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Brain Myths & Facts 101

Never has there been a time when facts about the anatomy and functions of the human brain were so mainstream. Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, both debilitating diseases without a cure have become forefront in the consciousnesses of not just the medical profession, but the general population as well. Thanks to high profile personalities like the late president Ronald Reagan, Michael J. Fox and Maria Shriver who, along with their families have gone public to promote awareness about diseases of the brain, many lay people are likely to have some basic education about the human brain. Yet with all of the publicity, a new study surveying middle and high school students and their knowledge of the human brain and its functions, exposes a startling amount of misunderstanding.

Myth: The brain is separate from the nervous system.
Reality: Students often assume that the brain and the nervous system are separate, unrelated entities. Further studies have shown that they often believe organs such as the heart and lungs are part of the nervous system. In reality, the nervous system is composed of the brain, the spinal cord, neurons, and neural support cells.

Myth: The brain is a uniform mass of tissue.
Reality: The only exposure most students often have to brain anatomy is a photo or drawing of a gray, bulbous, wrinkled mass of tissue. Although the brain may appear uniform at a gross anatomic level, it is actually composed of billions of specialized cells. These cells, called neurons and glia, are further organized into specialized functional regions within the brain. This type of variation within the brain is what allows it to function as “command central” of the human body.

Myth: Control of voluntary activity is the sole purpose of the brain.
Reality: Many students have the misconception that the brain is used only when they are doing something, such as thinking or performing a physical action. Most do not recognize that we use our brains constantly for a variety of activities that, while crucial to our survival, require no conscious thought. For example, the human brain is responsible for involuntary activities, such as regulating heartbeat, breathing and digestion. Although the brain controls both voluntary and involuntary activities, different regions of the brain are devoted to each type of task.

Myth: The vertebral column and the spinal cord are the same thing.
Reality: The only exposure most students have to the human spine is as a component in models of skeletons. Thus, they may assume that the spine consists solely of the skeletal structure of the vertebral column, or backbone. They can feel their own backbone, and they know that it is a structural component of their body. Students may not realize that the backbone encases the spinal cord, a vital part of our nervous system.

Myth: The brain does not change.
Reality: The idea that the brain does not change after growth ceases may be the greatest misconception that most people have.  In reality, the brain changes throughout life. During embryonic development and early life, the brain changes dramatically. Neurons form many new connections, and some neurons die. However, scientists have discovered that changes in the brain are not restricted to early life.  Even in the adult brain, neurons continue to form new connections, strengthen existing connections, or eliminate connections as we continue to learn. Recent studies have shown that some neurons in the adult brain retain the ability to divide. Damaged neurons have some capability to regenerate if conditions are right.

Myth: Learning disabilities are the only manifestation of a problem with brain function.
Reality: During their school years, most students will encounter someone who has a learning disability. For many, this is their only experience with a brain disorder. Because many types of neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease tend to affect older people, students may not have experience with them. They may not realize that emotional and behavioral conditions such as depression and hyperactivity are also brain disorders.
Diseases and injuries to the brain and nervous system afflict millions of Americans of all ages each year. Although some injuries and diseases are of short duration, others are permanent and disabling.

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About The Author: Gloria Ha’o Schneider is an expert in senior citizen and baby boomer issues. Her topics revolve around Senior Living and Healthcare to provide the latest information to this demographic as well as their families and loved ones.

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