Natural Ways to Increase Brain Cell “Fertilizer”

Natural Ways to Increase Brain Cell “Fertilizer”

Lifestyle habits shape our brain power. How do they do so? Which lifestyle factors boost our brain power and which ones impair our mental functioning? To understand this, we must consider where actions happen in the brain?

Synapses are microscopic points of communication between nerve cells that are heavily involved in memory, learning, habit formation, and the development of talent and character. We can, by our lifestyle choices, influence them positively or negatively

A neural circuit is composed of neurons and their synapses. Recurrent use of a particular neural circuit for learning (i.e. learning a musical instrument) increases the size, number, and efficiency of the involved synapses. Repeated use of a brain circuit results in easier and faster learning, and therefore, practice may indeed make perfect. Non-use, however, causes atrophy of the synapses that will eventually be manifested in slower reaction times and less rapid processing of information in the under active areas of the brain. In other words, disuse of a neural circuit causes the synapses in that particular circuit to atrophy which diminish the capacity to learn. These two features are known as synaptic plasticity.

Brain Cell Fertilizer: BDNF

Brain-derived nerve growth factor (BDNF) is a protein that acts as a “fertilizer” to the synapses, protects brain cells, and in certain areas of the brain, regenerates brain cells. The abundant presence of BDNF predicts the ease of learning, whereas when it is in short supply, learning is more difficult; it also exerts anti-depressive actions.1 Scientific evidence now suggests that brain-derived nerve growth factor and its precursor are decreased in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease and that BDNF levels in depressed individuals are often low.2 Therefore, BDNF can be beneficial in the treatment of depression. BDNF is also reduced in chronic or acute stress3 , especially in the hippocampus. This area, embedded in the temporal lobes, is important for storing memories and retrieving them, learning, and mood regulation. It can also be significantly decreased in individuals with eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia.4 5

Lifestyle Factors That Reduce BDNF

Overeating and a diet high in saturated fat and sugar decrease brain-derived nerve growth factor.6 Animal experiments, however, suggest that voluntary physical exercise somewhat counteracts the effects of a high fat diet on BDNF.7 Rodents fed a high-fat, high-glucose diet supplemented with high-fructose corn syrup for eight months demonstrated actual alterations in energy and lipid metabolism similar to clinical diabetes, such as elevated fasting glucose and increased cholesterol and triglycerides. The rats also showed negative microscopic changes to the neurons in the hippocampus, a major area in the temporal lobes, which is involved in memory, learning, and mood regulation. They also exhibited less response activity and reduced levels of BDNF after repetitive nerve stimulation.8

Lifestyle Factors That Increase BDNF

Wise calorie restriction (if obese) and intermittent fasting9 (skipping supper, for example) stimulates the production of proteins that enhance the growth, size, and efficiency of synapses, increase brain-derived nerve growth factor, and help to increase neuron resistance to oxidative and metabolic insults from aging, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, stroke, and chronic diseases, and increases the brain’s capacity for self-repair.10 Of course, it is essential that we get adequate vitamins and minerals, complex carbohydrates, essential fats, and protein. Malnutrition also damages the brain.

Omega-3 fats, an assortment of whole plant foods,11 physical exercise,12 a variety of positive mental activities,13 and quality sleep all improve the production of BDNF and subsequently, improve our brain power. Studies show that individuals with diabetes have a significant decline of BDNF in the brain, which may explain why diabetics are more at risk for dementia.

Vitamin D

Animal studies show that vitamin D deficiency in newborns results in lower BDNF and reduced thickness of the brain cortex.14 Animal studies also show that vitamin D deficiency during pregnancy disrupts the pattern of thirty-six major proteins in the mental development of the offspring. These proteins make up part of several biological pathways, including those involved in synaptic development and the transmission of impulses between brain cells. Nearly half of the molecules in the above experiment are disrupted, damaged, or malfunctioning in animal models of schizophrenia and multiple sclerosis.15 Because breast milk does not necessarily supply an adequate amount of vitamin D, nursing mothers must be sure that their infants receive adequate sunlight and be sure that their own vitamin D levels are within normal range. Autism, a complex developmental disability that includes an impaired synaptic network, is more common in areas of less ultraviolet light penetration (i.e. latitudes near the poles, urban areas, areas with high air pollution, and areas of high precipitation). Autism is also more prevalent in persons with dark skin, and severe maternal vitamin D deficiency is exceptionally common in dark-skinned individuals.16 Please note: I am not saying that vitamin D deficiency is the sole cause of autism, multiple sclerosis, or schizophrenia; however, individuals with these problems or those who are at risk for these serious conditions should certainly have their vitamin D levels checked. A study, quoted in the authoritative book Modern Nutrition in Health and Disease found that 76% of dark-skinned women at the time of delivery were vitamin D deficient, and 81% of their children were also deficient in the same vitamin. Obesity before pregnancy often predicts vitamin D deficiency in mothers and their neonates. Pregnant women should have their vitamin D levels checked at least twice during their pregnancy and get regular exposure to sunlight. They should also take an appropriate amount of vitamin D supplement to prevent vitamin D deficiency and insufficiency.

Companionship

Researchers at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna found that social interactions have more influence on BDNF concentrations in the cerebral cortex of aging rodents than physical exercise and food restriction. Early social interactions actually help to shape the adult brain.17 Other studies show that social isolation decreases acetylcholine, a major neurotransmitter in the brain. Selective deprivation of social contact and of language during the critical period of brain development, especially in childhood, also has profound consequences for the structure and function of the adult brain. Researchers at Queen’s University in Canada discovered that animals that are reared in isolation show increased anxiety, avoid new situations, and exhibit poorer performance in learning and spatial memory tasks. However, providing social interactions during their adolescent period partially reversed these adverse effects of isolation.18

My Testimony

Abilities can be developed and talents improved by persistent practice. When I (Liz) first came to Wildwood, I felt that I had not been given many natural talents, and I did not seem to have the capacity to excel in any area. In fact, I was so ignorant that some of the school’s administration did not think I would last at Wildwood. However, others believed that as I learned to work, study, investigate, and take the initiative, God would help me to enlarge the underdeveloped talents I did have. For example, in high school, science was definitely not my forte. I memorized key sections of the biology book with little, if any, comprehension. When I came to Wildwood and enrolled in physiology, I literally had to take it three times before mastering it. The more I shared what I learned in class and shared the information with others, the easier it became to remember the material. Now I can read medical textbooks of physiology without trouble, and can easily lecture on physiology without any notes. Yes, indeed, the more we share, the more we personally develop.


References

  1. Thakker-Varia, S. and Alder, J., Neuropeptides in depression: role of VGF. Behav Brain Res, 197(2):262-78, 2009.

  2. Lee, B.H., et al, Decreased plasma BDNF in depressive patients. J Affect Disord, 101(1-3):239-44, 2007.

  3. Ibid, Thakker-Varia S, Alder J.

  4. Monteleone, P., et al, Circulating brain-derived neurotrophic factor is decreased in women with anorexia and bulimia nervosa but not in women with binge-eating disorder: relationships to co-morbid depression, psychopathology and hormonal variables. Psychol Med, 35(6):897-905, 2005.

  5. Hashimoto K., et al, Role of brain-derived neurotrophic factor in eating disorders: recent findings and its pathophysiological implications. Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry, 29(4):499-504, 2005.

  6. Molteni, R., et al, A high fat-refined sugar diet reduces hippocampal brain-derived neurotrophic factor, neuronal plasticity, and learning. Neuroscience, 112(4):803-14, 2002.

  7. Molteni, R., et al, Exercise reverses the harmful effects of consumption of a high-fat diet on synaptic and behavioral plasticity associated to the action of brain-derived neurotrophic factor. Neuroscience, 123(2):429-40, 2004.

  8. Stranahan, A.M., Diet-induced insulin resistance impairs hippocampal synaptic plasticity and cognition in middle-aged rats. Hippocampus, 18(11):1095-8, 2008.

  9. Mattson, M.P., Meal size and frequency affect neuronal plasticity and vulnerability to disease: cellular and molecular mechanisms. J Neurochem, 84(3):417-31, 2003.

  10. Mattson, M.P., Neuroprotective signaling and the aging brain; take away my food and let me run. Brain Res, 886(1-2):47-53, 2000.

  11. Venna, V.R., et al, PUFA induce antidepressant-like effects in parallel to structural and molecular changes in the hippocampus. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 34(2):199-211, 2009, epub Oct 10, 2008.

  12. Vaynman, S., et al, Hippocampal BDNF mediates the efficacy of exercise on synaptic plasticity and cognition. Eur J Neurosci, 20(10):2580-90, 2004.

  13. Hubka, P., Neural network plasticity, BDNF and behavioral interventions in Alzheimer’s disease. Ratisl Lek Listy, 107(9-10):395-401, 2006, review.

  14. Feron, T.H.J., et al, Developmental vitamin D3 deficiency alters the adult rat brain. Brain Research Bulletin, 65(2):141-148, 2005.

  15. Almeras, L., et al, Developmental vitamin D deficiency alters brain protein expression in the adult rat: Implications for neuropsychiatric disorders, http://doi.wiley.com/10.1002/pmic.200600392.

  16. Cannell, J.J., Autism and vitamin D. Med Hypotheses, 70(4):750-9, 2008.

  17. Branchi, I., Early social enrichment shapes social behavior and nerve growth factor and brain-derived neurotrophic factor levels in the adult mouse brain. Biol Psychiatry, 60(7):690-6, 2006.

  18. Hellemans, K.G., et al, Adolescent enrichment partially reverses the social isolation syndrome. Brain Res Dev Brain Res, 150(2):103-15, 2004.

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