Brain Drain – New Research Shows How Your Brain Stays Healthy

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How toxic protein waste is removed from your brain every day, and how regular sleep helps this process.

An article in Scientific American, from March of 2016 provides amazing new research about how the brain works to keep itself healthy and functional. We would like to talk about it today in our Healthcast.

The human brain averages around three pounds, roughly 2% of the average adult body mass. Yet this small part of our body consumes about 20 to 25% of the energy consumed by the body. In the process of that energy consumption the brain produces toxic protein waste and other biological debris. How the body manages to get rid of this trash has always been thought to be through the operation of the kidneys and the liver. We just never knew quite how that was managed.

Two scientists from the University of Copenhagen have written an article that explains what they and others have found about the way the brain manages to rid itself of toxic waste and other biological sludge waste products.  One of the reasons for the research was to answer the question of whether or not the cognitive problems encountered in neurodegenerative disease might be related to the collapse of the cleaning system of the brain. In order to answer the question, they had first identify the cleaning system and how it operated.

In the process of figuring out how the brain cleanses itself, these scientists, Malken Nedergaard and Steven Goldman from the University of Copenhagen made several innovative discoveries.  One interesting finding is that the brain cleanses itself mostly at night when we are asleep. This led to follow up questions regarding the loss of sleep in aging populations and  the concomitant loss of memory and problem solving abilities.  These doctors looked at brain disorders such as alzheimer’s and dementia to see if they could find data that would be explainable by their new theory regarding brain cleansing systems. There does seem to be a corollary connection between these neurological disorders, sleep, and aging that can be attributed to the brain’s inability to cleanse the toxic waste out of your head as you age.

These research scientists discovered a new system that they named the glymphatic system. In the article they describe how the same type of intricate fluid carrying vessels that we call the lymphatic system work to remove waste from your regular body cells. They imagined that there must be something similar in the brain but it had never been detected before. The lymph system eliminates protein waste from your cellular tissues. Waste carrying fluid moves through this network  between your bodies cells and collects in small ducts that then lead to larger and larger ones and eventually dump into blood vessels then the blood system takes the trash to the liver and kidneys and those organs eliminate the waste from your body.

If there is such a system in the brain where is it how can we find it and does it work the same way inside the head to remove waste to your bloodstream so that the blood can take it to the liver and kidneys?

Drs. Nedergaard and Goldman identified what they called perivascular spaces, which are doughnut shaped tunnels that surround every blood vessel in the brain. The outer wall of this tunnel is what they call an astrocyte the ends of these astrocytes completely surround the arteries and capillaries and veins in the brain and the spinal cord. The hollow tube like cavity that forms between the feet of the astrocyte and the vessels creates a spillway that allows for the rapid transport of fluid through the brain. This fluid flow is like a river or even a sewer system that collects the garbage and pulls it along into the spinal cord and then dumps it into the lymph system and eventually to the liver and kidneys.

The article goes into detailed explanations about the discovery of how waste or toxic protein waste gets picked up and moved through this system to clear the muck out of your brain every single day. In their research they look into alzheimer’s and dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases. One of their theories is that the build up of the waste that is not removed causes mental lapses and loss of functionality that is caused by the blockages which are not removed. Since they discovered that the most busy work hours of the cleaning system are at night when the subject is asleep they also correlated the effectiveness and importance of sleep in the aging process.

If we can find ways to improve the sleep of the elderly and ways to directly impact the chemicals that cause the toxic protein to be pushed through the cleansing system we may be able to reduce or stop altogether the neurodegenerative diseases of aging.

Until we find ways to identify and administer the correct neurotransmitter substances to maximize the fluid glow of the glymphatic system we can still use the research to identify those who are most likely to develop diseases such as parkinson’s and dementia and alzheimer’s we can learn to predict the progression of the disease to help in treatment strategies. But ideally, one day we will discover how to improve sleep and improve drainage of the waste products of the brain so that many of these degenerative diseases of aging can be eliminated altogether.

This Health cast was written and presented by Dr. Kathy Maupin, M.D., Bio-identical Hormone Replacement Expert and Author, with Brett Newcomb, MA., LPC., Family Counselor, Presenter and Author.  

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