Does The Brain Eat Itself?
By: April Carson
Yes, your brain is constantly consuming itself.
Our brains are constantly changing and evolving in order to adapt with the environment. Our brain's ability to change is what makes us able to learn new things every day, but it also means that our thoughts can be altered over time as we form different connections between cells or synapses within our minds.
Pretty much everything we do, everything we are, is based on the connections between cells, the synapses, that form in our brain . Indeed, for a long time it was assumed that the adult brain was essentially ‘fixed’, and couldn’t be changed in any significant way. Modern evidence means this assumption is no longer so dominant, and the adult brain is acknowledged as being more flexible, more changeable than was originally assumed. It has been discovered that our brains can actually rewire themselves readily over time.
There is a relatively new theory that the brain cells actually start eating up other nearby brain cells in order to provide themselves with more nutrients and blood flow. This may sound like the plot to a bad sci-fi movie, but it is actually being taken seriously by scientists.
What is Phagocytosis?
Phagocytosis is a process that allows cells to envelop and consume smaller cells or molecules in order to remove them from the system. It's basically when our immune system eats harmful pathogens, getting rid of their disruptive influence on our bodies. So in this case, the brain ‘eating itself’ refers to its ability to absorb harmful pathogens just like phagocytosis.
While the brain is busy protecting itself against invaders, it must also maintain homeostasis. Phagocytosis does both of these things simultaneously to keep your mind running as usual.
In the brain, a lot of phagocytosis is happening at any given time. While keeping pathogens and other invaders out are obviously very important tasks, phagocytosis happens just for maintaining homeostasis too--keeping our minds running smoothly.
Like mentioned before, the adult brain is more flexible than originally thought. This means that it can change with time or when certain experiences are encountered. Immune cells are able to engulf harmful substances in order to remove them from the body. Similarly, the brain is able to absorb harmful substances such as pathogens due to its plasticity.
There are many examples of this; for example, when we learn a new language or engage in memory-related tasks such as learning or studying, our brains change and these changes can be detected at a microscopic level. Learning causes neurons to grow and form new synaptic connections.
Reflecting on this, we can see that the adult brain is more similar to other body tissues than it is to the developing brain. The flexibility of the adult brain makes it able to change its structure and function in response to environmental stimuli and demands.
This plasticity is responsible for the recovery of functions that were lost after a stroke or other injury and contributes to learning, memory and recovery of motor skills. It is the cause of phantom limb pain when people who have had an arm removed still experience sensations in their missing hand.
Our brain is a complex organ that requires lots of energy. It uses about one-third of the body's available oxygen and glucose, which means it needs more than most other organs in order to keep working at peak performance levels. To put this into perspective, our brains are estimated to use up around 20%–25% [of] all blood flow received by the heart! This makes sense considering how busy and demanding the brain really is: there are countless processes happening between and within neurons (brain cells), all day long.