Brain Basics

The nervous system is composed of two basic cell types: glial cells (also known as glia) and neurons. Glial cells are traditionally thought to play a supportive role to neurons, both physically and metabolically. Glial cells provide scaffolding on which the nervous system is built, help neurons line up closely with each other to allow neuronal communication, provide insulation to neurons, transport nutrients and waste products, and mediate immune responses. Neurons, on the other hand, serve as interconnected information processors that are essential for all of the tasks of the nervous system. This section briefly describes the structure and function of neurons.

Communication within the central nervous system (CNS), which consists of the brain and spinal cord, begins with nerve cells called neurons. Neurons connect to other neurons via networks of nerve fibers called axons and dendrites. Each neuron typically has a single axon and numerous dendrites that are spread out like branches of a tree (some will say it looks like a hand with fingers). The axon of each neuron reaches toward the dendrites of other neurons at intersections called synapses, which are critical communication links within the brain. Axons and dendrites do not touch, instead, electrical impulses in the axons cause the release of chemicals called neurotransmitters which carry information from the axon of the sending neuron to the dendrites of the receiving neuron.

Parts of a neuron, showing the cell body with extended branches called dendrites, then a long extended axon which is covered by myelin sheath that extends to the synapses.

Figure 5.2.1. Neuron.

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Video 5.2.1. The Neuron explains the part of the neuron and the signal transmission of the neurocommunication process.

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Synaptogenesis and Synaptic Pruning

While most of the brain’s 100 to 200 billion neurons are present at birth, they are not fully mature. Each neural pathway forms thousands of new connections during infancy and toddlerhood. Synaptogenesisor the formation of connections between neurons, continues from the prenatal period forming thousands of new connections during infancy and toddlerhood. During the next several years, dendrites, or connections between neurons, will undergo a period of transient exuberance or temporary dramatic growth (exuberant because it is so rapid and transient because some of it is temporary). There is such a proliferation of these dendrites during these early years that by age 2 a single neuron might have thousands of dendrites. 

After this dramatic increase, the neural pathways that are not used will be eliminated through a process called synaptic pruningwhere neural connections are reduced, thereby making those that are used much strongerIt is thought that pruning causes the brain to function more efficiently, allowing for mastery of more complex skills (Hutchinson, 2011). Experience will shape which of these connections are maintained and which of these are lost. Ultimately, about 40 percent of these connections will be lost (Webb, Monk, and Nelson, 2001). Transient exuberance occurs during the first few years of life, and pruning continues through childhood and into adolescence in various areas of the brain. This activity is occurring primarily in the cortex or the thin outer covering of the brain involved in voluntary activity and thinking. 



Video 5.2.2. Synaptic Pruning explains the reasons for pruning.

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Myelination

Another significant change occurring in the central nervous system is the development of myelin, a coating of fatty tissues around the axon of the neuron (Carlson, 2014). myelin helps insulate the nerve cell and speed the rate of transmission of impulses from one cell to another. This increase enhances the building of neural pathways and improves coordination and control of movement and thought processes. During infancy, myelination progresses rapidly, with increasing numbers of axons acquiring myelin sheaths. This corresponds with the development of cognitive and motor skills, including language comprehension, speech acquisition, sensory processing, crawling, and walking. Myelination in the motor areas of the brain during early to middle childhood leads to vast improvements in fine and gross motor skills. Myelination continues through adolescence and early adulthood and although largely complete at this time, myelin sheaths can be added in grey matter regions such as the cerebral cortex, throughout life.

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Video 5.2.3. Myelin explains the formation and purpose of myelin.

Neuroplasticity

Lastly, neuroplasticity refers to the brain's ability to change, both physically and chemically, to enhance its adaptability to environmental change and compensate for injury. Neuroplasticity enables us to learn and remember new things and adjust to new experiences. Both environmental experiences, such as stimulation, and events within a person's body, such as hormones and genes, affect the brain's plasticity. So too does age. Our brains are the most "plastic" when we are young children, as it is during this time that we learn the most about our environment. Adult brains demonstrate neuroplasticity, but they are influenced more slowly and less extensively than those of children (Kolb & Whishaw, 2011).



Video 5.2.4. Long-term Potentiation and Synaptic Plasticity explains how learning occurs through synaptic connections and plasticity.

The control of some specific bodily functions, such as movement, vision, and hearing, is performed in specified areas of the cortex. If these areas are damaged, the individual will likely lose the ability to perform the corresponding function. For instance, if an infant suffers damage to facial recognition areas in the temporal lobe, likely, he or she will never be able to recognize faces (Farah, Rabinowitz, Quinn, & Liu, 2000). On the other hand, the brain is not divided up in an entirely rigid way. The brain's neurons have a remarkable capacity to reorganize and extend themselves to carry out particular functions in response to the needs of the organism, and to repair the damage. As a result, the brain constantly creates new neural communication routes and rewires existing ones.

The Amazing Power of Neuroplasticity



Video 5.2.5. The Story of Jody is a case study about a young girl that had the right hemisphere of her brain removed as a treatment for severe seizures. Due to neuroplasticity, Jody was able to recover from the damage caused by the removal of so much of her cerebrum.

Brain Structures

At birth, the brain is about 25 percent of its adult weight, and by age two, it is at 75 percent of its adult weight. Most of the neural activity is occurring in the cortex or the thin outer covering of the brain involved in voluntary activity and thinking. The cortex is divided into two hemispheres, and each hemisphere is divided into four lobes, each separated by folds known as fissures. If we look at the cortex starting at the front of the brain and moving over the top, we see first the frontal lobe (behind the forehead), which is responsible primarily for thinking, planning, memory, and judgment. Following the frontal lobe is the parietal lobe, which extends from the middle to the back of the skull and which is responsible primarily for processing information about touch. Next is the occipital lobe, at the very back of the skull, which processes visual information. Finally, in front of the occipital lobe, between the ears, is the temporal lobe, which is responsible for hearing and language.

Figure 5.2.2. Lobes of the brain.

Although the brain grows rapidly during infancy, specific brain regions do not mature at the same rate. Primary motor areas develop earlier than primary sensory areas, and the prefrontal cortex, which is located behind the forehead, is the least developed. As the prefrontal cortex matures, the child is increasingly able to regulate or control emotions, to plan activities, strategize, and have better judgment. This maturation is not fully accomplished in infancy and toddlerhood but continues throughout childhood, adolescence, and into adulthood.

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Video 5.2.6. Lobes and Landmarks of the Brain Surface identifies the lobes and some of the major cortexes of the brain.

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Lateralization

Lateralization is the process in which different functions become localized primarily on one side of the brain. For example, in most adults, the left hemisphere is more active than the right during language production, while the reverse pattern is observed during tasks involving visuospatial abilities (Springer & Deutsch, 1993). This process develops over time, however, structural asymmetries between the hemispheres have been reported even in fetuses (Chi, Dooling, & Gilles, 1997; Kasprian et al., 2011) and infants (Dubois et al., 2009).

Growth in the Hemispheres and Corpus Callosum

Between ages 3 and 6, the left hemisphere of the brain grows dramatically. This side of the brain or hemisphere is typically involved in language skills. The right hemisphere continues to grow throughout early childhood and is involved in tasks that require spatial skills, such as recognizing shapes and patterns. The Corpus Callosum, a dense band of fibers that connects the two hemispheres of the brain, contains approximately 200 million nerve fibers that connect the hemispheres (Kolb & Whishaw, 2011).

The corpus callosum is located a couple of inches below the longitudinal fissure, which runs the length of the brain and separates the two cerebral hemispheres (Garrett, 2015). Because the two hemispheres carry out different functions, they communicate with each other and integrate their activities through the corpus callosum. Additionally, because incoming information is directed toward one hemisphere, such as visual information from the left eye being directed to the right hemisphere, the corpus callosum shares this information with the other hemisphere.

The corpus callosum undergoes a growth spurt between ages 3 and 6, and this results in improved coordination between right and left hemisphere tasks. For example, in comparison to other individuals, children younger than 6 demonstrate difficulty coordinating an Etch A Sketch toy because their corpus callosum is not developed enough to integrate the movements of both hands (Kalat, 2016).

Figure 5.2.3. Corpus callosum.

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