"Men and women are not prisoners of fate, but only prisoners of their own minds."
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s intent when speaking these words was purely philosophical and meant to remind us that our potential was only limited by our capacity to dream. For any of the 200 million individuals living with a disease that effects the mind, however, that idea of the mind as a prison is a stark reality.
The brain, as the control center of the body, is responsible for receiving input from our sensory organs and sending output to the muscles of our body. Indeed, the human brain as the most complex organ in the human body produces our every thought, action, memory, feeling and experience of the world. This jelly-like mass of fat and protein, weighing in at around 3 pounds, contains a staggering one hundred billion nerve cells, or neurons, that can process information at speeds as fast as 268 miles/hour. The sheer complexity of the connectivity between these cells is mind-boggling. Each neuron of the brain can make contact with thousands or even tens of thousands of other neurons via tiny structures called synapses. In fact, our brains form a million new connections for every second of our lives. It is in these changing connections that memories are stored, habits are learned and personalities are shaped simply by reinforcing certain patterns of brain activity and losing others. Experts estimate that in a lifetime, a human brain may retain up to one quadrillion separate bits of information.
Beth Pummill, center-based Geriatric Nurse Practitioner, works daily with physicians such as Svetlana Mishulin, MD, Board Certified Internal Medicine, to provide medical care to patients in Heartland and ManorCare centers. This collaboration between physicians and Heartland Care Partner nurse practitioners is part of the practice model in our higher acuity skilled nursing and rehabilitation centers.
Making sense of the brain’s mind-boggling complexity isn’t easy. Scientists claim that the most complicated and mysterious thing in the universe is the human brain. We know more about stars exploding billions of light years away than we know about the brain. What we do know about the brain is that it is the organ that makes us human. It gives us the capacity for art, language, moral judgments, and rational thought. It is also responsible for each of our individual personalities, memories, movements, and for how we sense the world.
The brain is an evolving organ that is constantly changing. During childhood, the brain gets “wired up.” It forms the foundation of the functionality and patterns that take us into adolescence. During adolescence, the frontal lobe undergoes a surge of development which establishes who we will become as an adult. As an adult, the most important trait of the brain is its ability to adapt to new experiences. And as we age well into our 70s and beyond the brain should allow us to continue to be creative and productive members of humanity. In fact, while studies of the brains of older people show some decrease in the number of neurons below the cerebral cortex, they contradict the once popular belief that adults lose an enormous number of neurons every day.
The changes to cell processes that we see may represent yet another fine-tuning of our cerebral networks. Unfortunately the all too common conditions such as stroke, traumatic brain injury, Alzheimer’s dementia, and cancer which impact over 400 million people nationally disrupt brain function and often cause significant and detrimental cognitive and physical impairments.