Our expanding knowledge of the brain’s ability to change, adapt, and grow more complex is one of the most exciting frontiers in science. This capacity to transform and adapt, called neuroplasticity, means that new opportunities to solve an array of stubborn brain disorders is on the horizon. It also gives us new confidence as we now develop tools to unlock human potential that are beyond what we would have imagined only 10 years ago.
One of my most convincing experiences with neuroplasticity and human performance came while doing my Ph.D. research at NASA. I was working with the Chief Medical Officer in conjunction with the neurophysiology/psychophysiology group in the Life Sciences Division. Drs. Bill Toscano and Pat Cowings had developed a technique called AFTE (autogenic feedback training exercise). It was based on the measurement of 10 to 20 parameters of the autonomic nervous system – that part of the nervous system that controls our automatic functions like blood pressure, heart rate, perspiration, and many others.
Through a rigorous training protocol, astronauts and others were trained to control these functions of the nervous system that were not typically thought to be under any voluntary control. In one fascinating demonstration of its utility, one cosmonaut was trained in AFTE, while his partner being flown to the MIR space station was not. After several months in space, humans lose their ability to control their own blood pressure when they get back to earth’s gravity (called orthostatic hypotension). This function often takes several weeks to recover.
The case of these cosmonauts showed us something different. As expected, the cosmonaut who had not been trained in AFTE was carried from the Soyuz capsule after landing, as he was unable to maintain blood pressure while walking. However, the cosmonaut who had been trained in AFTE was able to walk from the Soyuz under his own power. This work and others like it is ongoing, providing tremendous insights into human capacities, while yielding practical tools for human benefit.
Why dietary fats are critical for the brain
While astronauts and cosmonauts would be considered elite performers operating under extreme conditions, we have also seen the benefits of addressing the brain’s plasticity in vulnerable populations with various disorders of development or function. This facet of neuroplasticity deals with dietary precursors – the nutritional raw materials that serve as building blocks for our cellular architecture.
One path of practical importance deals with fatty acids and lipids. It is not widely known that the human brain is some 60 percent fat. From our life as a developing fetus to our adolescence, from adulthood to old age, our brain is dependent upon the fatty acids derived from the diet.
Like a palace in which each stone must serve a specific purpose, fatty acids from the diet each have a unique role in building the very elaborate architecture of the brain. Limit the supply of crucial fatty acids too much, and we change the very structure of the brain. Alter the structure and we alter the function in ways that are broad and, sometimes, dramatic.
This is vividly illustrated in the case of a six-year-old girl who sustained a bullet wound to the abdomen. Doctors were able to save her, but she needed extensive surgery to remove large portions of the intestinal tract. Since she could no longer digest food, she required feeding by parenteral nutrition—IV feeding.
After several months, doctors noticed that she was developing severe neurological symptoms that did not fit any diagnosis and that were not associated in any way with the bullet wound. She suffered from numbness of the hands and feet, loss of sensation, leg pain, blurred vision, and trembling of the arm—all signs of nerve degeneration. Frequent episodes of weakness left her unable to walk for ten to fifteen minutes at a time.
Many specialists weighed in on her condition, but all were perplexed. Then, an expert in fatty acid metabolism asked that her IV formula be analyzed for fatty acid content. He found that the omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio of the feeding formula was a staggering 115 to 1. Doctors quickly replaced her IV with a ratio that was a more reasonable 6 to 1 (with the ideal ration being between 4:1 and 1:1). In short order, her blood levels were restored and her “neurological symptoms disappeared.” (Holman, RT, Am J Clin Nutr)
It appears that the IV formula depleted her of omega-3 fatty acids and literally remodeled her brain—degrading the pillars of the palace. Upon restoring fatty acid balance, the palace architecture was repaired, with a striking return to a normal state of brain health. This case was convincing evidence that we alter the fatty acid balance of the diet at our own peril.
It also opened a new frontier—a frontier in which we are beginning to understand how much authority we hold in shaping the brain that inhabits this remarkable human body of ours.
Michael A. Schmidt, is a NASA consultant in the areas of space biomedicine and space biotechnology and author of numerous books, including Brain-Building Nutrition: How Dietary Fats and Oils Affect Mental, Physical, and Emotional Intelligence.Complete bio.