Brain & Mind Medical

Piku & a curmudgeon: Tale of the aging brain

Curmudgeon is a word that I love for the sound of it! A word that Mr. Bachchan reminded me of, by impersonating it perfectly in Piku!
 
Effect of aging is discussed mostly in terms of deterioration of the body. We invest fortune in fighting the wrinkles or invest hours in battling the bulge, but we rarely notice that we are changing not just as a body but also as a person. 
 
With time, we all become a curmudgeon, a mentally constipated Dr.Banerjee, without being aware of the change.
 
Aging of the brain is the most important metamorphosis we go through. From an infant that can’t even sit, we grow into complex social beings. From a bundle of “few” interconnected neurons, over time, we become an astronomically complex web of neurons, and then, well, we become curmudgeons. 
 
If you have still not looked up curmudgeon (I had to, when I first met it!), it is a complaining irritating old man unhappy with everything. So, why do most of us become a curmudgeon?
 
When our infant brain arrives into the world, it needs to start recognizing objects and their relationships and store them as memories for future recollection. For this, it rapidly builds neural connections that store the sensory inputs as primary learning. A young brain is not very discretionary about this and builds a large network of neurons. It is just building itself for the second and even more important phase of its development.
 
As you grow up, you become more exposed to reality and start noticing patterns. As you grow older, you can now cut and prune the neural connections based on the predictable pattern that you have observed and become a lean, mean processing machine. As you age, you constantly go through a process of reducing neural connections. 
 
During the adulthood, you do retain ability to make new connections to remain capable of learning, but it is considerably reduced as the time passes. As the brain ages, it becomes more and more “rigid” in terms of forming new connections and avoids taking the pain as far as possible.
 
This process can be best understood from how one reads over time. As a child, you read by carefully going through each word. As you grow, you become less and less keen to read every word. Very soon, you stop reading every line and get a sense of the text by glancing through it. At no stage, if required, you are incapable of reading every word, but your brain finds it unnecessary and the tiring to do so.
 
In old age, the brain becomes a minimalistic processor that refuses to go beyond the patterns it has learnt. Due to this, change is the biggest enemy of old brain. A change, by not fitting into previously recognized patterns, annoys an old brain. It either refuses to accept the change or builds its own story to explain the change within its own set of patterns. This makes old people irritable and then irrational from the stand-point of young people whose brains are in a different stage of development.
 
As this journey from impressionable infant to a fixated curmudgeon is an inevitable result of the physical changes in brain, can one escape it, or at least reduce its impact?
 
The answer lies in the what is known as plasticity of brain. It is now established that, though the brain becomes reluctant to form new neural connections, it never loses its ability to do so when pushed hard. Those in active pursuit of learning rarely become cantankerous old people and remain lively even when their bodies become stiff and rigid. 
 
If you are feeling like a curmudgeon, go read a new book or join a dance class. Do something that you have never done before and you will discover the amazing plasticity of brain that is always capable to be young for those who look hard for it. 
DNA: 10/5/15

I am happy to admit that I have managed surviving till now with minimum effort as all my intellect has be used to avoid doing anything meaningful. As I needed to while all the free time I generated in course of being lazy, science has been my favorite muse that I have enjoyed company of. As an effort to kill time (in a way, to get even with it) one fine day I decided to write a science column, more for my personal amusement than to attract readers. After getting educated about the attention span of modern readers from my editor, it became more like a challenge to tackle esoteric subjects in 600 words that I have managed to remain interested in for more than a year now. I do not want to add my worldly profile here as these are ideas that need to be considered only on the merits they carry and not as an opinion of a certain human being.

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