Photo: optikfluffel @ Flickr.com

Blah, blah, blah. I like my stoically private nature. It helps me think.

That may seem true, but research out of the University of Buffalo may prove otherwise. A new study shows that social isolation arrests the healthy development of myelin in the brains of mice, both reinforcing the behavior and also leaving the loner open to neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s.

The brain is essentially made up of two types of “matter,” white and grey. You’ve heard the phrase “grey matter” in the past, when discussing how smart a person is. White matter is made up of myelin sheaths around brain cells, astrocytes that run between cells and more. Up until recently, the white matter of the brain has largely been ignored as unimportant.

Research into neuroplasticity – the relatively novel scientific concept that the brain actually regrows and rewires brain cells according to the needs of the moment – is showing that not only grey matter but white matter as well is affected by changes in behavior.

Mice were isolated in a lab for a period of time to observe the changes in their brain structures. The scientists found that the isolated mice, when put in contact with a normally-socialized mouse, actively avoided contact. That is: the mice who would normally be hugely social creatures suddenly became intentional introverts when given a period of forced isolation.

Even more interesting: studying the brains of the isolated mice, they discovered that myelin production had been slowed down. Myelin is a fatty sheath that surrounds brain cells, acting as insulators and preventing the signals (which are just electro-chemical jolts, you might say) from being leached out of the brain cell and away from their intended targets. Lack of myelin has been blamed for a host of neurological disorders.

The good news is that none of the effects of neuroplasticity are irreversible. The scientists in this particular study showed that reintegrating the mice into their social communities reversed all the negative trends of isolation.

So, as my parents used to say, “get out there and blow the stink off!” Stop watching The Secret of NIHM and heed the lesson of actual lab rats. That smell might just be your brain mouldering.

Photo: URMC

Sometimes, there’s nothing more cathartic than taking out the garbage – even for your brain.

Neuroscientists at University of Rochester Medical Center have discovered a previously unrecognized system that drains waste from the brain. Dubbed the “glymphatic system” due to its similarities with the lymphatic system, but instead managed by brain cells known as glial cells, this new-found system brings hope for many brain conditions, including Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease, stroke, and traumatic brain injuries, which are all attributed in some way to waste protein build up on the brain.

Here’s how it works – the highly organized system acts as a series of pipes, piggybacking off of the brain’s blood vessels to drain away waste products. Think of it as if the brain has two big garbage cans; the first one collecting waste through a gradual trickle, the second one under much more pressure, pushing large volumes daily to carry waste away more forcefully.

That’s a lot going on in our brains on a daily basis – so how were we unaware of all of this until now? According to scientists, the system only works when it’s intact and operating in a living brain, which had previously been extremely difficult. To study the living, whole brain, the team at U of R used a technology known as two-photon microscopy, which allows scientists to look at the flow of blood and other substances in the brain of living animals – in this case, mice.

This is not the first discovery to stem from this research at U of R.  Back in the spring, a similar study found that parts of the brain that were not cleaning properly could be to blame for ADHD.  This is all great news, though. Once a definitive  biological cause has been pinned down with certainty, then medicines can be created to treat the problem.

See? Your mom wasn’t kidding when she told you it’s important to clean!