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 TestBankPrep.com.

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.

About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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