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   Aug 05

Raise a glass! Drink doesn’t kill off brain cells: ‘Brain training’ puzzles are a waste of time. Men’s brains are bigger – but not brighter. The fascinating latest thinking about your grey matter

While researchers continue to demystify the workings of the brain, many myths persist about its structure and function. For instance many people think we use only ten per cent of our brains.

Last week, this notion was rejected by leading academics.

‘The idea of 90 per cent of the brain lying dormant does not stand up to analysis,’ said Barbara Sahakian, professor of clinical neuropsychology at the University of Cambridge.

In fact, the entire organ is in use all the time – just reading this article involves many different areas of your brain, such as the frontal and occipital lobes to see and understand, and the hippocampus to remember.

We separate the fact from fiction about the single most complex organ in our body

Meanwhile, as you read, the brain stem and cerebellum are helping you remain seated, breathing, circulating blood, and digesting your food, while the pituitary gland and hypothalamus regulate hormones, temperature and much more.

So, what other myths exist about the single most complex organ in our body? With the help of leading experts we separate the fact from fiction.

Social drinking is not going to destroy your brain

Though one tipple too many can make simple tasks such as walking and talking difficult, social drinking cannot cause permanent damage to the brain. ‘Alcohol cannot “kill” brain cells,’ explains Nick Davies, a consultant neurologist with University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Trust. ‘What it does is temporarily block brain cells from functioning properly.’

According to a 2012 study by Washington University, even when alcohol was applied directly to brain cells in a lab, it didn’t kill them. It just interfered with the way they fire off messages. This is why functions such as speech, co-ordination or judgment are affected when we drink. However, years of chronic alcohol abuse do increase the risk of permanent neurological damage, affecting memory. This is partly down to malnutrition in alcoholics, especially lack of vitamin B1 – found in cereal grains, beans, nuts, and meat – which keeps the nervous system healthy.

Social drinking cannot cause permanent damage to the brain

And alcohol itself can, with long-term abuse, stop the brain producing new cells – in healthy people new cells should continue to be produced in the hippocampus, a region associated with memories, learning and emotion, well into old age. This process is known as neurogenesis.

In a U.S. study involving rats, when blood alcohol levels were raised, nerve cells in the hippocampus were reduced by nearly 40 per cent. Long-term drinking could affect the brain’s ability to learn, researchers believe.

Do men’s big brains make them brighter?

Your brain’s size does not reflect how clever you are – Einstein’s brain weighed around 7oz less than the average human brain, which is about 3lb.

By comparison, the average whale’s brain can weigh upward of 20lb.

‘Everything is proportionate,’ explains Wojtek Rakowicz, consultant neurologist at the Royal Hampshire County Hospital in Winchester.

‘So if someone has a larger head, they will have a relatively larger brain, and bigger brain cells rather than more brain cells. But it is no reflection of intelligence. Women’s brains are smaller than men’s but that is no reflection of ability.’


The number of times per second your brain cells can fire signals to each other

Intelligence instead is thought to depend on how synapses – where signals pass from one nerve cell to another – interact in the brain, according to British researchers. Richard Emes, professor in bioinformatics at Keele University School of Medicine, points out that humans and fish have the same number of synapses and proteins within these synapses, but have very different cognitive abilities.

However, research suggests that improving your knowledge can increase the size of some parts of the brain. In a study of London taxi drivers – who must pass The Knowledge, a test assessing their familiarity with the capital’s streets – part of the hippocampus was larger than in non-taxi drivers.

The hippocampus is linked to memory and navigational skills. The University College London researchers believe the evidence could have important implications for people with brain damage or diseases such as Parkinson’s, who need to relearn skills.

‘Brain training’ isn’t worth it

For the average person, brain games or ‘training’ won’t make you any cleverer, as a 2010 study commissioned by the BBC discovered.

More than 8,600 people aged 18 to 60 were asked to play online brain games designed by the researchers to improve memory, reasoning and other skills for at least ten minutes a day, three times a week.

They were compared with more than 2,700 people who just spent a similar amount of time using the internet to find answers to general knowledge questions. Researchers said that after six weeks the brain training group did no better on tests measuring general cognitive abilities, such as memory reasoning and learning, than people who had simply been on the internet. On some sections of the tests, the internet users scored higher.

However, doing difficult puzzles such as crosswords, may help stave off the onset of Alzheimer’s. A recent U.S. study found people who played cards, draughts, crosswords or other puzzles were more likely to have greater volume in several brain regions involved in Alzheimer’s. They were also more likely to score higher on memory tests.

Previous research suggests that keeping the brain active may help boost ‘cognitive reserve’, allowing the brain to resist damage for longer. But it cannot prevent the disease developing.

A simple bump to the head, perhaps from banging it, will not cause a loss of brain cells

Don’t panic about a bump to the head

A simple bump to the head, perhaps from banging it, will not cause a loss of brain cells. ‘The brain is robust and encased by the skull, and made this way to withstand normal knocks in daily life,’ says Dr Rakowicz.

But a serious bang, usually one that leads to concussion or a blackout, may well damage brain cells or cause you to lose them, even if the skull remains intact. And the effect depends on which cells are damaged – some are more sensitive than others.

For example the brain stem, which connects the brain to the spine, contains many vital cells and controls functions such as breathing, so damaging even a small number could be catastrophic.

‘However, the brain is remarkably plastic and adept at compensating when cells are damaged,’ says Raj Kapoor, a consultant neurologist at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in London. This process, known as redundancy, allows people with head injuries to ‘recruit’ other parts of the brain to compensate for the lost tissue.

The truth about ‘pregnancy brain’

Colloquially known as pregnancy brain or ‘mumnesia’, many women experience memory lapses when expecting a baby. But there’s no evidence the brain changes its structure during pregnancy. Rather, a poorer memory may be down to changes in hormone levels.

‘There is 15 to 40 times more progesterone and oestrogen marinating the brain during pregnancy,’ according to Louann Brizendine, a doctor and director of the women’s mood and hormone clinic at the University of California, San Francisco. By childbirth, these hormones affect many brain cells, including those governing memory.

A 2010 study by the University of Bradford found that the performance of the hippocampus – which is linked to memory – in mothers-to-be may be compromised by an increase of hormones such as the stress hormone cortisol.

Right-brained or left? Doesn’t matter

For years it was a popular belief that your personality was defined by whether you were a right- or left-handed person – with the behaviour of right-handed people governed by the left side of the brain, and vice-versa.

The left side is where language, processing what we hear as well as carrying out mathematical computations, tends to occur. This is why right-handed people were thought more likely to be logical and analytical.

The right side is mainly in charge of spatial abilities, face recognition and processing music; it also makes sense of what we see. So the theory was that left-handed were more creative and artistic.

But a 2013 study by the University of Utah of more than 1,000 individual brains revealed no evidence that certain people were more likely to use either the left or right side of the brain. ‘We use the two pretty much equally. The two sides communicate with and complement each other – they work as a blend,’ he adds.

However, it is true that the right side of the brain controls the left side of the body and vice versa, so a right-brain injury can cause disability on the left side of the body.

Even standing on your head won’t cause blood to rush to the brain

Rush of blood to the head is no excuse

Even standing on your head won’t cause blood to rush to the brain. ‘The brain has an ability known as autoregulation, which controls the pressure and flow of blood around the body. So it can’t just be flooded with blood,’ says Roland Etti, consultant neurologist at BMI Priory Hospital in Birmingham.

However, stress can increase blood flow to the head – and this is a good thing. Researchers from the University of Southern California found that when healthy people were stressed or angry, the arteries in their neck grew wider and blood flow increased.

This helps the brain to work at its best in stressful situations. In contrast, the neck arteries of people with high blood pressure did not change – so people with high blood pressure may think less clearly than their healthier counterparts when under stress.

Are male and female brains different?

Anatomically, in fact, they are exactly the same. ‘If you put a female and male brain side by side you couldn’t tell them apart,’ says John Wadley, a brain surgeon at St Bartholomew’s and the Royal London hospitals.

‘The only difference is that the female brain might be, on average, 10 per cent smaller, because women tend to be smaller than men.’

However, in 2013 researchers at the University of Pennsylvania scanned the brains of 949 young men and women, and found striking differences in how they are wired.

Women were found to have far better connections between the left and right sides of the brain, which may explain why women tend to do better at intuitive tasks.

Meanwhile, men display more intense activity within the brain’s individual parts, especially in the cerebellum, which controls motor skills.

The men also had better connections between the front and back of the brain, said to give them a better ability to quickly perceive information and use it immediately to carry out complex tasks. The suggestion is that they are, therefore, better at learning to swim or parking a car, for example, while women are better at remembering a face.

Other studies support such findings – German research found that, in driving tests, men were better at parallel parking, with scientists concluding that their brains can process the changing position and speed of a car quicker than women’s.

But such findings about parking remain controversial – indeed, Germaine Greer, the feminist writer, said of the ‘pointless’ German study: ‘You must remember that women also have bosoms, which makes it very difficult to turn around.’

Your brain is grey

Though popularly referred to as grey matter, the brain tends to be mixture of grey and creamy off-white, says neurosurgeon John Wadley. The white part is the myelin, the insulating sheath that forms around nerves.

The grey matter is the tissue containing nerve cells in the cerebral cortex – or outer layer. There is also a black component called the substantia nigra, a dark stripe in the brain stem involved in eye movement and learning.

For a clever baby, play classical music

Classical music won’t make a difference to the development of your child’s intelligence
This myth came about because of the beginnings of a study by the University of California, in 1993. It reported enhanced performance in spatial reasoning among students after exposure to Mozart’s music. However, the full study showed no significant result. And a 2010 review of more than 40 studies found no proof that listening to the composer’s work could boost brain power.

‘If you like classical music, there’s likely no harm in playing it for your child,’ adds Dr Kapoor. ‘But it won’t make a difference to the development of their intelligence.’

Can you really feed your brain?

There is such a thing as brain food, research suggests. Children who were breastfed at six months and had a healthy diet regularly, including foods such as legumes, cheese, fruit and vegetables at 15 and 24 months, had an IQ up to two points higher by age eight, according to a 2013 study by the University of Adelaide. Youngsters who had a diet involving biscuits, chocolate, sweets, soft drinks and chips in the first two years of life had IQs up to two points lower by the age of eight.

However, there are no such thing as ‘brain tonics, says Dr Wojtek Rakowicz. ‘There’s no evidence that so-called brain foods can boost intelligence,’ he adds. This includes fish oils.

It’s all downhill with age

When you reach your 70s, it’s true that brain signals slow down and thinking processes may not be as fast. But decades of experience and wisdom mean that for some this is a ‘golden period’ for the brain, says Professor Paul Matthews, head of brain sciences at Imperial College London. ‘It can be a time of extraordinary mental ability,’ he says.

‘While the brain may not be as fast, it is very good at making considered decisions. Slower thinking can lead to more accurate judgments, less influenced by emotion or short-term impressions. It’s why many High Court judges are in their 70s.’

However, memory is becoming much poorer by this age. ‘It’s part of healthy ageing that our memory for people’s names that we don’t use regularly declines and we struggle to recall them,’ says Professor Rob Howard, consultant in old age psychiatry at King’s College, London.

‘It is likely that the brain networks that we use to carry nerve cells and connections are reduced. The process is gradual.’

Source: Daily Mail

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