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Mind, Matter and Maturation

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The major goal of the Center for Collaborative Brain Research (CCBR) is to continue the fascinating study of the human brain. The CCBR is a partnership among Bradley University, OSF Saint Francis Medical Center, and the Illinois Neurological Institute. To date, six fMRI brain research projects have been completed and are prepared for publication. Dr. Lori Russell-Chapin’s personal research goals are to continue researching children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders (ADHD) and the impact of neurofeedback on the default mode network in the brain. Widely published and the recipient of numerous awards, she recently was named the Linda Seligman Counselor Educator of the Year by the American Mental Health Counselors Association for her teaching excellence, mentorship, engagement with students, creative teaching and research.

How do the 100 billion neurons that fire up the human brain develop and organize over a lifetime? In the past 10 years, research has debunked myths surrounding the brain’s maturing process. Advances in neuroscience, aided by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), have opened a window to the extraordinarily complex master organ that orchestrates our very being. We now know scientifically that you can do much to control the development of your brain.

“What were you thinking?” If this probing question resonates with you, perhaps you are parenting children or teens who are making more than their share of mistakes on their journeys to maturity. Or, perhaps you remember your parents’ frustration as they questioned your actions and decisions as an adolescent. According to Dr. Lori Russell-Chapin, associate dean of the College of Education and Health Sciences and co-director of the Center for Collaborative Brain Research (CCBR), the teenage brain truly does look different and is not close to the maturity level that scientists believed in the past. She advises parents to consistently remind themselves that the brains of children and teens don’t have the capacity to think as adults do. As younger brains fire differently, they are often impulsive and their decisions may fail to consider the consequences of their actions. By age 25, most brains reach maturation. Meanwhile, she encourages parents to do their best to provide guidance.

Interestingly, Russell-Chapin pointed out that the less mature brain is more open and more willing to take on new experiences. This stage of development is good for teens, as this time allows them to find their own identities, explore various careers, and learn their places in the world. In short, adults must be patient and encourage that exploration, even though it makes them uncomfortable at times. Why? According to Russell-Chapin, this period allows teens’ neurogenesis to bloom with possibility and increase healthy brain growth. Neurogenesis, the ability to create new neuronal pathways, is a reality especially in the area of the hippocampus, the part of the brain that assists in consolidation of short-term memory to long-term memory.

Dr. Lori Russell-Chapin, associate dean of the College of Education and Health Sciences and co-director of the Center for Collaborative Brain Research, cited a recent study teaching senior citizens how to “Google” and become proficient online as just one example where researchers used functional MRIs. The fMRI research showed how the learning process activated many neuronal paths in different areas of the brain. Russell-Chapin recently completed her 26th year of teaching and researching at Bradley University.

Gray Matter and White Matter

Russell-Chapin said it’s all about the neurons that make up both gray and white matter in the brain. Gray matter consists of neuronal processing cell bodies, and white matter is composed of insulated wiring that links neurons within and between gray matter, providing essential connectivity to different parts of the brain. “Gray matter is actually grayish-brown in color, while the connecting white matter takes its name from the white color of the myelin sheath,” Russell-Chapin explained. Both gray and white matter are essential for the efficient operation of the brain’s neural networks. Neurons are cells that generate minute electrical signals, and astonishingly, the human brain has “more connections than there are stars in the Milky Way galaxy,” Russell-Chapin noted. 

Advancements in computer and electronic technology now enable researchers to monitor, amplify, and filter the raw electroactivity of the brain through an electroencephalogram (EEG.) “New fMRI imaging technology allows us to observe the brain’s underlying neuronal networks, showing how white and gray matter increase from childhood to adulthood. If our brains become less nimble, it is because the rate of signal transmission decreases. 

Consider the final trimester of pregnancy, when an infant’s neurons have multiplied at an amazingly rapid rate of 250,000 per minute. When born, the infant’s brain weighs approximately one-fourth of a pound. By age 2, the toddler’s brain weighs 75 percent of an adult brain. Within the first three years of life, the brain triples in weight, and each neuron has formed more than 10,000 connections. In addition, a 3-year-old child’s brain boasts twice as many synapses, or connections, as an adult’s brain because their function is to “wire up” or activate brain functions. At the same time, there is clear evidence that a depressed or alcoholic mother impacts fetal brain development. Moreover, poverty, hunger, harassment, bullying, and trauma all hinder development, most often permanently.

Myths abound about the magic age of 4 when researchers once believed the brain was fully developed. Recently, researchers have demonstrated that the brain continues to develop into adulthood. It has been found to mature from the back of the head to the front. In fact, today’s research points to the significance of the prefrontal cortex, the final area of the brain to mature. Russell-Chapin hypothesizes that it may not fully develop until closer to the age of 24 to 34 years. During maturation, the gray and white matter increase in volume. Between childhood and adulthood, white matter also becomes more organized, enhancing the maturing brain’s ability to function more effectively. 

A Brain at Work

Brain Quiz

How much do you know about your brain? Russell-Chapin challenges her graduate students on the first day of class with a Brain Quiz to test their basic knowledge. Test your knowledge with her modified quiz.

True or False?

  1. The adult human brain weighs approximately 3 pounds.
  2. Our lifestyle impacts the brain’s efficiency. 
  3. Approximately 100 billion neurons can fire in the brain. 
  4. The human brain is fully developed by age 4. 
  5. The brain is a plastic and malleable organ. 
  6. Physical exercise is one of the major factors in brain growth. 
  7. The function of gray matter in the brain is to signal nerve transmissions. 
  8. Humans have their full amount of brain neurons at birth. 
  9. Learning a new task and repeating it creates new pathways in the brain. 
  10. People 65 years of age and older are not able to create new neuronal pathways.

1. (T) 2. (T) 3. (T) 4. (F) 5. (T) 6. (T) 7. (T) 8. (F) 9. (T) 10. (F)

The adult brain weighs around 3 pounds, and since it is a plastic and malleable organ, Russell-Chapin noted it can be changed to function in a healthier manner. She pointed to the DANA Foundation’s research that showed no significant difference in the volume of gray matter neurons in the healthy brain from the ages of 40 to 69, dependent upon the level of brain activity. However, as we age, knowledge increases, and new neurons and neural nets are developed through old age. With this maturity comes less impulsive behavior and all-important emotional regulation, which occurs when the decision-making cognitive prefrontal cortex is able to master the hormones and genes of the emotional limbic system.

“There is no point in all our research if I don’t clearly convey one of my favorite neuroscience messages: ‘The brain at work is a brain that works,’” Russell-Chapin added. “When we proactively exercise the brain, the brain works far more efficiently. We all need to be aware that the 90-year-old brain in some people can be more efficient and expert than those of people much younger. The adage ‘use it or lose it’ applies to our brains. If we sit still in retirement both mentally and physically, the brain will atrophy as neural loss increases. As one of my mentors Dr. Allen Ivey said, ‘Involve yourself in life, and you likely will live longer with a more active and useful brain.’”

For example, keeping the brain fit requires an overall commitment to wellness, brain health and stress management. Current research has also established that physical exercise is one of the major factors in brain health. Russell-Chapin advised, “We can hurt our brains by being inactive. Nourishing the brain helps strengthen nerve signaling. We can help our brains by consuming Vitamin E-rich foods like spinach and strawberries. Lifestyle does impact the brain’s development. As we grow older, alcohol and smoking present double problems. We are less able to metabolize alcohol due to diminished levels of water available in the body. An enriched routine of eating well, exercising well, and sleeping well equals good brain health. If we challenge our brain and age well, neuron deficits are truly restricted.”

The healthy human brain continues to grow and develop until we take our last breath. “People may get bored, but the brain never gets bored,” Russell-Chapin explained. “The brain may become tired, fatigued — but never bored. The human brain is capable of creating new neural pathways until we die. The more we challenge our brain by learning new skills and ideas, the healthier we function.”

Russell-Chapin added, “As Bradley graduates, you are among the ‘best and brightest.’ You will live longer, be healthier, and have less chance of Alzheimer’s because one of the best predictors of wellness is educational background, which often leads to economic advantages, a better diet, more awareness of the importance of exercise, etc.” 

However, she pointed out additional lifestyle choices that have been shown to impact the brain: “There is a spiritual dimension of brain and physical health. Research shows that those with strong faith or belief systems leave the hospital sooner. Service to others also has been found to contribute to mental health.”

Russell-Chapin summed up her philosophy with the Australian saying, “Life. Be in it!” commenting that “by being in life, you will have greater brain health and live a healthier, longer, productive life.”   

— Karen Crowley Metzinger, MA ’97
Photography by Duane Zehr