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Size Matters
 

split screen two players in a console gameWhen a hard time hits, it helps to have something in reserve. In an economic recession savings can get you through the tough patch, and in nature, animals that hibernate stock up on stored energy before they ramp down for winter.

Multiple Sclerosis causes damage to the brain and spinal cord that can lead to a variety of physical symptoms such as difficulty moving and speaking. However, MS can also disrupt cognitive functions such as being able to recall memories and names, and being able to recognise people and take part in conversations. These cognitive disruptions in MS are considered to be disabling consequences of the disease because they affect quality of life and the ability to stay working and socially engaged.

As many as 60% of people with MS are affected by cognitive changes, and scientists are trying to understand how others with MS pathology do not show cognitive impairment. The key may be in engaging in activities that make the most of the brain’s natural flexibility and that boost the brain’s capacity to get around disease and injury.

Some scientists believe that our brains can also hold some reserve to ward off the impacts of damage over time. That ‘money in the brain bank’ is often described as neurological reserve, which takes two forms: brain reserve and cognitive reserve.

Brain reserve is the structural stuff – grey matter, white matter and the thickness of the cortex. Cognitive reserve refers to how effectively and efficiently the brain functions. One way of thinking about it is that the brain reserve is the hardware and the cognitive reserve is the software.

Brain reserve means that the brain’s structural characteristics provide resilience against the atrophy or wasting associated with disease or ageing. Scientists aren’t sure how this works, but it could be that there is more brain ‘stuff’ to lose or that the brain contains more elaborate networks of cells.

One interesting observation is that generally people with larger brains are at less risk of developing dementia – maybe they have more brain stuff? Scientists have also reported that people with MS who have physically larger brains may experience fewer cognitive symptoms.

Scientists used to think that there was nothing that could be done about the actual size of your brain. But we now know that certain activities, for example physical exercise and mental stimulation are actually linked with changes in the brain itself. Increased cognitive activity may help to preserve the volume of the whole brain and particularly of the part of the brain involved in memory and learning (hippocampus).

Some life exposures, such as exercise, have been linked with increased total brain and hippocampal volume. So the brain itself is actually plastic, or changeable. Some people maintain their brains (and brain reserves) more successfully than others and this phenomenon may be down to particular life exposures such as education, occupations and certain leisure activities.


Professor Gavin Giovannoni chats to MS reporter Cat about brain reserve, cognitive reserve and brain health.

 
 
Hello Brain For more info on brain health visit Hello Brain
 

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