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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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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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