The Twitter: Nurture your Nature!
The Big Idea: Neuro-Plasticity is critical to neurogenesis (But when and how?)
Allow me to start with a question: How many of you really believe that “exercise” can change your brain? How many of you have already adapted yourselves to a non-fast food diet of low fat, low sugar, low volume eating lifestyle? And how many of you take a nap to replenish memory of all those nifty concepts and technical skills you learned in the early a.m.?
Well if you were a fly on the wall in any of the Neuroscience 2008 sessions (rather than submitted to a lab of brain probe research!), you would detect a consistent pattern in neuroscience research: Nature and Nurture are inextricably linked — so much so as to push us to think why did we ever think otherwise? Or to put it another way, news from the brain labs reinforces what we’ve learned from cardiac research and training grounds, namely: Lifestyle can make or break one’s future in obtaining a clear mind and good and healthy longevity!
Having the opportunity to meet and listen to neuroscientists who are paving the way to our understanding of both the normal and diseased brain and body has pointed up to some insights worth sharing:
1. Scaling the practice of Brain Mapping: When it comes to neuroscience as a research area of biotechnology, the bio here means both neuroanatomical, neurochemical and neurogenetic levels of inquiry and analysis. For the lay reader, this means brain research is scaled and mapped from the macro to the micro levels of network analysis.
2. Neuro-Plasticity, like comedy is all about timing! Different levels of circuit analysis open doors to understanding the phenomenon of neuro-plasticity — best periods, best practices, and the conditions when “too much plasticity” appears implicated as in cases of schizophrenia. Given the trendiness that has brought neuro-plasticity into critical mass awareness, scientists at this conference were quite clear if not humble in making claims for the play-doh capacity of the brain. Today’s press conference on the developing brain drove home this message in this way:
Animal studies, such as the songbird studies run by Dr. Allison Doupe (see previous blog), point to a critical period for neuro-plasticity to express itself in learning and memory.
Dr. Takao Hench* reinforces Doupe’s perspective, noting if the critical period is disturbed in embryonic development, then plasticity is interrupted. Hench studies proteins in embryonic head development, finding their importance in developing visual function and spinal chord development.
No doubt, the evidence for embryonic and childhood neuro-plasticity opens new doors to asking how and when new neuronal landscapes are formed in later periods of life. The aging brain question on the table? Does the brain recapitulate earlier strategies for neuroplasticity in the adult stage and to what degree? (All you meditators out there: Think cultivating beginner’s mind.)
3. Nurture your Nature: With the advent of genetics, neuroscience has leaped into a new age of epigenetic studies: This may be one of the areas that speaks directly to how we as non-scientists can make sense of brain science in terms of our own daily lives. To give you a quick brief, think of the old nature/nurture argument, seemingly put to rest by the genome mapping project and the insights scientists have had regarding the role “environment” plays in shaping the genetic expression.
At Neuroscience 2008, several scientists were on hand to discuss their epigenetic research highlighting the effects of lifestyle and cultural habit on the brain as seen at the level of genetic expression. Let’s be clear here, the expression is not seen at the level of change in DNA structure but in the level of “gene expression.” For you genomic neophytes out there, I came to understand this by way of a great explanation offered by Dr. Quincy LaPlant who noted his use of microray analysis to distinguish between DNA sequence and sequence organization.
The long and short of this: The implications of lifestyle cannot be under-estimated: Stress, early childhood abuse and neglect, high-fat diets all manifest as modifers the brain at the level of genetic organization, the level of brain function, and the level of human experience!!!!!
Epigenetics — keep your eye on that term!
Until then, conference tip for brain fitness: “We remember to sleep so that we can sleep to remember!” (William Fishbein)
*Children’s Hospital Boston, Harvard University