The brain is a remarkable organ. Although it makes up only about 2% of body weight, it controls everything about it – how we breath, how our hearts beat, what we see and hear, and, importantly, how we think. This latter process of thought, scientifically known as cognition, can vary widely from person to person and influence so many aspects of our lives: the impressions we give off, our hobbies, our ability to study, our choice of profession, the list can go on and on. But can we really increase our "brain power?"

Did You Know?
Cognition
comes from the Latin word cognoscere, meaning “to become acquainted with”

So what does your brain need to work properly? Two things are really quite crucial –glucose (which is a type of sugar molecule) and oxygen. Neurons, the brain cells responsible for processing and distributing information,use glucose as their preferred energy source. In fact, when glucose levels in the blood fall below critical level, (or hypoglycemia) the brain is the organ that suffers the most. This is the reason why people with hypoglycemia (which can occur in people with diabetes) may feel faint, get headaches, vision disturbances, confusion or even seizures.

Did You Know?
Although for a very long time scientist thought that neurons can only use glucose as an energy source, in recent years it was found that during intense exercise they can also use lactate, a molecule that is generated by working muscle cells.

Oxygen is needed for many cell processes, and brain cells are particularly vulnerable to even temporary oxygen shortages. They can begin to die within 5 minutes of oxygen supply cut-off. Reduction of oxygen supply to the brain is called cerebral hypoxia and it can manifest as memory loss, poor judgment or loss of coordination. Long-term cerebral hypoxia can lead to permanent brain damage and death.

And how does brain get its glucose and oxygen? – the same way as any other organ, from blood! Blood flow to the brain is really quite abundant, as much as 75ml of blood / 100 g of neurons / minute. What’s more, the blood vessels of the brain can regulate the rate of blood flow through them, a process called autoregulation.

Did You Know?
While brain only makes up 2% of total body weight, it receives 20% of body’s resting oxygen and blood flow.

Increased blood flow to different areas of the brain is often used as an indication of increased neuronal activity in that area. So when the blood flow to the frontal lobe (a region responsible for such higher functions as cognition, creativity, etc.) is increased, it might indicate that the activity in which a person is engaged can increase his or hers “brain power”. And this is the basis for most “brain training” exercises.

Nintendo DS BrainTraining, for example, promises to increase your brain capacity through a series of exercises that stimulate the flow of blood to the prefrontal cortex. The exercises are said to be inspired by the work of a prominent Japanese neuroscientist Dr. Kawashima. According to many experts, however, simple daily activities, such as reading, surfing the net or socializing, can produce the same increases in blood flow. Even Dr. Kawashima himself has published studies that show improved cognition due to something as simple as reading out loud or solving simple math problems on a regular basis.

So should you train your brain or not? Well, why not? There is definitely no harm in it and you can have fun doing it, whether you play Nintendo Brain Training games or chat with your friends. But don’t expect 100% on your next test after spending some quality time with your Nintendo, you’d be better off reading your textbook out loud!

Learn more!!

Brain facts:

http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/facts.html

Brain physiology: http://www.hydroassoc.org/education_support/learning/brain-physiology/

Education and Alzheimer’s disease:

http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/news/fullstory_74939.html

Inna is an MD/PhD student at the University of British Columbia,completing her research in infectious diseases. In her free time she likes to read good books, eat delicious food and enjoy beautiful scenery.

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