I recently met with Dr. Frank Amthor, a world leading neuroscientist/neurobiologist and author of Neuroscience for Dummies and Neurobiology for Dummies on Talk Time. Frank is currently a Professor and Interim Director of the Behavioral Neuroscience Graduate Program in the Department of Psychology at the University of Alabama—Birmingham where he has taught and conducted research for 35 years.
During our chat Dr. Amthor simplified and broke down some of the brain’s complexities, such as the brain’s structure and function and the relationship between memory, learning, emotions, and the brain.
Here is a brief review of what I think were the key elements of Talk Time featuring Dr. Frank Amthor.
The Birth of New Neurons
The one thing that’s really revolutionized neuroscience in the last few years is that we used to think neurons were established in the first twelve months of life. But that’s not the case. The adult brain experiences the birth of new neurons all the time.
The hippocampus particularly, which is involved in learning and memory, is a prime example. And interestingly, in depression cases, the birth of new neurons may be suppressed, which could interfere with an individual’s ability to cope with new situations.
How We Think, Learn, and Remember
Think of your brain as a muscle. Stimulation increases brain health. But when you do things you’re familiar with, the brain routines become automatic. Procedures are stored in brain circuits that become hard-wired and almost unconscious: like riding a bicycle.
If you’re not rewiring and allowing your brain to continue to grow, you can get stuck doing what you know how to do. You want to challenge yourself to create new wiring—thinking in different ways seems to help us stimulate new blood flow and the formation of new synapses and new neurons. Take up a new activity, change up your routine, try something challenging.
Trauma and Neural Excitement
Brain cells are like regular cells; they have all the same components—like nuclei and mitochondria, but they’re specialized for electrical signaling. Some cells are excited about an increase in light, some by a decrease in light, some by edges, some by a particular motion, etc.
Excitement in neurons is a good thing, within measure. Brain trauma, however, can cause neurons to be so over-excited they die, like an electrical circuit blown-out by a huge energy flux. This is typical in cases of stroke, traumatic brain injury, and PTSD. If neurons are over-stimulated or over-excited, some neurons release too much neurotransmitter, and a lot of neurons die as the result of trauma.
Naturally, in the area of the brain where trauma occurred, brain activity is reduced. The brain will try to compensate, and sometimes the compensation will be mal-adaptive because the circuit that’s supposed to be there isn’t there anymore.
Due to his training, Dr. Amthor said he’s become more conscious of controlling the amount of sugar in his blood, and he exercises regularly, as that’s essential for maintaining memory function and brain health.
There are lots of things you can do to generate novel neuro-development and keep your brain young — doing new things or old things in new ways is good for your brain. Learning a second language can have a major impact on brain health, and even volunteer work, if it gets you outside of your comfort zone, is likely to cause new neural birth in the hippocampus.
Dr. Amthor points out that for brain health something challenging might be to read conservative viewpoints if you’re a liberal or liberal viewpoints if you’re a conservative.
Brain and Relationship Health
As we learn more about neuroscience, the overarching hope it gives us is that we can work on stimulating the brain and build more brain activity, like we do in emotionally-based therapy. As therapists, and especially as couple therapists, when we encourage people to step into new experiences, risk, and do uncomfortable and new things—not only are we strengthening emotional connections, we are helping them build new neural pathways—actual brain connections. It’s good for their relationship health and their brain health. As one of our listeners, Mary Bermani, pointed out in a great comment she sent me emphasizing that point, stepping into new experience is exercising brain cells.
We help ourselves by taking care of our bodies, living in the present, and paying attention to what’s around us as we really try to interact with people and things that keep our brains healthy and challenged.
Next month Dr. Ian Kerner will be joining us on Talk Time to discuss sexual health and gender differences in sexual health on Wednesday, April 15th. It will be fascinating! Click Here to Register Now.
Thanks for being part of Talk Time.