Rick Herrick>



In graduate school I read Plato and learned that old men can’t learn new things. It wasn’t scary then. It’s a little different now. Because conventional wisdom seems to agree with Plato that cognitive decline occurs as we age, I decided last winter to learn something about the brain. As more sophisticated imaging techniques have developed, neuroscientists have made great strides unlocking the secrets of brain functioning.

On one level, the operation of the brain is not difficult to comprehend. It’s a complex electrical system. The brain contains about ten billion cells called neurons. These cells differ from other cells in the body in that they contain tiny nerves. When activated, neurons trigger an electrical current that travels along these nerves.

Brain cells differ from normal cells in another important way. They do not combine to create seamless tissue, but there are tiny gaps between the neurons called synapses. There are trillions of these gaps, which act as switches that facilitate or hinder the travel of the electrical current. Chemicals (neurotransmitters) are released from a terminal within each neuron that flow into the synaptic space. Depending on the chemical mix, communication between cells is enhanced or inhibited.

A circuit is formed when a group of neurons is linked together by synaptic connection. The human body contains several thousand miles of this circuitry. These circuits are interconnected to form systems. Each system or pattern of a neural pathway is organized around a specific brain function.

This picture is made infinitely more complex by two additional factors. The first is that the brain uses several systems to accomplish most functions, which are often located in different places within the brain. Memory, emotion, reason, language, sight, motion all involve the coordinated functioning of several neural systems. The second factor is that neural pathways are constantly changing as the organism develops, responds to a specific environment, and changes.

Do you have all that down? I hope so because space considerations are forcing me to move on to what really interests me. What happens to our brains as we age? Do we lose cognitive ability as Plato suggested 2,500 years ago? Can anything be done to prevent it or to slow the process down?

One of the wonderful things about East Chop is that we have so many talented people to consult. Dr. James Prichard is one of them. Jim, an avid tennis player at the East Chop Tennis Club, retired from Yale Medical School in 2002 where he was a professor of neurology. I sat with him after one of his tennis games and learned some encouraging news.

“I think we can safely say, Rick, that Plato was wrong. Even 50 years ago scientists believed that the brain didn’t change as we age, that no new cells were formed. We now know that neuron growth continues as we age even though it slows down, and that synaptic networks are constantly changing.

“People whose minds remain active as they age slow down the loss of cognitive ability. Playing bridge, doing crossword puzzles, learning a new skill are very important in fighting dementia as we age.

“It’s also important to keep your heart healthy. Although the brain represents only three per cent of body weight, 20 per cent of blood flow goes to the brain. A heart healthy brain reduces the risk of strokes, which is the second leading cause of dementia as we age. Exercise, a healthy diet, and cholesterol control all help.”

He even had some encouraging things to say about Alzheimer’s disease. “We don’t know anything about what causes Alzheimer’s. So there is no effective treatment for the disease. And yet new imaging techniques for the brain are very promising. We are getting a better understanding of how the disease progresses. In ten years we may have effective treatments for it.”

Though fully retired from Yale, Jim continues to do brain research for the International Society of Magnetic Resonance in Medicine. It’s nice to know a guy who practices what he preaches. He keeps his mind active by studying the reasons why other minds are in decline.

Finally, don’t forget the annual August meeting of the East Chop Association. It will be held tomorrow, Saturday, August 21, at 10 a.m. at the beach club. Make plans with your neighbor, and come.