With Alzheimer’s and dementia on the rise it can be empowering for us to understand what is actually happening in the brain when it deteriorates. Why?
Because there are choices we can make to help increase brain health for ourselves or our loved ones even in the presence of decline or diagnosis.
The key players here are neurons, synapses, glial cells or the glymphatic system, cerebral spinal fluid and plaques such as amyloid beta. What is the relationship of all these pieces? Let me first define each one separately, then we can put the puzzle pieces together.
The most obvious or known to most of us are the neurons and synapses. The brain functions by way of firing electrical information across synapses from neuron to neuron. When the brain is healthy, the firing is healthy and contributes it’s part to the health of the entire person.
Cerebral spinal fluid, or extracellular fluid, sits like a thin membrane right inside the skull and around the brain. It both protects the brain as a whole and nourishes the neurons and neurotransmitters as it washes around and through all the cells.
This brings us to the glial cells, or glymphatic system.
Cutting edge research is shining a light upon the newly defined (and Nobel Prize winning) research identifying this system that runs through the body and brain.
The glial cells surround all the cells in the body to provide a way for waste to move out. In the brain they work a little differently. Billions, about a hundred billion to be a bit more exact, of glial cells form tendrils as fine as a web that extend from the periphery of the brain down deep into every single tiny space inside the brain. The tendrils are sometimes called astrocytes.
This vast network provides a way for the cerebral spinal fluid to move through the brain to do its nourishing job and to remove toxins. When the flow is steady the brain maintains greater health. When the flow is constricted, the neurons cannot do their job and sometimes even die. Inflammation is named as the chief cause. Inflammation comes from many causes but one to mention here is the last player in our series of definitions.
Amyloid beta. It is a protein toxin that clogs the brain. It is called a plaque, so you can think of plaque that collects on objects like our teeth, or on a mored boat. When this plaque increases, inflammation increases and the astrocytes become constricted.
Which means the cerebral spinal fluid cannot wash through all the places of the brain to refresh and renew.
One chief result is memory loss, from simple decline all the way to Alzheimer’s and dementia.
So now knowing the players we can change our choices to increase the flow of the cerebral spinal fluid, to decrease inflammation through diet, exercise and the focus of the next article, sleep.