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Food for thought: the brain’s elasticity

health-and-fitness Updated: Jan 14, 2012 22:45 IST
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No contest, the brain is by far the most adaptable part of the human body. It’s play-doh like plasticity enables new learnings — some even to take over functions lost to accidents or age — till the day it permanently shuts down, while its inbuilt positioning system helps you deal with current emergencies by routing thoughts and responses through its 100 billion neurons (cells that send and receive electro-chemical signals to and from the brain and nervous system) for maximum alertness. It’s actually quite like traffic control. In a crisis, this NatSav-like ability of the brain helps it reconfigure its neural pathways to help you concentrate by minimising distractions and making the most of learnings from situations in the past.

Though it seems like it, the brain doesn’t drop everything to rev up to deal with an emergency. Instead, it goes into its super-computing mode, changing how information moves through its existing hard-wired neural network to maximise efficiency. This re-routing helps it to process sensory information relevant to the current situation as fast as possible and reduce external distractions to maximise efficiency. The findings, proven using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study brain activity, were published in the Journal of Neuroscience this week.

However, the brain’s ability to adapt to achieve maximum alertness is not determined by the current crisis alone. Your past experiences, and what you’ve learned from them, also determine how you respond to a crisis. That physical and emotional trauma alters the way the brain responds to situations is well established. An extreme form is post-traumatic stress syndrome — a severe anxiety disorder symptoms of which include flashbacks, nightmares and nervous breakdowns — which occurs after exposure to extreme psychological trauma, such as war or natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis.

New data shows that even smaller acts of violence can get embedded in the brain. A UK study released last month showed that children’s exposure to violence — whether getting beaten or watching others being battered — at home alters the way their brain detects and responds to perceived physical and psychological threats.

When faced with a threat, the brains of children from violent homes function like those of combat soldiers, displaying higher activity in the anterior insula and amygdala, parts of the brain involved in threat perception and anticipation of pain. While this neural adaptation helps them survive in threatening and dangerous situations, the constant state of alertness increases their chances of developing mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression, disorders soldiers in combat zones have to battle as much as the enemy.

Sometimes, just navigating bizzare news stories and statements can tax the brain in ways that just stop short of violence. For me, the mind-numbing news of the week was the alleged discovery of medicinal kevlar-like properties of cow excreta that insulates people from killer poisonous gases, nuclear radiation, criminal impulses and high blood pressure by the Madhya Pradesh government’s Cow Protection and Conservation Board. The bovine board could swing India a Nobel or two and sundry other scientific awards, provided, of course, that its claims can withstand scientific scrutiny. If it does, these bovine excreta-crusaders would do the nation and its cows a great service. India’s cows would finally be better fed and watered to generate more raw material for medicinal purposes. And if the claims are proved wrong, they can blame it on the elusive foreign hand that mysteriously sabotages all of India’s attempts to greatness.

If this is not fodder enough for thought, I suggest you harness the NatSa powers of your brain and go for a less challenging visit to the virtual world of Farmville and Cow Clicker.