Our brain: A most complicated machine

BY Dr. Ralph E. Jones

With the advent of the 20th century, man had advanced further that at any time in history. With the development of urban centers, indoor plumbing, the electric light bulb, the automobile, flight, analog to digital computers; and many other discoveries and inventions, man was able to free up himself to pursue other interests and new discoveries. But of all these advancements, none were so great as man’s further understanding of the human brain…the impetus for all learning and discovery.

The human brain, with all of its many parts, is responsible for acceptance, analyzing, distributing, and acting on billions of bytes of information encountered on a daily basis. Our sensations, our thoughts, feelings, memory storage, and resulting behaviors occur due to the information being disseminated by electro-chemical means, in neurons, from brain cell to brain cell, to and from various areas of the brain. The brain is most assuredly a “super computer.” The digital computer age, which came about when man discovered how to build machines which mimic the human brain, has been the impetus for the personal computer, cell phone, and many other machines and devices which make our life easier; which gives us more time and knowledge to press forward with the invention of more complicated computers.

Yet, as Stephen Hawking has pointed out, there are times when the brain “breaks down;” when it stops working due to “component failure.”

Everything that occurs in our brain is due to the actions of neurotransmitters; electrical and chemical signals which carry messages across different parts of the brain and nervous system.

Stephen Hawking, Renowned Physicist and Lou Gehrig Disease survivor

“I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail.”

Although there are electrical signals which control movement, the majority of the brains function is caused by chemical neurotransmitters.

Among these chemicals are Serotonin, which helps control mood, appetite and sleep; Dopamine which is involved in controlling movement and aiding the flow of information to the frontal lobe of the brain which is linked to thought and emotions; and Glutamate, which is the most common neurotransmitter which assists in learning and memory and when it is released it aids in the electrical flow among brain cells.

Disruptions occur in the brain when either neuro-chemicals are lacking, or they are flooded, with, with neuro-chemicals…to much serotonin or not enough…too much dopamine or not enough… etc. This “too little” or “too much” of neuro-chemicals gives rise to mental illness and to Substance Use Disorders.

Examples of this can be seen in one having a diagnosis of depression where one is lacking in Serotonin, or one having too little dopamine which is found in the person having the mental illness of Schizophrenia.

When one uses/abuses illicit chemical substances, the drugs take the place of the naturally occurring chemicals in the brain; disrupting the normal flow to the synapses, the brain nerve endings which contain the neurochemicals; and therefore disrupting thought processes and feeling states. When one uses chemicals to the point of addiction, the neurochemicals may disappear all together, and the drugs take their place, even to the point of controlling motor abilities.

When I worked on aircraft electronic analog computer systems while in the Air Force, we knew that the computations that we received from the computer were only as good as the data we fed into them… we were well acquainted with the term “garbage in, garbage out”…GIGO. Thus it is with information taken into the brain. When one uses illicit chemical substances or abuses alcohol, it is likened to feeding the brain with garbage…one never knows what to expect. With mental illness, however, it is quite different; science does not as of yet have the total picture concerning what causes it; although it is known that MRI studies and other studies do show changes taking place in the differing areas of the brain, and we know there is there is an imbalance in the neurochemicals of the brain; and also we know that there are genetic and environmental causes associated.

Science has come a very long way in the past 50 years in the understanding and treatment of persons with mental illness and substance use disorders; particularly in the development of drugs which help restore the balance of neurochemicals in the brain. Prescribed drugs help ease the suffering of those with mental illness; such as quelling the delusional thinking and hallucinations of the person with Schizophrenia; balancing the mood of the person with Bipolar illness; and elevating and alleviating the mood of the person with major depression.

Drugs are continuously being developed and utilized for the person with a substance use disorder as well. When utilized and combined with a program of counseling therapy and other therapies, the outcomes have been most successful overall. The brain and its various components can be “fixed.”

In order for our brain to be in “tip top” working order, there are a number of things we can do, such as taking vitamins, working cross-word puzzles, doing gig-saw puzzles, etc; all keeping our thoughts healthy and active, our memory cells functioning, and our motor skills in top shape.

Like any other computer, our brain needs constant attention and maintenance to function at its optimal state…to prevent the breakdown of its components. The brain is a very complex machine indeed requiring continuous maintenance. Although having diseases of the brain is an exception among individuals at times, which we have no control over, we can keep our brain “components” working at optimal levels. When the components fail there is no replacement. Until Next Time, Stay Healthy My Friends!