On the Brain

“Monday Musings” for Monday January 4, 2016

Volume VI, No. 1/261

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On the Brain and Behavior

By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, ScD (Hon), DLFAPA*

 

 Brain and Behavior, Part I

 “As humans we can identify galaxies light years away, we can study particles smaller than the atom, but we still haven’t unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears,” President Obama said at the White House in a recent press conference. Obama announced that he will seek $100 million for brain research in the budget he is presenting to the Congress. The research proposal includes approximately $40 million for research at the National Institutes of Health, $50 million at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and $20 million for the National Science Foundation. We have precedence. Scholarship and literature about the brain expanded rapidly, thanks to a federally funded $2 billion-per-year research effort organized by Congress in 1990 dubbed “The Decade of the Brain.” Mind/brain” exploration has also been driven by advances in basic knowledge and by new imaging and biochemical technology. This knowledge and technology allow scientists to watch the brain as it orchestrates the functions of life. Here are a few considerations:

Brain is not just as an organ of mentation, perception, cognition, and memory, but is a marvelous, even mysterious, complex structure. This structure is responsible for our rich repertoire of feelings, such as anger, jealousy, hatred, love, fear, hostility, sadness, compassion, generosity, kindness, guilt, pleasure, altruism, peace and joy. Traditionally, science has been more concerned with understanding mechanisms than with appreciating personal meanings. However, to understand the brain in totality, we must pay attention to both. As a consequence of this attention, we have learned that the brain is also responsible for our complex spiritual and cosmological pursuits. When an outfielder leaps up to snag a fly ball, we admire the ballet-like performance and ponder it. The moment the ball is hit, the outfielder’s brain begins to receive visual inputs. The eye tracks the ball; the brain computes its trajectory. Within milliseconds, millions of instructions are flashed to hundreds of muscles, telling each the exact degree of tension or relaxation required to move the body to the spot where the ball will descend. A flood of signals feeds back to the brain indicating whether each muscle is responding correctly. Finally, in a flurry of rapid-fire calculations that would outstrip the most powerful computer, the brain orders muscles to propel the body upward and extend the arm. Gloved hand and baseball arrive at exactly the same point at the same time. On the other hand, take the case of Rajang Srinivasen Mahadevan, a native of Mangalore, India, who manages to remember the first 31,811 digits of the number pi. This feat is achieved through the function of hippocampus and amygdala (please see my review of the book by psychiatrist and Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel which appeared in this space two years ago), two anatomically small portions of the limbic system and nucleus ceruleus.

What part of the brain is responsible for the sudden and overwhelming feelings of warmth and spirituality that sweep one’s soul when listening to a favorite composer? Does the brain contain the soul? What goes wrong with the dopamine and acetylcholine neurotransmitting systems in the brain of an Alzheimer’s patient with no memory, feelings, or personality, producing the unwelcome transformation of a person into a human object? What happens to the brain’s indoleamine and serotonin system in clinically depressed patients whose pain of living is so great that death becomes welcome? What about the ascetic dervish who fasts for 40 days and finds ecstasy in solitude and meditation? And what goes on in the brain of the violinist Medori (she last performed in Meymandi Concert Hall of Raleigh on January 16 and 17, 2009), who at age six was able to play classical music without looking at the notes?

These are but a few examples of the myriad secrets of this three-pound organ we call the “brain.” The spin-off of the “Decade of the Brain” is a better understanding of its role in healing, spirituality, and wellness. For example, meditation has been shown to enhance healing. It is hoped that our knowledge of the brain will continue to expand and cure for Brain diseases, such as schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, autism, and other neurologic diseases will be achieved.

The neurophysiology of meditation has been worked out since in studies from London’s Maudsley Hospital, Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, New York’s Columbia Hospital, and the National Institute of Mental Health. Those studies have demonstrated that meditating for 20 minutes, morning and night, decreases oxygen consumption and the heart rate below the heart rate found in sleep. It also increases the blood flow to muscles and organs, decreasing the level of lactic acid and low-density lipoproteins.

The brain—containing 100 billion neurons, 900 billion glial cells, 100 trillion branches, and 1,000 trillion receptors—reacts to stimuli in a series of electrical bursts, spanning a complex map of connections. To keep this fascinating machine functioning and intact, it must be constantly stimulated and exercised. Whether it is calculating an algorithm or memorizing Lorenzo De Ponte’s libretto for Mozart operas, the poetry of Wordsworth, or the prose of Ibn Khaldoun, the brain must keep working to stay alert and fresh.

As physicians, we are blessed with the gifts of intellect and compassion. Our patients are getting grayer. We must encourage them to continue to exercise their brains, and, as their role models, we physicians should continue to be avid “memorizers” ourselves.

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*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, Life Member, American Medical Association; Life Member, Southern Medical Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012).

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