LEARNING about the brain is not just for scientists and academicians; it’s also important for the community, especially families, says Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) neuroscientist and anatomist Assoc Prof Dr Cheah Pike See.
“Neuroscience is a subject that breaches age and education, from young children to adults to those in their golden years,” says Cheah who facilitated the recent “Neuroscience: Breach the Research Barrier” event.
It’s important to promote brain awareness to the community and general population so they know how to develop the brain (for young children), keep the brain healthy, prevent the impact of brain-related diseases or recover from them, Cheah says.
“The first five years of life is the most important time for brain development. How you nurture children, what you feed them, their educational exposure and sensory-connective exposure – all these affect their brain development.
“Adults need quality physical activities and mental exercises to combat the stress of daily life and other factors that could demotivate us. For the elderly who are susceptible to neuro-degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, learning how to lessen this risk is necessary,” she says.
The event saw the participation of over 500 neuroscientists and academicians from local universities, kindergartens, and organisations such as Alzheimer’s Disease Foundation Malaysia, Autism Cafe Malaysia, Autism Support Group, and National Stroke Association of Malaysia.
Keeping the brain healthy
Those living in urban areas are prone to stress due to work and other responsibilities, Cheah says. Besides diet and nutrition, they need to find ways to reduce mental stress, Cheah adds.
“Physical activity increases oxygen supply to the brain and this nourishes the neurons, or nerve cells that send messages throughout your body to help you perform. This explains why patients bedridden due to chronic diseases may suffer from depression,” she explains.
“Social activity is also important. When you talk to others, you get mental and emotional support. The brain loves socialising whether it’s in-person or virtual. When someone listens to you, it validates you,” she adds.
Cheah says while brain function declines with age, one can determine whether one ages well, normally or badly. “It’s all about diet and nutrition, physical exercise and social interaction. Music, laughter, exposure to sunlight and human touch help too,”
For example, one of the activities the Alzheimer’s Disease Foundation does is going outdoors so the elderly get sun exposure and vitamin D, elements to boost brain power.
Sense of community
Brain awareness also helps those with autism and their caregivers, says Cheah. “A sense of acceptance is very important because those in the autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are also part of society. Society should be there to support, not bully or discriminate them,” she adds.
“Support groups are important, not just for autism, but other conditions. This means having family members, friends and other like-minded individuals going through the same journey giving peer support and exchanging ideas on how to overcome and handle difficult situations,” says Cheah.
Alzheimer’s patients sometimes throw tantrums so it can be very frustrating for their caregivers. That’s why it’s best to learn from others who already know what to do.
Cheah says it’s important for families to be aware about stroke too. “Stroke happens when blood vessels that supply blood to the brain are affected. It is part of the cerebral vascular diseases which also includes Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s,” she says.
“Sometimes, people may face minor stroke (or transient ischemic attack) before a major one. They may feel a little numb on one side of the body or have slurred speech, but it’s gone after an hour. It’s transient and happens multiple times, but can only be detected through brain imaging,” she says.
Rewire and remap
Cheah adds that the brain can be “rewired”, especially after an injury. “When you learn something such as holding chopsticks, a group of neurons in the brain are activated to cause an action. As you practise more, you’ll become better at it,” she says.
“When someone has brain injury, that group of neurons can’t work together anymore. But as long as you train the brain, these neurons can remap and rewire themselves. For example, those born without arms use the brain’s control over arm movement for toes or mouth to hold a pen and write,” she adds.
“As long as you have the desire to survive, you can train your brain to remap and rewire itself,” she explains. All these are useful for families because if they’re more aware about the brain, they can better look after themselves and be more effective and caring caregivers.