Grey matter: six mind-blowing facts about the brain

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Grey matter: six mind-blowing facts about the brain

The powerhouse organ that controls and co-ordinates every function in the body, our brain has more than 100 billion nerve cells capable of generating an average of 70,000 daily thoughts. But there is still a great deal we don’t know about this incredible supercomputer

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Brain power

If your brain was a computer it would have the capacity to store 2.5 million gigabytes of information. So says Paul Reber, Professor of Psychology at Northwestern University, Illinois. That’s the equivalent of approximately 300 years of your favourite television show. A 2018 Columbia University study found that even in old age, new brain cells are still being formed and a decline in mental ability and memory could be attributed to a communication breakdown between brain cells rather than a drop off in new neuron production. That’s good news for scientists studying the causes of dementia. Taking good care of our grey matter is a lifelong commitment with sleep, exercise and a balanced diet paramount in supporting mental longevity.


Food for thought

Healthy mind, healthy body so the saying goes, but the brain is actually made up of around 60 per cent fat. That’s not carte blanche to fuel up on our favourite fat-filled treats, as neuroscientist Lisa Mosconi points out, with what we eat directly affecting our cognitive capabilities. Brain-boosting foods include oily omega-3 rich fish for its anti-inflammatory properties, dark leafy greens packed with essential vitamins, minerals and fibre and low glycaemic load (GL) complex carbohydrates. Add to that, the antioxidant benefits of fresh berries and plenty of water, which helps to form proteins and absorb nutrients.


Use it or lose it

As well as eating the right mix of brain boosting nutrients, our brain needs physical stimulation to keep it in tip-top shape. Dr Brett Wingeier, co-founder of US firm Halo Neuroscience, points out that a healthy cardiovascular system means ‘better plumbing for the brain’. It may only account for three per cent of total body weight, but the brain is the recipient of around 30 per cent of blood pumped by the heart. Sign up for a new exercise class or change your workouts and your brain is hard at work to learn new movements and control corresponding muscle response. Aerobic exercise in particular has a positive effect on brain function. Scientists at the University of Georgia found that even a brief 20-minute burst of exercise supports information processing and memory function with UCLA research revealing that physical exertion helps forge new neuronal connections more easily. It is also an essential support mechanism in releasing a wealth of hormones required to provide a nourishing environment for brain cell growth.​


Light bulb moment

When it comes to man versus machine, the brain wins with the ability to generate anywhere from 10 to 25 watts of power – enough energy to power a low wattage light bulb – when we are awake. This process uses hundreds of billions of nerve cells, making our brain speedier than the world’s fastest supercomputer, according to Stanford University scientists. Information relayed from the brain to our limbs can travel at speeds in excess of 430 kilometres per hour. The brain lights up our world in other ways too. Every time we blink, neurons kick in to keep everything illuminated so we’re not momentarily plunged into darkness around 20,000 times each day.​



Pain point

If you’re a headache or migraine sufferer it may be reassuring to know that it’s not actually your brain that’s feeling the pain. The brain does not contain any of the sensory nerve fibres, called nociceptors, that transmit pain signals. These are found in our skin, muscles, joints, and some organs, where they transmit pain signals from the periphery to the brain. And that’s why brain surgery can be performed while a patient is awake. That’s not to say that headaches are a figment of our imagination. They are caused by the pain receptors housed in the surrounding tissue and blood vessels that form a protective shield between the brain and skull. Increases in blood flow can also trigger migraines, which are considered vascular headaches. Conversely, brain freeze – that shooting pain we get when tucking into a bowl of ice cream or crunching on an ice cube – is caused by the cooling of sinus capillaries by a cold stimulus, which results in a narrowing of the blood vessels. This is swiftly followed by a warm stimulus, such as air, which widens the blood vessels once more creating a highly unpleasant sensation.


A beautiful mind

The idea that we only use 10 per cent of our brain is a myth. The human brain is a powerhouse organ that’s hard at work 24 hours a day. An intricate nerve-based network that co-ordinates all our thoughts, behaviour, emotions, movement and sensations, it’s a one-stop shop for interpreting, planning, organising and problem solving the mundane to the miraculous. Barry Gordon, a neurologist at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine dispels the myth, remarking that ‘although it’s true that at any given moment, all the brain’s regions are not concurrently firing, imaging technology shows that, like the body’s muscles, most are continually active over a 24-hour period’. The brain also consumes 20 per cent of our body’s energy, and even when we are asleep, vital areas like the frontal cortex, which controls various functions such as higher-level thinking and self-awareness, are active. A study published in Nature Neuroscience journal suggested that an individual’s brain activity may be just as unique as fingerprints, further reinforcing the incredible capacity of our grey matter.


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  • Medical