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Why Scientific Literacy and Learning Enhance Brain Function and Neural Health

Often in dis­cussing health related find­ings with non-scientists, I’ve found that sci­en­tific lit­er­acy in the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion tends to be inad­e­quate for eval­u­at­ing sci­en­tific claims. A sur­pris­ing num­ber of peo­ple are reluc­tant to study sci­ence despite the poten­tial to ben­e­fit from the vast amount of use­ful knowl­edge being accu­mu­lated by sci­en­tists. Neil DeGrasse Tyson dis­cussed a sim­i­lar issue with the New York Daily News sev­eral years ago (A Cry to Pass the Sci­ence Test, 2006). In a time when sci­en­tific infor­ma­tion is con­stantly reshap­ing our under­stand­ing of the world, a strong foun­da­tion in sci­en­tific meth­ods and ideas is essen­tial. A bet­ter under­stand­ing of bio­log­i­cal sci­ences, for exam­ple, improves the abil­ity to mon­i­tor one’s own heath and dis­cuss health issues with health care pro­fes­sion­als. The con­se­quences of learn­ing sci­ence are espe­cially inter­est­ing when think­ing about neural health. As it turns out, the very act of study­ing and learn­ing can help to keep the brain healthy. There is then a unique and ben­e­fi­cial inter­play between study­ing sci­ence, improv­ing health, and improv­ing brain function.

To under­stand this inter­re­la­tion­ship, con­sider what hap­pens when you learn some­thing new. Every men­tal activ­ity — includ­ing learn­ing — is played out as pre­cise elec­tri­cal and chem­i­cal activ­ity in brain cells. The elec­tri­cal activ­ity spe­cific to study­ing and learn­ing directly causes the release of a mol­e­cule called brain derived neu­rotrophic fac­tor or BDNF. BDNF was first iden­ti­fied as a growth and devel­op­men­tal fac­tor in the brain, but now is known to be linked to improved learn­ing and mem­ory. When BDNF is increased through this pre­cise learn­ing related neural activ­ity, men­tal func­tion improves. When BDNF is exper­i­men­tally blocked, mem­ory for­ma­tion is made more dif­fi­cult. How does BDNF help to improve brain func­tion? It helps to phys­i­cally build and reshape parts of brain cells so that the cells can strengthen their con­nec­tions to each other. These spe­cific mod­i­fi­able con­nec­tions between brain cells account for our abil­ity to form and strengthen mem­o­ries. Many details in this model of brain train­ing need to be filled in, but clearly, con­crete mol­e­c­u­lar links have been iden­ti­fied to sug­gest that cer­tain kinds of men­tal activ­ity are nec­es­sar­ily linked to improved men­tal ability.

Upon see­ing this kind of infor­ma­tion about learn­ing and BDNF, more sci­en­tif­i­cally lit­er­ate read­ers would be more capa­ble of accu­rately inter­pret­ing the data. They would also be in a posi­tion to imple­ment the stated find­ings in their own lives. In addi­tion, the actual process of read­ing and study­ing this bio­log­i­cal mech­a­nism would improve their abil­ity to learn and remem­ber. Thus, some­one approach­ing neural health issues from a sci­en­tif­i­cally lit­er­ate per­spec­tive would have a remark­able advan­tage in main­tain­ing their health based on new find­ings, com­pounded by the brain nour­ish­ing bio­log­i­cal effect of the learn­ing process itself. This excit­ing pos­si­bil­ity sug­gests that study­ing sci­ence is dis­tinctly impor­tant for main­tain­ing and improv­ing neural health and brain function.

–> Hemal Pathak, PhD has a PhD in Neu­ro­science from the Uni­ver­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia and is cur­rently an edu­ca­tor focus­ing on pro­mot­ing sci­ence edu­ca­tion as the founder of

Pic cour­tesy of Big­Stock­Photo

Related arti­cles:

Selected Ref­er­ences:

  • Chen L, Rex C, Sanaiha Y, Lynch G, Gall C, Learn­ing Induces Neu­rotrophin Sig­nal­ing at Hip­pocam­pal Synapses, Proc Natl Acad Sci, 2010
  • Kess­lak, J. P., So, V., Choi, J., Cot­man, C. W., and Gomez-Pinilla, F. (1998). Learn­ing upreg­u­lates brain-derived neu­rotrophic fac­tor mes­sen­ger ribonu­cleic acid: a mech­a­nism to facil­i­tate encod­ing and cir­cuit main­te­nance? Behav. Neu­rosci. 112, 1012–1019.
  • Kumar A., Rani A., Tchi­gra­nova O., Lee W., Fos­ter T. (2012). Influ­ence of late-life expo­sure to envi­ron­men­tal enrich­ment or exer­cise on hip­pocam­pal func­tion and CA1 senes­cent phys­i­ol­ogy. Neu­ro­biol. Aging 33, 828.e1–828.e17.
  • Tong L., Pri­eto A.P., Kra­mar E.A., Smith E.D., Cribbs D.H., Lynch G., Cot­man C.W. (2012). Brain-derived neu­rotrophic factor-dependent synap­tic plas­tic­ity is sup­pressed by interleukin-1B via p38 mitogen-activated pro­tein kinase. J. Neu­rosci. 32, 17714–17724.

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