Dr Vaja Zatjirua’s insight into our brains
MYD: How does the brain work?
VZ: The brain is a very sophisticated piece of machinery. It is a very active organ, it’s busy all the time.
An important concept to understand is that a lot of the brain’s functions are subconscious or involuntary. The part of the brain that makes you decide to do something, come up with an idea, design a building or write music, for example, is less clearly understood in terms of how it works than the more automatic, ancient part of the brain that regulates the functioning of your organs.
The brain uses neurons – the largest and longest living cells in the body. Most of the neurons that you have in your adulthood, you were born with. Neurons are hardly ever renewed or replaced. In fact, after the age of about forty, you start losing neurons, which essentially carries on up to the time when you die.
MYD: Is that why your memory might fade as you get older?
VZ: It’s probably a combination of losing neurons and that your brain starts shrinking and becomes less effective in carrying out its processes compared to when you were younger.
MYD: Is that due to internal or environmental factors?
VZ: Both, in fact. There’s a long list of environmental factors, such as trauma and infections, that we know affect the functioning of the brain, but my pet favourite is high blood pressure, which causes damage to the blood vessels in the brain, indirectly damaging the brain itself.
Then there’s obviously internal factors that are part of the aging brain, such as diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s, which are basically caused by abnormal protein that accumulates in the brain and causes abnormal functioning of the cells.
MYD: In terms of our responsibility to look after the brain, how much control do we have?
VZ: Surprisingly, we have quite a lot of control in what we can do to prevent or slow down this degradation of the brain that happens naturally. We advise all people to stop smoking and then obviously to take their blood pressure medication if they have this issue. The other thing is obviously avoiding trauma – wear a helmet when you cycle, put on your seatbelt in a car to avoid head injuries, and as far as you can, avoid getting into fights and getting knocked out.
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