Brain Health

This week Professor Sabina Brennan from the Neuro-Enhancement for Independent Lives (NEIL) Research Programme in the Institute of Neuroscience at Trinity College Dublin asks us to consider our brain health. 

We all know people who are really resilient; people who seem to manage to ‘keep on keepin’ on’, no matter what life throws at them. Our brain has the capacity for resilience too, provided we give it a helping hand by living a brain healthy lifestyle. 

People tend to associate Multiple Sclerosis with physical symptoms, pain and fatigue. But about 60% of people with MS experience difficulties with cognitive functions needed to communicate, plan, remember and make decisions. So how come 40% of people with MS don't experience cognitive symptoms? It seems that these individuals have some sort of resilience that allows them to tolerate more disease in their brain than others while showing no cognitive symptoms.

Scientists believe that their resilience, in the face of MS disease pathology, is linked to their behaviours, life experiences and life choices. It seems that the brain has an inbuilt, but finite, resource, which scientists call neurological reserve. This reserve allows the brain to retain function by reorganizing itself to compensate for brain atrophy and loss of nerve cells and nerve fibers. The brain does this by rerouting communication pathways to avoid damaged areas. It can also adapt undamaged areas to take on functions that were once carried out by areas now damaged by disease.

This really is pretty fantastic; unfortunately, it just can’t keep pace with disease activity. Eventually Neurological Reserve is exhausted and cognitive deficits become apparent.

But that's not the end of the story.

Neurological reserve has two components:

  1. Brain reserve which refers to the size of the brain 
  2. Cognitive reserve, which is the ability to actively compensate and to make more effective and efficient use of brain networks.

Our lifetime experiences can increase cognitive reserve and help to maintain brain reserves. This gives us a better chance to hang onto cognitive function if life throws us a curve ball in the shape of disease or injury. All other things being equal, people with Multiple Sclerosis with a high cognitive reserve lose less cognitive function than those with less cognitive reserve for the same amount of brain lesions and atrophy.

Give your brain a helping hand by maximising your brain health

We all brush our teeth everyday but most of us never spare a thought for our brains. How crazy is that? Of course dental health is super important because we need our teeth to eat, speak and smile but we need our brain for absolutely everything. Brain health really is a precious resource. 

It allows us to think, to feel, to plan, to love, to laugh and to remember - all the important stuff – and, yes, some of the not so important stuff too! The human brain is actually the most complex structure in the universe and most of us carry it around in our skull without giving it a second thought. But here’s the thing. Our brain is constantly changing and what shapes it is our behaviours, our experiences, and the lifestyle choices that we make. What we do or don’t do, influences how well it functions and even how resilient it can be when faced with challenges such as ageing, injury or disease. 

One of the big things we can do to help our brains is to adopt a brain-healthy lifestyle. 

That means looking after our heart health, honest and moderate alcohol intake, not smoking, managing stress and mood, ensuring we get enough sleep and keep physically, mentally and social active.  Adopting a brain healthy lifestyle is like investing in brain capital- not only do these choices help to keep our brain healthy now, but these choices also build cognitive reserves that can be cashed-in at some point in the future. And we may very well need those reserves to cope with, or compensate for, disease, damage or decline. 

In fact, scientific research suggests that a brain healthy lifestyle can delay the onset of symptoms in some diseases that affect cognitive functions like memory and attention. Everyone with a brain needs to consider brain health just as everyone with teeth needs to consider dental health.  

So next time you brush your lovely pearly whites, use it as a daily reminder to pay some attention to your amazing brain.

Check out the brilliant Hello Brain website and keep an eye out for 'Hello Brain for MS' website launching this month. For Twitter users, follow Professor Brennan