The science of the brain

I attended a seminar recently in which half a day was spent on how the brain works, how it matures, ages, and the things which influence it. That was the source for last week’s article, and for the majority of the following discussion. Of all the organs of the body, we rely on that one so much – from infancy when it helps us start understanding our environment, through the torment of teen age years, to the efficiency of adulthood and on into the possible dementia which often accompanies age. An understanding of how it works and how to care for it would seem appropriate.Interestingly, there are studies which indicate that infants as young as two months are capable of reading emotions of persons around them and will then tend to mimic them. Of course, the natural reaction when we smile at an infant, and it then smiles back is one of happiness. The warmth of that emotion brightens pleasure centers in the child’s brain, reinforcing its mimicry of the adults around it. Unfortunately, the converse is also true. Infants who do not receive these positive experiences will mimic what is around them – whether hostility, indifference, or anger. By the time that the infant is a child, some of these patterns are already set. We think of the brain as a static organ, which is not correct. As a child’s brain matures, cells migrate into “groupings” which will, in time be the source of independent thought. The problem for parents and teachers is that these “groupings” start influencing teenage behavior. The immediate reaction is one of “I can do this for myself”, or the standard teenage know-it-all sigh..The “reward sites” in the brain start becoming very active around the age of thirteen. These are centers that make things that are exciting, fun. They are part of the reason that many of us really enjoyed roller coasters or other risk taking behaviors in our youth - - but with age have discovered that they aren’t quite as exciting. The activities of this part of the brain are probably the reason that ancient civilizations had rites of passage, especially for boys, that were dangerous and exciting. In modern communities, performance, sports, or other “scary” individual activity can light those same spots. Absent something relatively safe, young people in search of excitement for their brains are likely to try something less safe, whether alcohol, drugs, insane driving, or stunts which are dangerous to life / limb.Every few years arguments arise concerning lowering the drinking age. With comments about the eligibility of teenagers to vote and to be part of the military, the inability to imbibe alcoholic beverages may seem unreasonable. As a practical matter, the effect of alcohol on the teenage brain is severe and long lasting.Most adults who choose to consume a glass of wine or other beverage with a meal find that it makes them feel more relaxed, and less stressed about the events of the day. This is because of the effect of the alcohol on the passages in the brain itself. Prior to about the age of twenty three, the effect of alcohol on those passages is the exact opposite – it serves to excite the brain, causing rash behavior and encouraging continued consumption. Brain scans taken forty eight hours later will show damage to the synapses in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus. One year of binge drinking can cause a loss of up to 20% of brain function; thankfully, this damage can be reversed, but it requires that the stimulus (alcohol) be removed and not come back before the brain is finished maturing.Marijuana advocates also push for legalization on a fairly regular basis, arguing that the substance is no more dangerous than alcohol. The effective result of it on the brain seems to be to depress the portion of the brain which creates a positive self image. Of all groups in our population who don’t need to have more issues with that, it would have to be teens! The effect of this drug with other drugs, especially those which are prescribed for ADHD and the alphabet soup of other learning / mental disorders is not a good one. Rather, it depresses the action of that drug, making it less effective. Withdrawal from it causes increased anxiety and can cause a false diagnosis of a mental health issue.There is so very much that we don’t know about the brain. It seems that every year we learn a little more, and have the chance to get a better understanding of why we do the things we seem inclined to do at varied stages in our lives. One thing seems set; our brains are, in many ways, fluid. The things we do, the substances we ingest, and the activities in which we participate shape the brain we will have later in life. Personally – I have no gray (or white!) matter to waste!Lisa Peterson is the County Attorney for Nolan County. Comments about this column may be e-mailed to