We look at brain myths and a new website will provide everything you want to know about the brain.
March 15, 2012 12:59 p.m.
Professor Nick Spitzer, co-director, UC San Diego Kavli Institute for Brain and Mind
Related Story: New Website Is All About The Brain
This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Keeping our brains alert and healthy can become a preoccupation, especially in middle age. But do we have any idea how to do it? For instance, is there such a thing as brain food? Can listening to classical music or doing puzzles improve brain function? If your brain does sustain damage, is it permanent? Many questions about the brain remain mysteries, even to neuroscientists. But they do know enough to dispel some myths about the little gray cells. UC San Diego is announcing the start off a new website called brainfacts.org. It goes online in May, and I'd like to introduce my guest. Nick Spitzer is UC San Diego neurobiology professor, codirector of UC San Diego's Kavli institute for brain and mind, and editor in chief of brainfacts.org. And welcome to the show.
SPITZER: Glad to be with you, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: Neuroscience is a really dynamic field of research. Is it hard for even scientists to keep track of the new brain research going on?
SPITZER: It is. And the brain here is that the growth of neuroscience in the-and health science, generally, has really become exponential now. So new information is accumulating at a prodigious rate. It's a challenge for me and my colleagues to keep up with it all. We have in addition to the print media that's been around, scientist journals and so on, now we have websites that keep us up-to-date. And we can access these, and that helps with the real torrent of information. But it's probably going to get worse before it gets better. That's a wonderful cadraw of young neuroscientists coming forward who will carry forward this new tradition and continue to expand our knowledge.
CAVANAUGH: Give us an example of the new research underway.
>> One of the new lines of research that we're interested in is a new form of plasticity in the brain whereby neurons can change the transmitter molecules they use to signal with one another. The kinds of plasticity that we are also studying in the neuroscience field involve changes in the strength of the connection between neurons when we learn or remember something, or the changes in the numbers of connections, schnappses, as we refer to them. This is a new addition to the kind of change that occurs in the brain throughout our life. This is not only something that occurs as youngsters growing up but for adults as well.
CAVANAUGH: Is the idea for the new website to help people keep up with what scientists are learning about the brain?
SPITZER: It's very much along that line. The idea is to provide an authoritative, up up-to-date repository safely accessible by the general public of information about the brain. Of at all different levels. The basics of how nerve cells works, information about how we sense objects in the environment, how we think, how we behave, and of course importantly also information about different disorders in the nervous system, different Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, a host of really devastating disorders that we face as a species. And so we're going to be providing basic information about what the disorders are, and what the research is that's being done to try to find treatments and cures.
CAVANAUGH: I know that you're also hoping the information on brain facts.org helps to dissmell some misinformation about the brain. For instance the one about classical music making us smarter. Does it?
SPITZER: Well, I wish it did. I'm a real enthusiast for classical music, and I get some of that on KPBS. But unfortunately, this myth, the Mozart effect as it's referred to, is charming but further study hasn't borne it out. I don't think that should discourage us from listening to classical music. But I think maybe more generally, the concept about the it being important for us, is the same concept we have about the rest of our body. Use it or lose it. The more we are active and use our brain, the more likely we are to stay active and our brains keep worming moving into our later years
CAVANAUGH: What about the idea that alcohol consumption kills brain cells? Every drink you kills a certain number of brain cells
SPITZER: This is a very popular myth. And in fact, it's not correct. There's no ambiguity about the fact that chronic drinking, binge drinks, high levels of alcohol, this will in fact kill neurons. But a glass of red wine with dinner -- there are studies that indicate this can actually promote good health.
CAVANAUGH: What other brain myths are there that people always come up to you with?
SPITZER: One of the popular ones is that we only use 10% of our brain, that the rest of it is not reallying used. This is again a fascinating misconception. We use all of our brain, not all of it at any one time, but we selectively tune into and activate and use different parts of our brain for different purposes. And one way in which one can appreciate this is the -- from the observation that a stroke, the interruption of blood flow to the brain, will really seriously affect our performance irrespective of where it occurs in the brain. This tells us right away that all of the brain is actually very useful.
CAVANAUGH: I want to invite our audience, if they have a question, if they can't wait for brainfacts.org to go online in May and they'd like to ask doctor Spitzer a question, please do give us a call. I'm thinking, you mentioned the fact of strokes. And there's also the idea that if someone suffers brain damage, that that damage is permanent. Is that the case?
SPITZER: This is -- turning out not to be true. We used to think that this was the case, and indeed when uncle George had a stroke, it was really a tragic experience because that meant that he would use some aspect of critical performance of his brain. We're finding several things now. For openers, we know now that if we can get an individual with a stroke to -- administer TPA to the patient, in the early hours after stroke this can have an enormous impact on the recovery of the individual. But even beyond that, we're finding out that very active, and one would even say aggressive treatment of patients getting them involved in trying to speak, trying to get their limbs moving, trying to get them involved in exercising their brain, this can have very impressive effects. And we're seeing that patients that we used to think were really beyond hope are now actually showing remarkable degrees of functional recovery.
CAVANAUGH: I'm really giving you a quiz here.
[ LAUGHTER ]
SPITZER: This is great.
CAVANAUGH: What about brain food? You know how certain people say maybe fish is brain food?
SPITZER: This is I think maybe a bit of a myth. The idea that we can take particular supplements or focus in on particular hormones or vitamins, I think it needs to be tempered a little bit. We need to eat healthy, as I tell my children at home. We need to have largely fruits and vegetables as a major mainstay of our diet. Red meat is very tasty, but lots of it, you know, evidence now is suggesting that is not really good for us. So I think moderation in all things remains even many thousands of years after the Greeks brought this to our attention a very good mantra. And I think that if we eat a balanced diet and perhaps get some regular exercise, then we'll do very well
CAVANAUGH: So there's any particular supplement? There are a lot of things market the that it's going to keep your brain healthy and active and so forth. Nothing -- no research shows that anything really works in that direction?
SPITZER: The research is variable on this point. People find that something work, and then six months later, people find it actually doesn't work. So I'd be very reluctant to put a stamp of approval on any one of these different advertised supplements.
CAVANAUGH: We have a caller on the line, Shane in Solana beach.
NEW SPEAKER: I was wondering if the website is going to have maybe not expert-level material, but higher level material for people that have, like, say a bachelor's degree.
SPITZER: That's a great question. And the answer is yes. But let me unpack that a little bit. The website will be pitched at the tenth grade level, so we try to reach very broadly across the United States and the world. But it'll have a topic-based architecture. So if you are interested, for example, in autism spectrum disorders, and you click on that, you'll get a little drop-down menu, and that'll take you to the first article on the subject, and you read through that and think this is really interesting, I'd like to learn more. So you click again, and that drops you to another page where you get more information about it. And you can go through several levels in this hierarchical approach to delivering knowledge, and at the very end, there'll be articles, references in the primary literature and published journals, that if you're really hungry here for more information, you can go and read.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you you for that call. I'm going to ask you one more question because I can't stop myself! Does doing puzzles and learning new things, does that protect our brain from disease?
SPITZER: I think it's hard to know whether it protects our brain from disease. It certainly keeps our minds much more active. And studies have indicated that the use it or lose it thought which is very prevalent, particularly here in Southern California, where a lot of us are very athletic and outdoors, being both mentally and physically active is a very good recipe for continued active mental function.
CAVANAUGH: Why do you think it's important for people to know what's really and what's not real when it comes to facts about the brain?
SPITZER: Well, I think the brain really the organ in our body that to a large extent identifies us as who we are. And we have an innate curiosity, I think as a species, to try to understand ourselves and the universe; the planet. So I think it's important for us to know as much as we can about how the brain works to give us that understanding, and I think it's actually fairly easy to understand what the facts are, and what are perhaps sort of fanciful interpretations or takeoffs on the reality of the facts. So I hope that people will go to brainfacts.org when we open for business in early May. There's already a place holder page. If you type it in on Google, you can get to this page that gives you an opportunity to ask an expert a question, asks for your e-mail address so we can e-mail you the answer to try to bring people on board here, and get them engaged.
CAVANAUGH: Let's take another caller. Kevin from San Diego. Welcome to the show.
NEW SPEAKER: Can you comment please on the recent abilities of physicians to communicate in a "yes/no" answer format with patients who are in a vegetative or coma-like state using FMRIs to get them to activate on their brain, different brain regions to indicate yes or no?
SPITZER: That's a great question. And technology is really moving our understanding and treatment of these very unfortunate patients to a new level. The issue just so we're on the same page here is how does a doctor, a physician, communicate with an individual who's in a vegetative state and not able to use language, which of course is such an important medium for all of us? And functional magnetic resonance imaging, FMRI that you referred to, gives us a window to the brain, allows us to look at what parts of the brain are active. It's possible for a patient to activate voluntarily a particular region of their brain, and this provides a signal that the physician can interpret to understand whether there's someone inside in this unfortunate circumstance, in which the individual can no longer community directly with the world. So I think this is an important step forward. We have a long way to go. Upon but it's very hopeful.
CAVANAUGH: Now, how will you be involved, Nick, in brainfacts.org?
SPITZER: I have the real pressure of being the editor in chief of the website. I'm able to secure the participation of a wonderful editorial board, several neuroscientists who will help me in this process, we're an international group. We have trevor Robbins, a professor at Cambridge in England. Sarah dun lop is a professor in Perth, Australia. So we reach around the globe. A number of my colleagues here in California are with me on this as well, including Terry Seznowski who's a good friend at the Salk institute here in town. And we meet in a conceptual sense on a conference call three months in advance of when a particular month will go live on the website, and we discuss that we think ought to be going up on the website, then we have people who write the articles for us. We review them for accuracy and tone. And then the articles go up on the website. So we're kind of the final arbiters of what goes on the website, and the authoritative quality and viability of those articles.
CAVANAUGH: We had a caller who could not stay on the line and kind of asked a question that I've already asked you, but it sounds as if people want to be really certain about this. He wants to know if there are any herbs or foods or supplements that stimulate brain function.
SPITZER: Well, in the limit, of course, we know that there are all sorts of recreational pharmaceuticals that do this. Certainly cigarette smoking, chewing tobacco, nicotine is a stimulant in the brain because it mimics one of the normal neurotransmitter molecules that transmits information between neurons in the brain. Coffee through the action of caffeine also can act as a stimulant to the nervous system. Then there are many, many other components that will do this. Some of might have colleagues, are neuroscientists, are trying to identify molecules that can promote learning and stimulate memory in the brain. These of course would be very interesting compounds to have.
CAVANAUGH: That would be.
SPITZER: If we were able to develop them
CAVANAUGH: As long as they don't have side effects
SPITZER: Absolutely, absolutely.
CAVANAUGH: Now, this being brain awareness week, I wonder, what in your opinion are some of the biggest mysteries that are still waiting to be unlocked about the brain?
SPITZER: Certainly one of them that's on the minds of a lot of people is the question of exactly what is consciousness. So here we are, we're having a wonderful conversation, and we're both conscious of what's going on, but if you hit me hard on the head or if I were to fall asleep, I would be unconscious. And so what is it that allows us to be conscious? And do other animals have consciouses? Does a dog have consciousness? What about a mouse? What about a fruit fly? This is an emerging question of some great interest for people, trying to look to the future. The brain, however, and neuroscience generally I think is a little like an iceberg. We look at it and see the part that's above water, which is what we be, and we're excite body that. But I'm pretty convinced that there's a lot more to learn about the brain, and most of that is as in the iceberg, underwater.
CAVANAUGH: This has been a fascinating conversation. Brainfacts.org will go online in early May. If you want to go there right now, you can ask a question, and that might become part of the initial opening of the website. I've been speaking with Nick Spitzer, UC San Diego neurobiology professor, and editor in chief of brainfacts.org. Thank you very much.
SPITZER: Thank you very much, Maureen.