One of the most impressive artifacts of an evolved human brain, is its ability to adapt to complex scenarios in real-time. The squishy organ only accounts for 2% of our total body weight (3 pounds). Yet it contains more than 80 million cells and is responsible for roughly 20% of our daily energy and oxygen expenditure.
Most experts would agree that there is still a lot to know about the many functions of the brain, but the little we do know rarely fails to astonish.
Sleep: A neurological rest stop
“When you sleep, your brain’s glymphatic (waste clearance) system clears out waste from the central nervous system. It removes toxic byproducts from your brain, which build up throughout the day. This allows your brain to work well when you wake up. Research suggests that sleep contributes to memory function by converting short-term memories into long-term memories, as well as by erasing, or forgetting, unneeded information that might otherwise clutter the nervous system.
Researchers began uncovering the correlative relationship between sleep and brain function relatively recently. What they found is that without sleep, our ability to process new information, retain memory and solve problems suffer dramatically.
A researcher from the University of Chicago by the name of Allan Rechtschaffen conducted a study on rat models in order to determine how long an organism can survive with sleep deprivation. Every single one of the rats featured in the report died by day 32 of analysis.
Although total sleep deprivation (TSD) was suspected to be the cause of their deterioration, the exact mechanisms have never been uncovered.
“All TSD rats showed a debilitated appearance, lesions on their tails and paws, and weight loss in spite of increased food intake,” the authors wrote in the report.
We can surmise that a debilitated immune system was a prominent factor, given the brain releases proteins called cytokine which is integral to the prevention of infectious diseases. Moreover, previously conducted research has shown that sleep deprivation induces hypermetabolism and severe weight loss.
Fatal insomnia in humans is incredibly rare. Researchers believe those who develop the condition do so by reason of a gene mutation that affects brain function. Death typically occurs 6 months after the onset of symptoms. A man named Michael Corke belongs to one of the most famous cases of fatal insomnia.
“Doctors were baffled by Corke’s condition and he was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, even though insomnia is not a symptom of MS. Nobody understood why he couldn’t sleep, or why sleeping pills and barbiturates made it worse. Tragically, Michael Corke died in hospital after six months of total sleep deprivation,” health reporter, Rebecca Turner adds.
“Michael Corke’s condition was caused by prion disease. However, it may not be the only cause of total sleeplessness.”
Our brain undergoes changes to protect us from future stressors
Neuroplasticity, also known as neural plasticity, or simply brain plasticity, denotes the process by which neural networks in the brain change through growth and reorganization.
Plasticity has been studied to reduce one’s risk of developing mental disorders that occur on behalf of prolonged stress.
When we experience a traumatic incident, our brain re-programs receptors in the amygdala (the part of the brain that regulates emotion). This in combination with the release of cortisol slows down brain activity, so that we can effectively devise a resolution to the situation at hand.
“The brain gets help from other organs to calm you down when you face scary or sad stressful situations. The stress–response system is the name of the team of superheroes in your body that is led by the brain to combat stress. The stress–response system takes action by speeding up your heartbeat to increase blood flow, speeding up your breathing to take in more oxygen, and slowing your digestion to store away fat and sugar for energy,” psychologists from the University of North Carolina explain.
“The brain fights stress every single day. Whether an enormous bear is chasing you or you see a small spider in your room, the brain and the body are ready and equipped to deal with the stress.”
Coffee affects the brain in a matter of minutes
Caffeine enters the bloodstream about ten minutes after consumption. Twenty minutes after consumption, caffeine binds to a brain chemical called adenosine, which neutralizes fatigue by increasing our energy production. This process dually causes dopamine levels to increase.
Over the course of 6 hours, chlorogenic acids (CGAs), cafestol and kahweol, and trigonelline found in caffeine allow us to retain focus and memory, in addition to impacting neurotransmitters that may improve mood and reaction time.
Power of Positivity recently published a detailed analysis of all of the changes coffee begets in brain function hours after consumption.
Within 30 minutes: The adrenal glands kick into high gear and produce more hormones. Our pupils dilate and may sharpen vision for a short time.
Within 40 minutes: The body produces more serotonin, which improves the functioning of neurons within the spinal cord called motoneurons. This leads to improved muscle strength and coordination.
Within four hours: Cellular metabolism increases, which initiates the expedited burning of energy. The body will break down stored fats as a result. Levels of acid within the stomach increase.
Within six hours: Caffeine produces a diuretic effect, promoting the act of urination. During this time, approximately half of the caffeine consumed earlier is expelled. (This is called a drug’s half-life — or the amount of time needed for its chemical presence in the blood to drop to 50%.)
Your brain is shrinking
When we’re born our brains spend about a year tripling in size. Once we hit middle age, however, it begins to shrink over time. Injuries, illness, alcohol abuse can expedite the process.
“A bigger brain doesn’t mean anything. Physical size hasn’t been found to have any significant correlation with higher intelligence. In general, research has only found brain size to be responsible for around 10 percent of intelligence variability, Ask the Scientists adds.
Research indicates that we can delay brain shrinkage through a balanced diet and regular exercise.
“While many of the causes behind brain decline may not be avoidable, there is some evidence that certain lifestyle changes may help protect the brain from age-based declines. Regular exercise is one factor that may help protect the brain from shrinkage as people grow older,” says Kendra Cherry, MS
“There are plenty of great reasons to stay physically fit. Aside from being good for your physical health, regular exercise has been shown that it can improve cognitive functioning.2 And, as if you needed one more reason to hit the gym, one study has shown that being fit can help minimize the inevitable brain shrinkage that stems from the aging process.”
We can will dramatic neurological challenges
Paul Bach-y-Rita and Michael Merzenich are widely regarded as prominent voices in neuroplasticity. Through extensive research, the two men discovered that it can be possible to overcome shortcomings caused by impaired brain function with will and targeted therapy regimens.
Even in instances where damage is too great to be wholly solved via will power, determination and behavioral course corrections reliably lessen symptoms associated with mental decline. Psychologist William James refers to this phenomenon as the mind-cure movement
“For many years, the consensus was that the human brain couldn’t generate new cells once it reached adulthood. Once you were grown, you entered a state of neural decline
Merzenich, meanwhile, helped to confirm in the late 1960s that the brain contains ‘maps’ of the body and the outside world, and that these maps have the ability to change,” Will Storr wrote in a paper on the Merzenich’s impact on neurological research.
“Next, he co-developed the cochlear implant, which helped deaf people hear. This relies on the principle of plasticity, as the brain needs to adapt to receive auditory information from the artificial implant instead of the cochlea (which, in the deaf person, isn’t working). In 1996 he helped establish a commercial company that produces educational software products called Fast ForWord for “enhancing the cognitive skills of children using repetitive exercises that rely on plasticity to improve brain function,” according to their website. As Doidge writes, “In some cases, people who have had a lifetime of cognitive difficulties get better after only 30 to 60 hours of treatment.”