Inside your head, another brain is hiding in plain sight – one that responds to your cognitive needs and self-heals. It’s time to make the most of your myelin
RECENTLY, my friend’s cable TV went out. She fiddled with the box: resetting, unplugging and re-plugging. When that failed, she called the cable company. They examined things at their end – and came up short. Frustrated, she retreated to another room, where she discovered her cat had ripped apart a piece of the wire. It wasn’t the ends that needed fixing; it was the part in the middle.
A similar revelation is under way in neuroscience. For years, changes in the brain – whether from learning to ride a bike, taking a Prozac, or sinking into Alzheimer’s disease – have been attributed to the activity of neurons and the small chemical junctions between them, called synapses. Targeting synapses is like fiddling with the connections at either end or calling the cable company. But ignoring the wiring in between may be a mistake.
“All ideas about communication and plasticity in the nervous system were focused on the synapse,” says Douglas Fields at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. That’s starting to change, as he and other neuroscientists realise that neurons alone are not enough to explain our brain’s plasticity – its ability to learn, adapt, and form new memories.
What it comes down to is myelin, the fatty sheath that envelops most neurons. We are used to thinking of it like insulation along a cable – allowing electrical impulses to zip along faster. But we are learning that this fatty layer is….
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Image Credit: Sam Falconer