It’s the most complex organ on earth – the human brain.
And our understanding of how it works is about to reach critical mass.
Our knowledge of the human brain grows by leaps and bounds almost every week. In just the last two weeks, researchers have made several new breakthroughs crucial to learning more about diseases that can cause mental illness or kill us outright.
I predict that in the near future our knowledge will become so complete we will find cures for such deadly diseases as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. The same holds for depression and schizophrenia.
And that’s one of the key benefits of living in the Era of Radical Change. What was a deep mystery about the brain (and other areas) just a few months ago is now much better understood.
Of course, the pace of change is nothing short of amazing. Consider that as I was preparing this report on five new brain secrets, I came across two more brand-new advances in brain science. Each one holds great promise in our drive to live, longer, healthier, and smarter lives.
Take a look…
Brain Secret No. 1: SuperAgers Have the Right Kind of “Senior Moments”
For decades, researchers have studied the brains of diseased older patients to see what went “wrong.” They focus on the origin of diseases, like Alzheimer’s, that cause memory loss or dementia.
But a team at Northwestern University took just the opposite approach – they’ve been studying the brains of highly alert seniors. And the results give hope to millions of aging Baby Boomers.
Turns out there’s an elite group of older folks called “SuperAgers” whose brains seem to defy the effects of aging. In fact, their brains match those of people 30 years younger.
Here’s the thing. They have a secret weapon in common: a much thicker cortex. That’s the outer part of the brain used in thinking, attention, and memory.
Team leader Emily Rogalski said she hopes to solve the puzzle as to why some people have such youthful brains. If we know more about the structure of their brain cells, we might be able to prevent such brain diseases as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.
And Rogalski just may get that chance. Most of the 12 SuperAgers in the study have agreed to donate their brains to science.
Brain Secret No. 2: The Eyes are Windows to Disease
In brain disease, symptoms often overlap. Methods to diagnose and track them remain pretty basic.
Yet diseases that cause the brain to break down have at least one key thing in common. They involve an excess buildup of sticky plaques of proteins called amyloids.
That’s why a team at the University of California at San Diegocame up with new fluorescent probes that change color depending on what type of protein they see. Small differences among the diseases reveal themselves with different colors emitted from the lights.
In the very near future, doctors could get a jump on brain diseases with a simple eye exam. That’s because amyloids build up not just in the brain, but in the retina and lens of the eye, too. Patients would simply receive eye drops that contain markers to help doctors spot things like Alzheimer’s.
Brain Secret No. 3: Scans Don’t Lie About Age
New, highly accurate brain scans can detect the age of most people to within about one year.
A team from the University of California at San Diego found that our brains appear to have a biological time clock. The team found that scans of 231 brain “biomarkers” allowed them to correctly predict the age of the subject 92% of the time.
Joined by researchers from nine other schools, the team scanned the brains of 885 people ranging in age from three to 20. Team members said their new approach works well beyond previous methods of biological measure.
Team leader Timothy Brown believes the process could someday help doctors find abnormalities in children or teens. He believes the interaction of these parts of the brain accounts for changes in how people develop psychologically. Said Brown, “We’re still figuring out exactly how.”
Brain Secret No. 4: The Hidden Plumber
Clearing waste out of the body is a crucial part of life. That duty falls largely to our lymphatic system. It’s a huge network of tubes that runs through the body and, among other things, drains waste from the major organs.
Now researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center have found a previously hidden network inside the brain they have dubbed the “glymphatic system.” They describe it as a shadow plumbing system that drains away waste products from the brain.
“This work shows that the brain is cleansing itself in a more organized way and on a much larger scale than has been realized previously,” said team leader Maiken Nedergaard. “We’re hopeful that these findings have implications for many conditions that involve the brain, such as traumatic brain injury, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, and Parkinson’s disease.”
This could be huge. Doctors have known for years that brain fluids bring nutrients in and then clean tissue inside that lies inside the skull. The newly discovered system works in tandem with the spinal fluid but is much more efficient.
And the study also revealed the glymphatic system cleans out half of a protein found in Alzheimer’s. That disease has one key thing in common with others targeting the brain – an excess buildup of waste proteins.
Brain Secret No. 5: These Two Key Regions Work Together
After decades of research, doctors thought two key regions of the brain worked apart from each other. They thought the hippocampus focused on memory, while the prefrontal cortex honed in on making decisions and avoiding inappropriate actions.
See, a team at McGill University has found that the two parts work in tandem. Not only that, they found that the prefrontal cortex can’t do its job without the help of the hippocampus. In layman’s terms, this implies that we can’t stop ourselves from harmful behaviors if we can’t access our memories. The two work as part of a reasoning system.
Now, researchers believe that connection – or lack of it – could explain mental problems like depression and schizophrenia. When they separated the two regions in rat brains, the animals couldn’t control compulsive disorders or bad actions.
It’s too early to invest in any of these advances. But taken together, they mean we are getting closer to the day when brain disease will be little more than a blip on the screen. Before long, living to 100 will become routine – and we’ll still be able to keep our wits about us.