We would like to think that we live in an age of scientific enlightenment. After all, compared to earlier generations of our species, we are all so much more knowledgeable and well-informed. We (collectively) are so smart; we must know nearly everything, right?
Well, let’s hope not. Although the advances of science have been tremendous during the past decade, I hope that researchers are pleasantly surprised by what may be uncovered about human function within the next few years. There are simply too many problems that we face as mortals that are unacceptable. If science were really as far advanced as we would like to believe, diabetes would no longer exist, Alzheimer’s disease would not take our loved ones away prematurely, and cancer would be something we tell our children about that occurred “in the old days.” There are hundreds if not thousands of other examples that illustrate that there is still much to be learned about how our body actually works.
One of the most exciting frontiers of medical science is the field of neurology. Neurology concerns the body’s nervous system: the brain, spinal cord, and nerves that transmit signals throughout our body to enable the billions (trillions?) of daily functions. At the very apex of the nervous system is our brain. The thing that most distinctly makes us unique from all other animals is the functioning of our brain. Unfortunately, compared to many other body parts, the brain is perhaps the least understood. This is not due to lack of interest or ability of brain researchers … it is due to the incredible complexity of this amazing structure.
The brain functions without obvious movement, so mechanically it is inert. Unlike the heart, where we can watch as fluids are pumped into and out of the structure or a joint that pivots about an axis that is easily observed, the brain appears to just sit there. Only in the last few years have instruments been created that can visualize, measure and record some of the functional activities of the brain. Interestingly, some of the misconceptions held by generations of previous researchers and health care specialists have been discarded.
One of the most promising discoveries about the brain and nervous system is that there exists a much greater amount of plasticity than previously thought. Our nervous system, particularly the brain, has enormous capability to adapt to changing circumstances. This single finding could possibly lead to profound improvements in the treatment of emotional and mental illness conditions.
It was once considered factual that tissue healing in the brain, spine and nervous system was practically nonexistent. Recent cases have shown unprecedented healing responses that have opened new opportunities for people with spinal cord and brain injuries.
New imaging techniques can show brain activity in real time to illustrate what parts of the brain are active during various phases of mental function. As more capable instruments for observation evolve, even more will be learned about how the brain functions.
In spite of all of this intense dedication to furthering the science of neurology, there are profound mysteries about the brain that elude explanation. There is still little known about how the brain creates emotion, for example. Emotions are affected by an extraordinary variety of chemical functions within the body and brain. Although it is obvious how certain components of our body’s chemistry affect emotion, how emotions originate within the brain is still a mystery.
Although much work is being carried out to learn more about how memory works in the brain, how the brain creates an image of the future is still unfathomable. Imagination is one of the most elusive concepts of brain function.
The brain is thought by some to be able to store more information than a hundred sets of encyclopedia. Yet, accessing that information is often so difficult that our lives are disrupted by our inability to recall the facts that we need in a timely manner.
Although there are many unanswered questions about human mental functioning, recent research has uncovered important keys to preventing mental decline.
Next week: Steps you can take now to preserve your mental functioning in years to come.
Dr. Mark Kestner