I was preparing to bicycle over to the office one frigid and blustery morning last week when I noticed that our recycling bin was filled to overflowing. This is not something I would normally address on my way out the door, but I recalled that my yoga teacher once told me that veering out of my routine can blaze new neural pathways among the cobwebs in my aging brain. So, I gathered up the bag of bottles and plastic refuse from beneath the kitchen sink, tugged on my gloves and stocking cap, and headed out — secretly pleased to be combining a household task with a neurological one.
Outside, the wind was threatening to dispatch anything lighter than a two-door sedan into the next county, but our trash containers remained somehow moored to their usual place near the garage door. I disposed of my burden, climbed on my bike, and pedaled east across the river and up the hill, buffeted by icy blasts but secure in the knowledge that my neurons were pushing unencumbered into exciting new territory.
It wasn’t until I’d locked up my bike that I realized I’d left my backpack with my computer back in the kitchen.
This latest in a long line of brain farts may mean that my neurons, rather than boldly charting new trails, are more likely to be wandering aimlessly toward some cellular cemetery. And while conventional wisdom tells us that the only good neuron is a live one, new research from an unlikely source suggests that my dying nerve cells might actually postpone senility.
Scientists at Lisbon’s Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown (CCU) last month released the results of a study showing that neuronal death is part of a “survival-of-the-fittest” antiaging process that supports brain health. Working with flies genetically modified to produce the beta-amyloid protein that characterizes Alzheimer’s disease, Eduardo Moreno, PhD, and his team discovered that killing off less-fit neurons mitigated the condition.
“The neuronal death protects the brain from more widespread damage and therefore the neuronal loss is not what is bad; it is worse not to let those neurons die,” Moreno said in a statement. “Our most important finding is that we have probably been thinking the wrong way about Alzheimer’s disease. Our results suggest that neuronal death is beneficial because it removes neurons that are affected by noxious beta-amyloid aggregates from brain circuits, and having those dysfunctional neurons is worse than losing them.”
So, if Moreno and his colleagues are correct, my recent misadventure may have been caused by the lack of a routine neuronal massacre in my geezer cranium. But it’s a theory that offers less comfort than confusion. If my neurons weren’t dying off at a meaningful clip, I suppose that might explain my distractibility that morning. But I might also argue that those vulnerable synapses were firing at full speed by the time I struggled back home against that northwest wind and decided there was no way I was going to venture back into that gale.