Brain Science

Why You Should Actively Encourage Brain Drain

Why You Should Actively Encourage Brain Drain about undefined
To avoid dementia and other neurodegenerative conditions, there are two (or maybe three) daily tasks you can do that will boost your chances of success. That's because these activities stimulate the glymphatic system, which clears away waste debris from the brain -- including the potentially brain-damaging beta-amyloid proteins linked to Alzheimer's. The glymphatic system also distributes non-waste compounds like fats, sugars and neurotransmitters through the brain's extracellular and cerebrospinal fluids. So it's important on two fronts. Because glymphatic activity declines fast as we get older, it's vital to keep it functioning as well and for as long as possible. At a UK conference in early June, a scientist explained how we can do just that. . .

The Importance of Sleep

Dr. Ian Harrison of University College London's Centre for Advanced Biomedical Imaging presented research findings into the glymphatic system at the Cheltenham Science Festival. He told the audience that researchers are focusing their efforts on ways to prevent the glymphatic system from failing. He began by describing work carried out at the Center for Translational Neuromedicine at the University of Rochester, New York, led by the neuroscientist Maiken Nedergaard, who discovered the glymphatic system. When the researchers injected a dye into the cerebrospinal fluid of mice to see where this fluid was distributed in the brain, they found it depended on whether the animals were awake or asleep. In the awake mice the fluid only reached the surface areas, but in sleeping mice the fluid traveled far deeper into the brain. This occurred because the glymphatic system was found to be 60% more active during sleep. Meaning, that’s when the system is cleaning up the garbage in our brains and distributing useful nutrients. "If that is anything to go by," he said, "we should all be sleeping a lot more than we are." Because the brain’s metabolism runs high during wakefulness and produces a lot of waste products, it makes sense that sleep gives the brain a chance to cleanse itself.

Improved Waste Disposal and Cognition

Last year scientists from China carried out a study on aging mice who engaged in a voluntary wheel running exercise. They found this accelerated glymphatic flow and markedly improved clearance of waste products. As a result, there was a significant improvement in cognition. Referring to this study, Dr. Harrison told the Cheltenham audience, "In the sedentary animals, the fluid penetrates the brain, but when the animals have voluntary access to exercise there is a massive increase in the amount of glymphatic function." It's believed this happens because more cerebrospinal fluid is driven into the brain from the rise in heart rate. The third way of boosting glymphatic activity is more controversial.

Big Effect from a Third of a Unit

In their latest study, published in February, the Rochester team looked at how glymphatic activity changed in mice through different exposures to alcohol. Following medium or high levels of exposure, there was a 30 to 40 per cent decrease in glymphatic activity. But with low doses, the human daily equivalent of a third of a unit, or 25 ml of wine (just over ¾ of an ounce), there was a 30 - 40 per cent increase in waste disposal. "The data suggests," continued Dr Harrison, "you can have a drink, but only a third of a unit of wine per day." Anyone who is not a teetotaler will certainly drink more than this at any one time. So the study provides an excellent reason to cut well back and use wine for this good medicinal purpose only. In my other newsletter, Cancer Defeated, we just summarized the latest research on whether alcohol is linked to cancer. The news was not good:  The evidence is overwhelming that it is. And anyway, for non-drinkers, a single study in mice is not enough to support imbibing alcohol even at such low levels. As the researchers themselves wrote: "this study performed in mice should not be viewed as a recommendation for alcohol consumption guidelines in humans." Probably the most significant finding in this study is that glymphatic activity plunged following a drink of normal size. But the other two recommendations to get a good night's sleep and exercise regularly get two thumbs up.

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