By Chet Yarbrough
As we grow older, our physical and mental abilities deteriorate. Knowing that decline is the nature of life, the older one becomes, the more grasping one is for new ideas that mitigate life’s inevitable degradation.
“The Other Brain”, written by Dr. Douglas Fields (a department head at the National Institute of Health and adjunct Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Maryland) is an expert in the field of cognitive science; i.e., the exploration of how minds work.
Fields begins with a story of when he is a ten year old boy requesting a brain to dissect to see how it works. He moves on to tell the story of the pathologist that stole Einstein’s brain and kept it for some twenty years before telling anyone he had it. Einstein’s brain is analyzed to see if there is a physical difference in his brain structure or cells that allowed him to see what others could not.
With this opening, Fields begins an exploration of the brain and how it functions. What he reveals is that Einstein’s brain was different but not because it was any bigger nor had more neurons but that it had more glia cells than the average brain. Until glia cell discoveries were made, the consensus of scientists was that neurological function was singularly based on an electrical impulse; i.e., an impulse transmitted to the brain through neurons via axons and dendrites to command thought and action.
However, with careful examination of glia cells, scientists found that there is what Fields calls a “second brain”. Glia cells are different from neurons. They do not use the axons and dendrites that transmit electrical pulses to compel performance. Glia cells use a chemical interaction within and between glia that create stimulus and response.
This discovery means that the study of a “second brain” may offer alternative ways of treating spinal cord injuries and mental incapacities caused by diseases that interfere with the neuronal circuits of the brain. Further, it may offer treatment alternatives for patients suffering from dementia, a growing and feared neurological dysfunction.
Fields explores several glia related cells and their positive and negative functions in the neurological system. It is not a panacea for cure of neurologically impaired patients or aging brains because experiments show glia cells are both curative and destructive in their effect on the neurological system. However, a second brain does open a new field of opportunity for cure. Maybe young brains can be re-booted and old brains rehabilitated.