few paragraphs above, I said your brain was already at work, repairing the damage you did to it at the kegger.  BDNF was patching holes.  Epigenetics means that unfortunately, the brain was also already at work, setting that damage in place.  Some of the substances consumed that night turned the switch in the direction you did not want it to go, especially if your roll of the genetic dice was already iffy.

Good News/Bad News

So your brain isn't finished forming.  And you have some control over what happens next.  Not absolute control.  But some control.

I tend to write about the bad news, how things go from bad to worse.  That's because I started this research trying to figure out what the hell happened.

But last month, I wrote a book report.  You may not have noticed.  But that was rather extraordinary.  Something new is happening.  I will be writing more about that in my new series, Getting My Brain Back.

Meanwhile, May is graduation month.  And graduation makes me think of Shel Silverstein.  Poetry, inspiration, you know.  Listen to the mustn't's, child; listen to the don't's...  But that poem isn't about neuroplasticity.  This one is.  Sort of.  Enjoy.



photo of Oktgoberfest at Fort Benning by Donna Hyatt, a US Army employee, and in the public domain
photo of sink hole by FEMA employee and in the public domain
flair by facebook

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