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We have a gut feeling—of the importance of intestinal microbes in MS

There is still so much about the world of bacteria and other microbes inside our gastrointestinal tract, or gut, that we need to discover.  We are just beginning to explore this internal domain, and, in the past several years, scientists have made some interesting observations.   The entirety of bacteria and other microbes living within each of us—also called our microbiome—is unique to each of us.  This microbiome can be influenced by where we live (developed country v.s. developing country), what we eat (more animal products v.s. more vegetables) and what medications we take (for example, antibiotics used to treat bacterial infections in our body may also kill some of the “friendly” bacteria in our gut). You have probably heard that statistic that up to to 70% of your immune system resides in your gut.  What does this really mean?  The longest portion of our gut is [ironically] called the small intestine.  In an adult male it averages 20 feet in length, but if it were completely spread out it would...

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Myelination and the Active Brain

        When you practice a new cognitive skill, like learning a language, or perform a new motor skill, like learning to swim, you activate pathways in your brain in new ways. We have long known that, when you learn or practice new skills, your brain creates new connections between neurons (called synapses) or modifies existing connections. Several recent studies implicate certain brain cells called oligodendrocytes, and the myelin sheaths they create around our neurons, as also playing an important role in learning or performance enhancement.   Much of the myelination of our brain occurs during early development. During this period, immature cells called oligodendrocyte progenitor cells (OPCs) grow into mature oligodendrocytes, which then produce the myelin sheaths that envelop neurons. A sizeable population of OPCs exists in the adult brain as well, and they can mature into oligodendrocytes after brain injury or demyelination. Indeed, remyelination may occur in the early stages of MS, but in later stages this remyelination fails.   The brain is made up...

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Sleep: the Brain’s Reset Button

  Recently, psychiatry professors Giulio Tononi and Chiara Cirelli published an article outlining their hypothesis on the purpose of sleep and how it affects memory and learning.  They point out that all living animals require sleep, from humans to fruit flies. Dolphins and whales even sleep by turning off one hemisphere of their brain at a time, which allows them to still surface to breathe. But what benefit could sleep provide that outweighs leaving one weak and vulnerable? Nearly a century ago, scientists proposed the idea that sleep is important to memory. Many believed, and a myriad of studies have shown, that newly formed memories are remembered more strongly after a period of sleep than if one were to spend that time awake.  Naturally, a hypothesis was formed that sleep strengthens the synaptic connections (the contact points between neurons) formed during waking hours. The thought process being that as the connected neurons fire repeatedly, and then are replayed during sleep, those synapses become stronger and more readily relay information...

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