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How does your brain work?

Your brain is the hub of your nervous system. It is made up of 100 billion nerve cells - about the same as the number of trees in the Amazon rainforest. Each cell is connected to around 10,000 others. So the total number of connections in your brain is the same as the number of leaves in the rainforest - about 1000 trillion.

How does your nervous system work?

The nervous system is a network of cells called neurons which transmit information in the form of electrical signals. Your brain has around 100 billion neurons, and each communicates with thousands of others as many connections as in the world's telephone system, the biggest machine on the planet. Neurons communicate with each other at special junctions where chemicals help to bridge the gap between one neuron and the next.

What does the central nervous system do?

Your spinal cord receives information from the skin, joints and muscles of your body. It also carries the nerves that control all your movements. Your brain is the most complicated part of your nervous system. It receives information directly from your ears, eyes, nose and mouth, as well as from the rest of your body via the spinal cord. It uses this information to help you react, remember, think and plan, and then sends out the appropriate instructions to your body.

What does the peripheral nervous system do?

Some of your peripheral nervous system (PNS) is under your voluntary control - the nerves that carry instructions from your brain to your limbs, for example. As well as controlling your muscles and joints, it sends all the information from your senses back to your brain. Other parts of your PNS are controlled by the brain automatically. This is the autonomic nervous system. It manages some things your body does 'without thinking' like digestion and temperature control.

Which nerve cells do what?

Two sorts of cells make up the nervous system: neurons and glial cells. Neurons are the building blocks of the nervous system. Information travels along neurons as electrical signals nerve impulses. These signals are passed to the next neuron in the chain at special sites known as synapses. There are ten times as many glial cells than neurons. Glial cells do not actually conduct electrical impulses, they look after the structure and maintenance of the brain.

What are neurons?

All neurons have the same basic parts. The 'control centre' of the cell is known as the cell body. The axon (nerve fibre) transmits electrical signals from the cell body. The dendrites are branching fibres that receive electrical signals from other neurons. The shape of a neuron is determined by the job it does. The axons of some neurons are shorter than 1 millimetre, while axons that carry signals from the spinal cord to the foot may be as long as a metre.

How do nerves connect with each other?

The electrical signals (nerve impulses) carried by neurons are passed on to other neurons at junctions called synapses. The signal may be directly transferred at electrical synapses or, if there is no physical link between adjacent neurons, the signal is carried across the gap by chemicals called neurotransmitters. By using neurotransmitters, the nervous system can alter the way a message is passed on. Each neuron communicates with many others and this contributes to the amazing complexity of the brain.

What is a synapse?
When a nerve impulse reaches the synapse at the end of a neuron, it cannot pass directly to the next one. Instead, it triggers the neuron to release a chemical neurotransmitter. The neurotransmitter drifts across the gap between the two neurons. On reaching the other side, it fits into a tailor-made receptor on the surface of the target neuron, like a key in a lock. This docking process converts the chemical signal back into an electrical nerve impulse.

Why use neurotransmitters?

Your brain uses over 50 different neurotransmitter chemicals. Although electrical signalling between neurons is quicker and more energy efficient, chemical signalling is far more versatile. The signals carried by some neurotransmitters excite the target cell while others dampen down their activity, depending on the type of neurotransmitter released at the synapse and the receptors they reach. This is what sharpens the contrast between light and dark in the eye, for example.

What are nerve impulses?

A nerve impulse is an electrical signal that travels along an axon. There is an electrical difference between the inside of the axon and its surroundings, like a tiny battery. When the nerve is activated, there is a sudden change in the voltage across the wall of the axon, caused by the movement of ions in and out of the neuron. This triggers a wave of electrical activity that passes from the cell body along the length of the axon to the synapse.

Got the need for speed?

The speed of nerve impulses varies enormously in different types of neuron. The fastest travel at about 250 mph, faster than a Formula 1 racing car. For the impulse to travel quickly, the axon needs to be thick and well insulated. This uses a lot of space and energy, however, and is found only in neurons that need to transfer information urgently. For example, if you burn your fingers it is important that your brain gets the message to withdraw your hand very quickly.

How do nerve impulses code information?

Nerve impulses are a way of coding information, in a similar way to FM radio, allowing information to be transmitted both quickly and accurately. Each impulse is the same size so it is the frequency that carries information about the intensity of the signal. For example, as you turn up the dimmer switch on your bedroom light, the size of the nerve impulses from your eye stays the same but the rate at which they are generated increases. The giant axons of the squid were crucial in helping scientists understand nerve impulses.

What is myelin?
Neurons that need to transmit electrical signals quickly are sheathed by a fatty substance called myelin. Myelin acts as an electrical insulator, and signals travel 20 times faster when it is present. In the disease multiple sclerosis, the myelin around the axons of some nerves gradually breaks down, so that the nerves can no longer efficiently carry electric signals between the brain and body.

How do neurons communicate?

Most neurons communicate with others by releasing one of over 50 different types of neurotransmitter. Each neurotransmitter fits on to its receptor on the surface of the neighbouring neuron. Chemicals that interfere with the signalling may act on the neurotransmitter or on the receptor. Many of these are natural substances, such as nerve poisons produced by plants and animals for self-defence or capturing prey. Others, including nerve gases are man-made substances

How can nerve gases affect your brain?

Nerve gases are potentially lethal synthetic chemicals developed during the Second World War. They work by blocking the breakdown of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. As a result it builds up in the synapse and its actions cannot be stopped. HOW ?Nerve gases are now banned, but can still fall into the wrong hands: in 1995 Tokyo commuters were poisoned by the nerve gas Sarin. The chemical atropine itself a poison is found in the plant Deadly Nightshade. It can be used as an emergency antidote as it blocks the action of acetylcholine

How can poisons affect your brain?

There are many chemicals that are produced in plants, animals or insects which prevent neurons from working properly. One example is strychnine which was used as a rat poison and is obtained from seeds of Strychnos nuxvomica. Strychnine interferes with the neurotransmitter glycine, by preventing it from docking at its receptors. Some snake venoms contain poisons that block acetylcholine, causing paralysis by preventing instructions passing from the nerves to the muscles

What does the autonomic nervous system do?

There are three parts to your autonomic nervous system: 1 The sympathetic system is responsible for your body's 'fight or flight' reaction. 2 The parasympathetic system looks after the workings of your body during rest and recuperation. It also controls your heart rate and body temperature under normal conditions. 3 The enteric system controls the workings of your gut

Can you hide a lie?

Lie detectors work by recording changes in heart rate, or in the sweatiness of palms - both of these increase when someone is telling a lie. However, a racing heart and sweaty palms may be caused by different reasons, which is why lie detectors are not totally reliable.

Fight or flight?
In an emergency, you breathe more quickly, your heart rate shoots up and you start to sweat. Your autonomic nervous system brings about this 'fight or flight' response by activating the sympathetic neurons. For our ancestors, this response was vital for survival but for us, it remains a reaction to stressful situations, like when we feel threatened or when we are being deceitful.

What are the parts of your brain?

Your brain is divided into the hindbrain, midbrain (known together as the brainstem) and the forebrain. Your forebrain includes the cerebral cortex - the part that most people think of as the brain. It can also be divided into the left and right hemispheres, which are joined by a thick bundle of nerves.

What makes the human brain unique?

During human evolution, our forebrain became larger as our cerebral cortex increased in size. This means it had to become more folded to fit inside the skull. This gives the outside of the human brain its 'walnut' appearance. Humans have a larger cerebral cortex relative to the rest of the brain than any other animal. The cerebral cortex handles many of our unique skills, like language and problem solving.

A brain of two halves?

The right side (hemisphere) of your brain controls the left side of your body, and the left hemisphere controls the right side. Although the two sides of the brain look like mirror images of each other, they are different. In most people, the left hemisphere is important for language, maths and reasoning, whereas the right is more important for emotion, recognising faces and music.

Left- or right-handed?
Are you left- or right-handed? Nine out of ten people prefer their right hand, which is controlled by the left side of the brain. As this side also usually deals with language, scientists have long wondered whether the two are linked. Apparently they are not - although right-handed people use the left side of their brain for language, so do most left-handed people.

What happens to a divided brain?

The left and right brain hemispheres share information through the nerves that join them. In some epilepsy patients these nerves are cut to relieve their symptoms. Studying these 'split-brain' patients has revealed a lot about the hemispheres. For example, patients cannot name an object, say an apple, shown on their left-hand side even though they recognise it. This is because information about the apple is sent to the right side of their brain, but cannot cross to the left side, which usually deals with language.

How can we image the brain?

Scientists and doctors can study your brain in several ways. They can create an image of the inside of the brain (using CAT and MRI scans), measure how active it is (using an EEG), and find out which parts are active when doing particular tasks (using fMRI and PET scans). Some brain research involves artificially activating parts of the brain, to see what they do (using TMS).

Did X-rays help?

Before scanning techniques were invented, doctors could use only X-rays to look at the brain. This didn't work very well, and involved injecting air or other substances into the patient to improve the contrast of the image - painful and hazardous procedures. The introduction in the 1970s of techniques like CAT and MRI revolutionised medicine.

What are CAT scans?

Computerised axial tomography (CAT) still uses X-rays to see inside the body. But instead of using a single beam, a CAT scanner takes many X-rays around the body. The scanner's computer then builds up pictures of a 'slice' through the body and combines them to give a 3D image. Scientists used CAT to carry out the first detailed studies of the brain, before even more powerful techniques were developed

What are MRI scans?

A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner can build up detailed 3D pictures of organs inside the body, without using either radioactivity or X-rays. Instead, the patient lies within a huge magnet - as strong as the ones used to pick up cars in scrapyards. MRI cannot be used on people who have anything metal inside their bodies, such as a pacemaker

How does MRI work?

MRI relies on the way that hydrogen atoms, which make up nearly two-thirds of the human body, absorb and then give off magnetic energy at radio frequencies. The nuclei of these hydrogen atoms are like tiny spinning magnets, and so they respond to changes in magnetic fields. Computerised images are calculated from variations in how this energy is absorbed and emitted across the body. As very little energy is involved, the normal biochemistry of the body is completely unaffected

How is MRI used?

In medicine, MRI is mainly used for looking at damage to soft parts of the body - muscles, tendons and ligaments, as well as the brain. At the moment, MRI scans can only be done on patients who lie still. This looks set to change with the next generation of MRI scanners. These will have a much shorter exposure time, so they can be used to look at moving subjects - like a baby in a mother's womb

How can we measure brain activity?

Your brain cells communicate by sending tiny electric signals to each other. The more signals that are sent, the more electricity the brain will produce. An EEG can measure the pattern of this electrical activity. Active areas of the brain also use more energy than less active parts - this is the basis of PET and fMRI scanning.

What is EEG?
To produce an electroencephalograph (EEG), up to 256 electrodes are placed over the skull. They measure changes in the electric field being produced by the brain, and the result is a wave pattern that depends on what the person is doing. An EEG is especially useful for investigating sleep cycles, for diagnosing epilepsy and for studying the relationship between brain activity and mental activity. It is a useful technique, able to detect electrical changes that happen in a few thousandths of a second.

How awake are you?

Your brain wave pattern depends on what you are doing. When you are alert and thinking, your brain is very active and gives a beta-wave EEG pattern. If you close your eyes but stay awake,

the EEG shows an alpha wave, while theta and delta waves show you are drowsy or asleep. Different stages of sleep also have different EEG patterns. Strangely enough, REM (rapid eye movement) sleep has an EEG pattern very similar to that of your awake brain - it probably occurs when you are dreaming.

How does epilepsy affect the brain?

People with epilepsy have seizures caused by unusual electrical activity in part or all of the brain. Doctors can use an EEG to measure this activity, and diagnose epilepsy (as seizures can have other causes). Unusual bursts of electric activity can sometimes be detected between seizures, and are called 'spikes'. The location of these spikes in the brain can help doctors decide what type of epilepsy the person has, and so what treatment to use.

What is MEG?
Magnetoencephalography (MEG) works by detecting the magnetic fields created by the brain's electric signals. These fields are a billion times smaller than the Earth's magnetic field, so MEG has to be carried out in a heavily shielded room - often in the dead of night, when other electrical devices are switched off. The person sits inside a 'helmet' of special sensors that detect the tiny magnetic signals produced by the brain.

MEG: the future?

MEG can be combined with scanning techniques to build up a detailed picture of a living, working brain and could be used in the future for virtual reality brain surgery. In particular, MEG can provide accurate information about the cortex (the outer layer of the brain) because it doesn't respond to electric signals coming from deep within the brain, unlike an EEG. MEG also 'sees through' the skull and scalp, which can interfere with EEGs.

How can we measure blood flow?

Two brain imaging techniques, PET and fMRI, measure blood flow through the brain. Active areas of the brain use more energy and so need a greater supply of oxygen and glucose. More blood is directed to these areas to meet the demands of the active neurons. PET tracks blood flow by using labelled chemicals, while fMRI monitors the oxygen content of the blood.

What is fMRI?
Functional MRI (fMRI) is cheaper, simpler and more sensitive than PET scanning, and does not use radioactivity. For an fMRI scan, the person lies inside a huge magnet - as strong as the ones used to pick up scrap cars. fMRI shows up areas of the brain with an increased oxygen supply (more active brain tissue uses more oxygen). It relies on the fact that molecules in blood cells respond differently to magnets depending on how much oxygen they are carrying

What is PET?

Scientists have used PET to investigate what different areas of the brain do, how the brain develops and how drugs affect it. The information gathered from PET scans can be added to MRI images from the same person - this provides a better idea of exactly where the activity is taking place. PET scans can detect changes due to brain damage, epilepsy, Alzheimer's disease and brain tumours, often earlier than is possible using other methods. But PET is an expensive and time-consuming technique.

How does PET work?

A PET scan detects radioactively labelled molecules (such as oxygen or glucose), which will be used by active neurons in the brain. The radioactive substance is injected into the patient's blood where it gives off positrons, which break down to produce gamma rays. A gamma ray detector traces the flow of blood around the body.

What is TMS?
Brain cells communicate with each other and the body using electrical signals. Scientists can investigate what some areas of the brain do by stimulating them with electricity. This could once only be done only during brain surgery, as applying electricity directly to the scalp is very painful. Now, a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), uses magnetism to stimulate areas of brain without causing pain and while the patient is conscious.

What is TMS used for?

Scientists hope to use TMS to investigate illnesses such as schizophrenia, and also to see how the brain rewires after damage such as stroke. Doctors now use TMS to diagnose diseases that affect the communication between brain and body, such as multiple sclerosis. It also seems to be effective in treating some forms of depression.

How does TMS work?

Doctors can use TMS to find out how different parts of the brain are wired together. To carry out TMS, a magnetic coil is held over a person's head. A rapidly changing magnetic field passes through the skull, and causes small electric currents to flow in parts of the brain. TMS can be used to produce effects by disrupting normal brain activity - such as making muscles twitch

What does the social brain look like?

What happens in your brain when you interact with other people? Neuroscientists are using new and improved brain scanning techniques to find out which parts of the brain are involved in social activities including decision-making, choosing who to trust, moral reasoning and empathy. By combining their findings with behavioural and psychology studies, neuroscientists are looking into the relational aspect of being human, providing a deeper insight into the interactions that make us human.

How do you make decisions?

Neuroeconomics is a field of science that combines psychology, economics and neuroscience to investigate how people make decisions in economic situations. You use both emotion and rational logic to make decisions, such as deciding who to trust with your money. Scientists have found that the hormone oxytocin is involved in generating trust. In a research experiment set up as an economics game, investors given oxytocin invested twice as much as a control group given a placebo spray.

Could brain scanning lead to better adverts?

Marketing and advertising industries are seeking to read their consumers minds using brain scanning technologies such as fMRI and EEG. By measuring how the brains of volunteers respond to marketing stimuli, they seek to understand better why consumers make the decisions they do, and which area of the brain is involved in making those decisions. Neuromarketing techniques can decipher what consumers react to for example the colour of the packaging, its sound, or whether owning the product will make them feel special.

Spot the liar?

Controversially, certain brain scanning techniques such as fMRI and EEG have been used for liedetection purposes in high-profile court cases in the US and India since 2008. Although fMRI for lie detection is an as-yet unproven technology, scientist Steve Laken says the basic idea behind using fMRI for lie detection is that when you tell the truth, the brain moves relatively fast. You simply dont have to think about things. To lie, however, you have to first understand the question and then come up with an alternative communication. The differences in how the brain behaves when people lie and tell the truth are visible in fMRI scans.

What are the implications?

Many uses of brain scanning technologies pose new ethical issues for society. Using MRI technology to detect lies or sell more products could alter the way we think about responsibility and blame. Bioethicists worry about the lack of regulations, especially concerning the use of MRI-based lie detection. Although it is already being used in some law courts, the reliability of using such technology in this way is still questioned by many neuroscientists. Could the wrong person end up in jail?

How do genes influence your brain?

Although the Human Genome Project is complete, theres much we still dont know about what our DNA does. For instance, we still have little idea about which genes play a key role in the brain. Some scientists have started making genetic maps of the brain to look for genes that play a role in brain development. Ultimately this could lead to discovering new methods of diagnosis and more effective treatments for mental illnesses and degenerative brain diseases.

How do genes influence brain development?

By comparing our genome with those of other species, scientists discovered some regions of the genome that are very different in humans. Called human accelerated regions (HARs), these areas of our genome have been implicated in the development of the human brain. Since 2007 more than 200 HARs have been identified. They appear to tell nearby genes when to switch on or off, and many of these nearby genes are involved in brain development and function. By studying these regions scientists should gain a better understanding of why our brain is unique.

How can a mouse help us understand our brains?

Scientists at the Allen Institute for Brain Science are hoping to complete the human brain atlas a project to map gene expression patterns in the brain by 2012. Meanwhile they are also looking at the brains of other animals. The mouse brain atlas was completed in 2007. By determining which genes are active in each mouse brain cell, scientists discovered that in some areas of the mouse brain as many as 80% of all the genes are switched on much more than previous estimates. Findings like this may help scientists understand how our brain works

What is the Blue Brain Project?

The Blue Brain Project is an attempt to reverse engineer the brain with the aim of simulating what really happens in our brain. At the end of 2006 the project had created a model of one basic unit of the brain the neocortical column. At the push of a button, this model can reconstruct where neurons are and how they are connected. This defines where 30 million synaptic connections sit, which sounds like a lot but is just a tiny part of your brain

What is a brainbow?
The brainbow method of looking at the brain uses a combination of genetic technologies and cell staining techniques. Staining neurons with three or more fluorescent proteins can generate up to 90 different colours, resulting in a brainbow. Brainbows are helping scientists get better at mapping the brain and nervous systems complex tangle of neurons. They could also help track the development of the nervous system in the embryo, and give new insight into the origins of brain disorders.

How can illness affect the brain?

Because the human brain is so complicated and has little capacity to regenerate, it is vulnerable to the effects of damage and disease. Losing part of the vast network of cells, or changing the level of a neurotransmitter, can have devastating results. Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases are examples of disorders of the nervous system in which brain cells gradually die. In disorders of the mind, such as schizophrenia and depression, the symptoms are caused by more subtle changes in the brain that are as yet poorly understood.

How can the nervous system be damaged?

Most neurons in the central nervous system cannot repair or renew themselves, unlike other cells in the body. So, if some die through illness or damage, the nervous system can permanently lose some of its abilities. The symptoms of disorders of the nervous system depend on which part is attacked - Alzheimer's disease destroys cells in the memory area of the brain, for example. There are currently no cures for these disorders, but promising research includes new drug treatments, vaccines and nerve cell transplants.

What is a stroke?
A stroke happens when blockage or breakage of a blood vessel interrupts the blood supply to an area of the brain. Brain cells in the immediate area usually die within a few hours. Strokes can impair speech, vision, movement or memory, depending on where in the brain it happens. Some people recover completely, while others die after very severe strokes.

Can people recover from stroke?

People who have suffered a stroke undergo physiotherapy, occupational and speech therapy to help them regain independence. Scientists still don't fully understand how the brain compensates for the damage caused by stroke, although researchers have now found that adult brain cells can regenerate following damage. The ability of neurons to respond in this way is called 'plasticity', and this may help to explain the remarkable adaptability of the brain.

What is Alzheimers disease?

Alzheimers disease is the most common cause of dementia a condition which leads to the impairment of some mental abilities and communication skills. It affects one in twenty people over 65, and more than 1 in 10 of those over 85. Alzheimers disease is caused by the gradual death of certain brain cells, especially in the areas involved in memory, judgement and reasoning. The impairments associated Alzheimers disease can eventually be devastating: people often don't recognise their families, and forget where they live or how to take care of themselves.

What happens in Alzheimers disease?

The first signs of Alzheimers disease are memory loss and changes in behaviour and personality. Doctors look for a decline in mental abilities by testing the patient's memory and attention span. Brain scans can detect changes in the brain as Alzheimers disease progresses. The mass of neurons gradually shrinks in the brains of people with Alzheimers disease.

Is Alzheimers disease inherited?

Medical research has identified five genes that influence the development of Alzheimers disease. Three of these genes affect younger people (under the age of 65), and two affect older people (over the age of 65). It must be remembered that Alzheimers disease is not a hereditary condition and by identifying the genetic risk factors for developing Alzheimers disease scientists can begin to look for affective treatments.

Do we understand Alzheimers disease?

A type of protein called amyloid forms plaques which accumulate in and around brain cells causing them to die. A different type of protein called tau forms tangles which change the structure of brain cells. We also know that certain chemicals in the brain which transmit messages between neurons are depleted. Scientists do not yet know why the altered amyloid builds up in the brains of some people but not in others.

Can we treat Alzheimers disease?

Modern drug treatments for Alzheimers disease can temporarily slow down the loss of memory in some patients. Some of the neurons that die in Alzheimers disease normally make a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. Drugs that maintain the amount of acetylcholine in synapses can improve short-term memory and concentration. However, these drugs only treat the symptoms of Alzheimers disease and not the actual loss of brain cells. Researchers are trying to find ways to halt and even reverse this destruction.

What is motor neuron disease?

Motor neuron disease (MND), also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), affects movement by attacking the nerves connecting the spinal cord to the muscles. It can strike anyone at any age. The early symptoms are slurred speech and stumbling. As the nerves gradually waste away, people with the condition eventually lose all control over their voluntary movements, even processes like swallowing and eye movements, although it never affects mental ability

Do we understand MND?
The causes of motor neuron disease remain unknown. Some scientists think a slow-acting virus may be involved while others think that toxins may be to blame. In 10% of cases, the cause has been linked to an altered gene inherited from an affected parent familial motor neuron disease. There is no cure for the condition at present. Researchers are investigating ways of replacing the lost motor neurons.

What happened on Guam?

In the 1940s and 1950s, the incidence of motor neuron disease on the western Pacific island of Guam was much higher than elsewhere in the world. The disease did not seem to be inherited or contagious no virus could be found. A possible explanation was the islander's habit of using cycad seeds to make flour. These are poisonous if not washed properly.

What is Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease?

Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) is a very rare illness, with only about 50 new cases per year in the UK. It gradually destroys neurons throughout the brain. Many of the early symptoms of CJD are similar to those of Alzheimers disease loss of memory and personality changes. As CJD progresses, patients gradually lose all control of their minds and bodies.

Do we understand CJD?
The effect of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) is so devastating that it eventually makes the brain look like a sponge: fine networks of fibres replace many of the cells. For this reason, CJD and related illnesses are also known as 'spongy brain diseases'. Many scientists believe that these diseases are caused by prions: agents made entirely out of protein (unlike bacteria and viruses, which also have genes). Infectious prions that cause CJD are variants of normal brain prion proteins. There is no cure for CJD

How does your brain work? How can illness affect the brain?

How can the nervous system be damaged?

What is a stroke? What is Alzheimers disease? What is motor neuron disease? What is Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease? What is multiple sclerosis? What is Parkinsons disease? Future treatments?

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What is mental illness? What is deep brain stimulation?

What happens when youre asleep? What are your senses? How do drugs affect your brain? How does your brain grow? What is special about human language? Why is your memory so important?

What are emotions?

What is Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease?

Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) is a very rare illness, with only about 50 new cases per year in the UK. It gradually destroys neurons throughout the brain. Many of the early symptoms of CJD are similar to those of Alzheimers disease loss of memory and personality changes. As CJD progresses, patients gradually lose all control of their minds and bodies. Enlarge Coloured MRI scan of a patient with CJD (the green areas show signs of the disease).

Do we understand CJD?
The effect of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) is so devastating that it eventually makes the brain look like a sponge: fine networks of fibres replace many of the cells. For this reason, CJD and related illnesses are also known as 'spongy brain diseases'. Many scientists believe that these diseases are caused by prions: agents made entirely out of protein (unlike bacteria and viruses, which also have genes). Infectious prions that cause CJD are variants of normal brain prion proteins. There is no cure for CJD.

What is 'new variant' CJD?

There is mounting evidence that a small number of people have contracted Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease after eating beef infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or 'mad cow disease'. This 'new variant' CJD seems to affect younger people. Recent studies indicate that it causes changes in the brain that are more similar to BSE than other forms of CJD.

Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) in humans, BSE in cows and scrapie in sheep are related diseases. The BSE epidemic probably resulted from cattle eating feed containing meat prepared from infected animals. Since 1989, adult cattle tissues (such as brain and spinal cord) that may be infected with BSE have been banned from human food in the UK. But because of the long incubation period of these diseases (possibly as much as 10 to 20 years), some people might have been infected before the ban was introduced

What is multiple sclerosis?

Multiple sclerosis (MS) affects the nerve fibres of the central nervous system: the brain and spinal cord. These nerves gradually lose their ability to transmit electric signals between the brain and body. However, most patients have long periods of remission, when the disease does not get any worse and may even improve. Symptoms often include blurred vision, loss of

balance, muscle weakness, fatigue and slurred speech. MS usually occurs in people aged 22-40, and affects more women than men

Do we understand MS?
Multiple sclerosis (MS) affects myelin, the fatty insulating material wrapped around axons. When myelin gradually breaks down, the nerves can no longer efficiently carry electric signals between the brain and body. Some researchers think that MS is an autoimmune disease - the body's own immune system breaks down the myelin. The trigger for this self-destruction is not known, but it could involve a virus

Can we treat MS?

There is no cure for multiple sclerosis (MS) at present. Drugs are used to 'damp down' the immune response during an acute attack, but these do not halt the disease. New drugs (such as interferon beta) appear to reduce the number of attacks. Many of the symptoms of MS improve temporarily with drug treatment and lifestyle changes, but it is not possible to stop the progression of the disease

What is Parkinsons disease?

Parkinsons disease primarily disrupts the control of movement by the brain. It affects 1 in 500 people. Most people who get Parkinsons are aged 50 or over. The main symptoms are a tremor, stiff muscles and slow movements. These are all caused by a gradual loss of neurons in an area of the brain controlling movement, not damage to the muscles themselves.

Do we understand Parkinsons disease?

The neurons that die in Parkinsons disease normally make the neurotransmitter dopamine and control movement. We all lose these cells as we get older; in fact you can lose over 60% of them before any changes are noticeable, but in people with Parkinsons disease the process seems to speed up. No one knows what triggers this loss. Researchers are concentrating on finding ways of replacing the lost cells and lost dopamine.

Can we treat Parkinsons disease?

Some drug treatments for Parkinsons disease aim to boost the activity of the surviving dopamine-releasing neurons in the brain. Others are designed to stop the brain breaking down dopamine or enhance dopamine action. Surgical techniques can be used to treat people who have had Parkinsons for some time and whose symptoms are not controlled effectively by medication. Occupational therapy can also help people with movement and speech

Future treatments?

Scientists researching treatments for disorders of the nervous system are looking at ways of restoring either neurotransmitter levels or nerve-cell function. There are promising developments in drug research and in other fields such as gene therapy and stem-cell technology. As scientists understand more about the processes underlying these disorders, it will be possible to make treatments more targeted and effective.

Can neurons be replaced?

Researchers are investigating replacing neurons lost in neurodegenerative disorders and stroke. One approach is to transplant small groups of neurons into the damaged areas. Scientists are concentrating on growing neurons successfully in the laboratory. Alternatively, the remaining neurons can be encouraged to grow and divide, like other cells in the body. Researchers have found that under the right conditions, adult brain cells can indeed regenerate.

What is mental illness?

Mental illnesses such as depression and schizophrenia affect the mind. The symptoms of many of these disorders are thought to reflect subtle changes in brain function. Life circumstances, early experiences and factors such as social and emotional isolation also contribute to mental illness. Mental health problems affect one in four people each year. Many people make a good recovery and are able to resume their lives with help from professionals and the support of friends and family as well as their own resources. Drugs, talking therapies, support and rehabilitation may all play a role

Why is there prejudice against mental illness?

Mental illness has long been feared and misunderstood. Archaeologists have discovered 5000year-old skulls with small round holes bored in them thought to be to release evil spirits. This is still done in some cultures today. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, mentally ill people were locked up in lunatic asylums which are now considered barbaric. Asylums were still being closed in the 1990s. These days, scientists and doctors are beginning to understand the changes causing mental illness. This will lead to new, more effective treatments in the twenty-first century

What is schizophrenia?
Schizophrenia affects one person in a hundred at some point in their lives. The illness usually starts in the teenage years or twenties, and alters the person's experience and interpretation of the world. This may lead to delusions strongly held false beliefs. Experience of hallucinations (particularly hearing voices) is a common experience, but disjointed and hard to follow thoughts, personality change, absence of emotion and depression can occur as well.

What causes schizophrenia?

The causes of schizophrenia are not clear. Stress and drugs such as cannabis and other risk factors can trigger symptoms of schizophrenia in some people. It can also run in families. The symptoms seem to indicate an imbalance in the actions of two brain chemicals: dopamine and serotonin. Scientists think that a malfunction of neurons in the brain areas that deal with emotions, memory and planning (the limbic system and frontal lobes) may be to blame. Scientists hope that identifying genes that predispose people to schizophrenia will help find treatments.

Can we treat schizophrenia?

Traditional antipsychotic drug treatments for schizophrenia block receptors for the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain. They are effective in relieving hallucinations and delusions, but have little effect on other symptoms: lack of motivation, tiredness and depression. Newer drugs, which act at several receptor sites, including those for serotonin and dopamine, seem to be effective in treating these symptoms as well, and have fewer unpleasant side effects. Schizophrenia can also be successfully treated by a psychological therapy called cognitive behavioural therapy.

Is schizophrenia inherited?
Although one in every hundred people in the general population will get schizophrenia at some point in their lives, this rises to one in ten for people with an affected parent, brother or sister, and one in two for those with an affected identical twin. Because identical twins share identical genes, other, non-genetic factors must also be involved. Scientists have located genes that are altered in schizophrenia, but do not yet understand how they interact with each other or with environmental factors

What is panic disorder?

People with panic disorder have feelings of terror that strike suddenly and usually last for several minutes. They misinterpret symptoms, such as a racing heart and dizziness, as a sign that they might die or go mad, for example. This, in turn, produces more anxiety and physical symptoms. Panic attacks can even start while the person is asleep. Panic disorder can lead to phobias when the sufferer avoids situations in which they previously suffered a panic attack, and often occurs with agoraphobia. It is twice as common in women as in men

Can we treat panic disorder?

Cognitive behavioural therapy can be a successful treatment for panic disorder. It helps people to challenge their incorrect beliefs about their symptoms, for example, by showing them that distraction reduces the symptoms they believe to be a heart attack. It also encourages them to do things to test the beliefs, proving that even when they don't try to control the symptoms, catastrophes do not happen. Drug treatments are also used

What is Generalised Anxiety Disorder?

People with generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) worry excessively. Some do not know why they feel anxious, while others worry about their health, money, family or work. They are always anticipating a disaster, even though they often realise their worries are unfounded. Headaches, trembling and nausea can accompany the anxiety. GAD starts gradually, often in childhood or adolescence, and can improve with age. People who cannot cope with living with their anxiety are helped using talking therapies and drug treatments.

What causes anxiety?

Many researchers think that anxiety disorders are caused by a fault in the 'fear system' which enables us to recognise and react to danger. Although the symptoms vary, all anxiety disorders involve a person getting much more anxious than they need to in reaction to a potential 'threat'. Why are some of us more prone to overreacting in this way? Our individual experiences play a large part, but over-anxiety also seems to run in families. It may be linked to different levels of brain chemicals such as serotonin or noradrenaline.

What are you scared of?

Are you scared of anything? Perhaps snakes, or heights, or maybe you get stagefright? It is called a phobia when you have an intense, irrational fear of a situation or object that causes extreme anxiety and often panic attacks. Specific phobias, for example aerophobia (fear of flying), affect around one in ten people. Phobias about animals, for example arachnophobia (fear of spiders), usually start between the ages of 3 and 8

Can phobias be cured?

Phobias often result from a single traumatic experience, such as being chased by a dog as a child. The person tends to avoid the thing they're scared of, so the phobia persists. Phobias can be cured by gradually helping the person to confront the situation they are afraid of. These programmes used to take weeks, or even months. But new research suggests that some phobias can be overcome far more quickly.

What are complex phobias?

Agoraphobia is a fear of open spaces or busy public places (literally a 'fear of market places'). Some people are so badly affected they become housebound. Claustrophobia is a fear of enclosed spaces, like crowded trains or lifts. Social phobia is a fear of embarrassing yourself in front of other people - at parties, or when eating or speaking in public, for example. Agoraphobia affects twice as many women as men, whereas social phobia affects men and women almost equally

What is post-traumatic stress disorder?

Post-traumatic stress disorder affects people who have suffered a terrifying experience like a violent attack, car crash or earthquake. Sufferers often have recurrent nightmares of their ordeal

and may feel guilty about their survival. They may also suffer from vivid memories or flashbacks - reliving the event through sounds, smells or feelings that seem as real as they did at the time. Post-traumatic stress disorder was first recognised as 'shell shock' in veterans of the First World War.

What is obsessive compulsive disorder?

People with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) are plagued with constant unwelcome thoughts - they may be obsessed with the idea that germs are everywhere, for example. Even if they know they are being irrational, they feel compelled to repeat some action over and over again, like constant cleaning or hand washing. Others feel they must check things repeatedly, perhaps before leaving the house.

Can we treat OCD?

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a result of ordinary behaviour taken to extremes so that it disrupts daily life. In the past, sufferers may have been forced to touch a dirty object, but then helped to overcome the need to wash their hands. Nowadays, treatment involves helping the person to find less distressing ways to control their obsessions or rituals. This type of therapy is often used in combination with drug treatment

What is depression?
People with depression may have feelings of sadness that persist for weeks, months or years. They can experience different symptoms, including lack of energy and motivation, weight and appetite changes, sleep problems, anxiety and tearfulness. Some sufferers feel suicidal. About 15% of people will have a bout of severe depression at some point in their lives. However, the exact number of people with depression is hard to estimate because many people do not get help, or are not formally diagnosed with the condition.

What causes depression?

Depression is very common, affecting about one in every 20 people at some point in their lives. It is thought to be caused by inadequate activity of neurons that release serotonin or noradrenaline, which results from a combination of inherited and environmental factors. Short daylight hours in winter trigger one type of depression - seasonal affective disorder (SAD), while postnatal depression can affect mothers during the first year after giving birth.

Is depression inherited?
Certain people are probably more at risk because of their genes: if one identical twin suffers from depression there is a 60% chance that the other will, too. Since identical twins share identical genes, this shows that while genes have an important influence in depression, other non-genetic (environmental) factors are involved too. About 20% of people have what scientists call the

'short' version of a gene called 5-HTT, and it is these people who are more likely to develop depression after a stressful life event.

Can we treat depression?

The first antidepressant was discovered by accident in the 1950s. A drug being used to treat tuberculosis patients (iproniazid) seemed to cheer them up. This drug and other related antidepressants all increase and prolong the actions of serotonin and/or noradrenaline in the brain. The best known of these is Prozac, which exaggerates the actions of serotonin. Helping people to overcome their negative thoughts (cognitive therapy) is also an effective way of treating depression.

What is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder affects around 1 person in 100 at some point in their life. It causes a pattern of extreme mood swings that alternate between depression and mania when the person feels high. Bipolar disorder is probably caused by a combination of inherited and environmental factors. The illness can be treated very successfully with lithium, which acts as a mood stabiliser. Alternative treatments are drugs normally used to treat schizophrenia. Little is known about the problems in the brain that cause mania.

What is deep brain stimulation?

Deep brain stimulation is a modern surgical treatment which involves implanting a medical device called a neuro-stimulator in the brain. The size of a pocket watch, this device works a bit like a heart pacemaker: its electrodes send electrical impulses to damaged parts of the brain to restore function. This technology is already used to treat people with Parkinsons disease and scientists are investigating whether it could also treat other neurological diseases.

Is deep brain stimulation safe?

The underlying principles and mechanisms of this new technology are still unclear. When placed in specific areas it has provided therapeutic benefits for people with Parkinsons disease or severe depression. Researchers are still learning about the risks of using deep brain stimulation. In some studies it has been documented that slight adjustments in the electrode voltage or placement can induce serious depression in people with Parkinsons

What happens when youre asleep?

For about a third of your life, you are asleep. While you sleep, your heart rate drops, your muscles relax, your breathing slows and you respond less and less to the outside world. Sleep also restores the body's energy and may help you commit to memory things that have happened during the day

Why do we dream?
No one really knows why we dream. The psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud thought dreams were the key to our subconscious. Some researchers today suggest that their purpose may be to keep us asleep - the brain's natural entertainer. Others think that dreams are a way of deleting unnecessary information and retaining important information to be stored in our memory.

What is your sleep cycle?

Scientists use electroencephalography (EEG) to measure electrical brain activity during the five stages of sleep. When you fall asleep, you pass through stages 1 to 4 (the deepest level of sleep) as your brain becomes less active. You then go through the stages in reverse before 5 to 15 minutes of stage 5: rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. During REM sleep, your eyes dart about, your brain is frantically active and you dream. The whole cycle lasts about 90 minutes and repeats throughout the night.

How do you know when to sleep?

Your waking/sleeping cycle is usually 24 hours long. If you were kept from knowing the time of day, this cycle would gradually lengthen to about 25 hours. So you must have your own internal body clock. Your body clock is related to an area of your brain called the hypothalamus, part of which is directly connected to your eyes. Scientists have found genes that affect the body clock: animals with faulty 'clock' genes have different sleep/waking cycles.

How much sleep do you need?

As you get older, you need less sleep from about 16 hours a day as a baby, to less than 7 hours when you are over the age of 60. What happens if you go without sleep? Randy Gardner holds the scientifically documented record for the longest period a human being has intentionally gone without sleep without using any stimulants. Gardner stayed awake for 264 hours (11 days). Long periods of sleeplessness can cause paranoia and even hallucinations at the time, but occasional sleep deprivation doesn't do any long-term damage.

What is consciousness?
Consciousness has been described as awareness of oneself embedded in the world. Your selfreflective awareness defines you in the context of society, culture and history. Many neuroscientists think consciousness emerges from the activities of our tangled network of neurons. Some scientists believe consciousness in the brain is represented by different subsets of areas or groups of neurons within the brain that are interacting together strongly and rapidly. But until scientists agree on a definition for consciousness, how to study it will remain a mystery.

Can scientists tell if someone is conscious?

In a landmark study in 2006, Adrian Owen and his colleagues used an fMRI scanner to investigate if a person in a vegetative state was conscious or not. Because different parts of your brain are responsible for doing different things, Owen could see which parts of the patients brain became active at any one time. When asked to imagine playing tennis or moving around her house, the patients brain lit up in exactly the same way as healthy volunteers brains, showing that she was indeed conscious, but unable to respond.

What are your senses?

You use your senses to gather information about the outside world. You can see, hear, taste, smell and touch things. You can also detect pain, pressure, temperature, and the position and movement of your body. All these sensations are changed into electrical signals and carried to your brain which then puts all the information together to produce the whole picture.

How do you select information?

Even before you pay attention to something, you have already filtered out a lot of background information. Your senses generally tell your brain about your surroundings only if they change so you don't notice the continual hum of a fridge or the feeling of shoes on your feet, for example. When you want to pay attention to a particular thing, like your friend's face in a crowd, it's as if your brain uses a 'spotlight' to highlight the relevant information.

How do you put information together?

You are standing on a station platform when a train speeds past you see it, hear it, and feel the wind rushing past. You know instantly that everything you are sensing is to do with the train. Part of the parietal cortex of your brain allows you to focus your attention on one place, and puts together the relevant information from all your senses. Sometimes the information competes for your attention.

How do you see?

When you look at an object, electrical signals travel via the optic nerves to an area in your brain called the thalamus. This then sends the information to the visual cortex, where it is examined in detail. Different parts of the visual cortex simultaneously process the colour, shape, movement and depth of the object. Other parts of the cortex put this information together to give you a complete picture of the object.

How do your eyes work?

When you look at an object, the light from it enters your eye through the pupil. The iris changes the size of the pupil, depending on how bright the light is. The lens focuses the light onto the back of the eye: the retina. The retina is a mass of light-sensitive neurons, called photoreceptors, which change light signals into electrical ones.

How do photoreceptors work?

Photoreceptors contain chemicals that change when they are hit by light. This causes an electrical signal, which is then sent to the brain along the optic nerve. Different types of photoreceptor allow us to see an enormous range of light: from starlight to full sunshine, and all the colours of the rainbow.

What is colour blindness?

The most common form of 'colour blindness' is red-green colour deficiency, which affects 7-10% of people. This is not actually blindness, but a difficulty in distinguishing shades between red and green. It is caused by a change to or loss of the light responsive chemical in certain photoreceptors. Total absence of colour vision, where everything is seen in shades of black and grey, is very rare, and is usually caused by brain damage.

How does your brain create a picture?

When you look at a scene, each of the different 'seeing' areas in your brain seems to have a 'map' of the scene to which it adds details - like movement, colour, depth or shape. Scientists have learnt a lot about how you see by studying patients who have damage to these areas. Damage to any area can mean that the final picture is missing a particular detail.

What is it?
Many of the neurons in the visual part of the brain respond specifically to edges orientated in a certain direction. From this, the brain builds up the shape of an object. Information about the features on the surface of an object, like colour and shading, provide further clues about its identity. Objects are probably recognised mostly by their edges, and faces by their surface features.

Where is it?
When you look at an object, each of your eyes sees a slightly different picture. These signals are brought together in the brain, to help tell how far away an object is. This is what enables us to see 'magic eye' pictures. Other clues like shadows, textures and prior knowledge also help us to judge depth and distance.

Is it moving?
When you look at a moving object, signals go to a special part of your brain. Damage to this area can stop you seeing movement, even though your sight is otherwise normal. One woman, who suffered such damage through a stroke, described what it was like. If she poured out a cup of tea, it appeared frozen in mid-air, like ice. When walking down the street, she saw cars and trams change position, but not actually move.

What is agnosia?
People with damage to certain areas of the brain can develop agnosia. A man with agnosia described a rose as 'about six inches in length, a convoluted red form with a linear green attachment', and a glove as 'a continuous surface infolded on itself, it appears to have five outpouchings'. He could neither name the objects nor recognise what they were used for. Occasionally, agnosia is limited to failure to recognise faces. In one case, a farmer was unable to recognise his friends and family, but had no problems identifying his sheep!

How do you recognise faces?

When you try to recognise an unfamiliar face, you look for several things such as gender, age and race. People are very good at deciding whether a face is male or female, even when obvious clues such as make-up and hairstyle are missing. This judgement relies on many features, including thickness of eyebrows and how much the nose sticks out, both of which are more pronounced in men.

How do you hear, taste and smell?

Your ears enable you to detect vibrations in the air around you. You also use taste and smell to detect certain chemicals in your environment.

How do you hear?

Your ears enable you to detect vibrations in the air around you. We call these vibrations 'sound'. You can hear a huge range of sounds, from a deep bass to a high pitched whistle, and from a tiny whisper to a loud rock band. Sound travels through your ear and reaches the special receptor cells right inside your inner ear. These cells change the sound vibrations into electrical signals, which pass along the auditory nerve to the brain.

Do you have perfect pitch?

When you listen to music, most activity is in the right side of your brain. But in 1995, scientists identified an area in the left side of the brain that is enlarged in people with exceptional musical ability. This was especially true of people who have 'perfect pitch' the ability to identify any musical note without having to compare it with any others. Scientists think that perfect pitch has a genetic basis.

How do you taste?

You have up to 10,000 taste buds, spread over your tongue, mouth and throat. Each taste bud contains up to 100 taste receptor cells, which respond to different substances in your food. These taste cells send information about the type and amount of substance to your brain. Tastes are

traditionally divided into four categories: salt, sweet, bitter, sour or umami the flavour common to savoury products such as meat.

Which tastes do you like?

Your ability to taste bitter substances protects you from swallowing harmful substances - many poisonous plants taste bitter. But it is possible to 'acquire a taste' for a bitter substance such as the quinine in tonic water, or coffee. An acquired taste popular throughout the world is capsaicin, the substance in chilli peppers that makes them hot. Even though capsaicin triggers pain receptor cells, it's eaten daily by over one-third of the world's population.

How do you smell?

Different smells trigger different receptor cells in the lining of the nose. You can detect thousands of different smelly substances or odorants. Most smells are a mixture of several odorants. Our ability to detect all these odorants varies one in a thousand people cannot smell skunk odour. As well as the smells you are aware of, some scientists believe you can also detect human pheromones, 'attraction chemicals'.

Can you smell your partner?

Many animals release tiny amounts of pheromones: chemicals that carry sexual signals to members of the same species. They are detected in the vomeronasal organ (VNO) in the nose, which is separate from the smell receptor cells. Some scientists think that humans also produce and detect pheromones in the same way, while others think that we no longer use our VNO.

Where are you?

The senses provide you with information about your body's environment and its position in it. Your skin is able to sense touch, temperature and pain. Other receptor cells in your muscles and joints monitor the movement of your limbs. A special part of your ear helps with your sense of balance.

Sensitive skin?
When you touch something, you detect it using mechanoreceptors just below the surface of your skin. These send the information to your brain. How close can two pinpoint touches be before you sense them as just one touch? It varies over the surface of your body, from 2 millimetres on your fingertips to 40 millimetres on your forearms. The parts of your skin that need to be most sensitive, like your fingertips and your lips, have more receptor cells in them than other, less sensitive areas.

Why do we feel pain?

Pain is nature's unpleasant but crucial way of warning you of danger. It stops you repeating any action that causes pain. Touching something painful activates an immediate withdrawal reflex. Some people are born with an absence of pain - a very dangerous condition because they do not realise when they have hurt themselves. Sometimes people lose their feeling of pain, for example leprosy sufferers, who can severely damage their hands and feet as a consequence.

Why do you get dizzy?

The organs in charge of your sense of balance are in your inner ear. When you move your head, the fluid inside these organs pushes against the receptor cells. If you move your head quickly and then stop suddenly, the fluid continues to move and gives you a false sense of moving - what we call dizziness. Sometimes an ear infection might wipe out your sense of balance, making you feel constantly seasick.

What is synaesthesia?
Your brain usually interprets signals from the eyes as light, and those from the ears as sound. But a few people experience sounds as colours, smells as colours or even colours as smells. Around one in a hundred people have some form of this 'mixing of the senses' or synaesthesia. Almost any combination of two of the five senses is possible, although it is most common to see a certain colour when you hear a particular sound.

What causes synaesthesia?

Scientists are studying synaesthesia to understand how the human brain works. Different areas of the brain handle information from different senses. What mixes the senses up in the brains of people with synaesthesia? It may be that as newborn babies we all experience synaesthesia, but that by the age of four months the senses have been 'wired-up' to the correct parts of the brain. Perhaps people with synaesthesia have some 'cross-wiring' left over from this process.

What are phantom limbs?

Many people who have lost part or all of an arm or leg experience phantom limbs. This means they can still feel the position of the limb, and sometimes other sensations. For example, they may still feel a ring on the finger of a phantom hand. A phantom limb does seem to make it easier to use an artificial limb. However, a distressing and common feature of phantom limbs is the experience of phantom pain.

What causes phantoms?

Doctors used to think that nerves remaining in the stump of the amputated limb caused phantom limbs. These grow into nodules, which continue to send signals to the brain that seem to come from the missing limb. But treatments for phantom pain, which block signals from these nerves,

do not get rid of the phantom limb. Some scientists think that the brain itself conjures up phantom limbs in those areas responsible for the senses, emotion, memory and 'self-recognition'.

How do you move?

What do you have to do to sign your name? Several different areas of your brain have to work together to carry out this simple task: you have to decide to pick up a pen, move it to the paper, remember your signature, and finally, control your finger muscles while you write it. Different areas of your brain deal with planning, carrying out, overseeing and remembering movements

What is your muscle map?

Every time you move, the motor cortex area of your brain has to decide which movements to make. It retains a kind of 'muscle map' of your body, with most space reserved for parts that have many small muscles, such as your hands and face. The map can change if you learn a new skill requiring fine muscle control. For example, if you play a stringed instrument you may have extra space in the motor cortex devoted to the fingers.

How do you co-ordinate movement?

Every time you make a move, your brain oversees what you are doing, checking that the right muscles are used. Scientists think that the cerebellum area of your brain receives a plan of your intended movement, which it constantly checks against what you are actually doing. The cerebellum is also involved when you learn a set of movements, such as writing, or riding a bike.

What happens if your spine is damaged?

Your backbone is made up of 29 hollow bones, or vertebrae, which protect the spinal cord. Your brain communicates with your body via electrical signals that travel along the spinal cord similar to a power line carrying electricity from a power station to your home. Damage to the power line would sever the connection, and cause a power cut. The same happens if you break your backbone.

Are you a smooth mover?

To move your body smoothly, you have to move your muscles in the right order, and stop one movement before starting another. Scientists think that an area of your brain called the basal ganglia is crucial for the overall control of sequences of movements. Damage to different parts of this area, as occurs in Parkinsons and Huntingtons diseases, causes difficulties in planning and performing movements.

How does Huntingtons disease affect movement?

People with Huntingtons disease suffer from jerky, random movements, and spasms of their limbs, neck and body. Other symptoms include changes in mood, personality and memory. An area of the brain gradually wastes away as the disease progresses, including part of the basal ganglia. This seems to cause a loss of control of movements: muscles normally held in check start contracting randomly.

How does Parkinsons disease affect movement?

People with Parkinsons disease can have a combination of symptoms: slow movements, constant tremor, stiff muscles and limbs, and an expressionless face. As the disease progresses, an area of the brain's basal ganglia gradually wastes away. This causes difficulty in preparing for, and starting, movements. However, once they have overcome the initial resistance, they can move more smoothly.

How do drugs affect your brain?

Why does a cup of coffee wake you up, and aspirin stop your headache? Many drugs work by copying or blocking the effects of naturally occurring chemicals in your brain.

What is a drug?
A drug is any chemical you take that affects the way your body works. Alcohol, caffeine, aspirin and nicotine are all drugs. A drug must be able to pass from your body into your brain. Once inside your brain, drugs can change the messages your brain cells are sending to each other, and to the rest of your body. They do this by interfering with your brain's own chemical signals: neurotransmitters that transfer signals across synapses

What is a synapse?
When a nerve impulse reaches the synapse at the end of a neuron, it cannot pass directly to the next one. Instead, it triggers the neuron to release a chemical neurotransmitter. The neurotransmitter drifts across the gap between the two neurons. On reaching the other side, it fits into a tailor-made receptor on the surface of the target neuron, like a key in a lock. This docking process converts the chemical signal back into an electrical nerve impulse.

Altering your mind?

Some drugs interfere with neurotransmitters in the brain. These 'mind-altering' drugs change our interpretation of the world, our behaviour, and our mood. For example, cannabis from the plant Cannabis sativa, affects neurons releasing acetylcholine, noradrenaline and dopamine work. LSD (D-lysergic acid diethylamide) is a combination of an artificial acid and a natural molecule found in the fungus Claviceps purpurea (Ergot). LSD mimics serotonin action in the brain, which seems to explain its hallucinogenic effects.

What makes drugs addictive?

Doctors call a drug addictive if it makes you dependent on the drug. Unpleasant withdrawal symptoms appear unless you take the drug. Addictive drugs also make you crave them - you have an overwhelming urge to continue taking the drug, even after withdrawal symptoms have disappeared.

Why are some drugs addictive?

Scientists think that all addictive drugs activate the brain's 'reward system', by increasing the release of the chemical dopamine from neurons in key areas of the brain. Dopamine release occurs after pleasurable experiences, for example after food or sex, but can also be induced by some drugs. Drugs that artificially increase dopamine release in this way may cause craving for more. It is possible that some people may have a genetic tendency to make them develop drug addictions extremely rapidly.

What are stimulants?

Stimulants are drugs that make you feel more alert. Caffeine, found in tea, coffee and chocolate, is one example. Many plants contain naturally occurring stimulants (probably to deter invading insects) that in humans make the brain and body more active. Many stimulants, such as nicotine and cocaine, are harmful and addictive. Amphetamine, which was first made a century ago, is another well-known stimulant.

How does caffeine affect you?

When you drink a cup of coffee, the drug it contains caffeine takes effect within minutes. It then blocks chemical signals in your brain, stopping you from feeling sleepy. In moderate doses caffeine also improves mental ability reaction times, memory and reasoning skills. It takes your body 35 hours to break down caffeine, which is why coffee at bedtime may stop you sleeping.

What is nicotine?
Columbus brought tobacco back to Europe from America in the late fifteenth century. When tobacco smoke is inhaled, nicotine is absorbed through the lungs, and reaches the brain in about 7 seconds. Nicotine works by mimicking the actions of a naturally occurring brain chemical, acetylcholine, by docking with its special receptor molecules. Some of these nicotine receptors in the brain activate part of the 'pleasure centre', which could be responsible for nicotine's euphoric effects.

Why is nicotine addictive?

Nicotine is addictive 9 out of 10 smokers say they would like to stop but can't. Nicotine withdrawal symptoms include irritability, anxiety, loss of concentration and sleeplessness.

Cigarette smoke contains a cocktail of other harmful substances, including carbon monoxide and tar. Smoking causes heart and lung diseases as well as a quarter of all cancer deaths in the UK.

Time to give up?

Nicotine is addictive because the brain starts to rely on nicotine to work properly, becoming less sensitive to its own chemical, acetylcholine. But some people manage to give up smoking with the help of nicotine replacements. Nicotine gums, skin patches, nasal sprays and inhalers all give the body nicotine to ease withdrawal symptoms, but without all the other harmful chemicals found in tobacco smoke. New prescription drugs can reduce the smoker's nicotine craving by binding to nicotine receptors in the brain

What are amphetamines?

Amphetamines are all based on the naturally occurring chemical, ephedrine, found in the herb Ephreda vulgaris. Chinese people have used this plant for over 5000 years to treat asthma. In 1887, chemists made amphetamine, a synthetic substitute for ephedrine. They found that amphetamine affects the brain, increasing alertness and decreasing appetite. It increases the levels of two of the brain's chemicals, noradrenaline and dopamine

What are amphetamines used for?

During the Second World War many soldiers took amphetamine to stay awake while on duty. But it is an addictive drug, with many harmful side-effects. Doctors still use amphetamine-like drugs for certain medical problems. Ritalin, for example, is used to treat attention deficit disorder (ADD) or attention deficit with hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children. It increases attention span, enabling the child to concentrate better.

What is cocaine?
Cocaine is a drug found in leaves of the shrub Erythroxylon coca. It exaggerates changes caused by at least two brain chemicals, noradrenaline and dopamine, increasing alertness and causing euphoria. Pure cocaine was prepared in 1860 and was hailed as a cure-all. Doctors used it to treat anxiety and depression until they realised it was addictive. Dentists also used cocaine to numb their patients' mouths. But, because it damages living tissues, it has been replaced by drugs such as lignocaine

Addicted to Coca-Cola?
In 1886 the American chemist John Pemberton developed Coca-Cola - 'French wine of coca, ideal tonic'. The ingredients included cocaine and kola nut extract, which contains caffeine. Within a few years, Coca-Cola and similar drinks had caused widespread cocaine addiction in America and so, in 1906, the cocaine in the Coca-Cola recipe was replaced with extra caffeine.

How do painkillers work?

When part of your body is injured, special nerve endings send pain messages back to your brain. Painkilling drugs interfere with these messages, either at the site of the injury, in the spinal cord or in the brain itself. Many painkillers are based on one of two naturally occurring drugs: aspirin and opiates. Aspirin uses a chemical found in willow bark, used by the Ancient Greeks to relieve pain. Opiates all work in a similar way to opium, which is extracted from poppies.

What is aspirin?
In 1899, chemists extracted the painkilling ingredient of willow bark and made aspirin from it. Aspirin reduces fever and relieves pain caused by inflammation (as in arthritis or a sore throat). It works by reducing swelling and stopping the pain message travelling to the brain. Other synthetic drugs similar to aspirin, such as ibuprofen, have the same effect but have fewer sideeffects.

What are opiates?

Opiates, originally derived from the opium poppy, have been used for thousands of years for both recreational and medicinal purposes. The most active substance in opium is morphine named after Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams. Codeine, a less powerful drug, is also found in opium. Both these opiates relieve pain, relax muscles and cause drowsiness. All opiates mimic your body's own painkillers. Morphine is a very powerful painkiller, but it is also very addictive.

What are the dangers of opiates?

In 1821 Thomas de Quincy described his experiences of opium abuse in his book Confessions of an English Opium Eater. Later, morphine was used widely as a painkiller during the American Civil War, but many veterans became addicted. In 1875, chemists trying to find a less addictive form of morphine made heroin. At first, no-one realised how addictive heroin was - it was used in cough mixture. Addiction to heroin is now a serious problem in many parts of the world

What are endorphins?

In the 1970s, John Hughes and Hans Kosterlitz at Aberdeen University discovered endorphins in the brain. Endorphins are our body's natural opiates, produced when we experience stress. Endorphin release from neurons increases during exercise and this is thought to promote a feeling of well-being. Endorphin release has also been linked with acupuncture, the traditional Chinese medical practice of inserting needles into the body to relieve pain.

What are sedatives?

Sedatives are drugs that calm you down. The oldest known sedative is probably alcohol, used for thousands of years. Surgeons even used it as a general anaesthetic before the arrival of ether and chloroform. Barbiturates were synthesised in the 1890s and abused widely by the 1900s. The search for safer sedative and anxiety-reducing drugs began after the Second World War, eventually resulting in the discovery of a family of drugs known as benzodiazepines, which include Valium.

How does alcohol affect you?

Many ancient civilisations independently discovered alcohol. It can be made by fermenting any sugary or starchy food such as grains, honey or fruit juice. Mead, an alcoholic drink made from honey, has been around since 8000 BC. Small amounts of alcohol make you relax, increase your appetite and relieve anxiety. It is thought to work by exaggerating the actions of some neurotransmitters in the brain.

Why can alcohol be dangerous?

There are an estimated 9000 alcohol-related deaths each year in the UK. Although small amounts of alcohol are harmless and may even help prevent heart disease, large amounts are harmful. Alcohol is also addictive. Withdrawal symptoms (which can be fatal) include trembling, headaches, anxiety and nausea. Withdrawing alcoholics can experience confusion, hallucinations and fever the DTs, or delirium tremens.

What are barbiturates?

Barbiturates were first made in the mid 1890s and were widely used to treat anxiety. All barbiturates inhibit the activity of neurons in the brain by exaggerating the actions of a naturally occurring neurotransmitter: gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). There are many different barbiturates, which have different uses depending on how long they last in the body.

How are barbiturates used?

Doctors use short-acting barbiturates as general anaesthetics a single injection of thiopental can knock you out in 10 20 seconds. Consciousness returns in 20-30 minutes. Doctors use longerlasting types, like phenobarbital, to treat epilepsy. All barbiturates are extremely addictive and so cannot be used long term.

What are benzodiazepines?

In the 1950s, chemists searching for drugs to reduce anxiety came up with benzodiazepines. The best known of these is Valium (diazepam). All have a calming effect, without much drowsiness. Benzodiazepines inhibit the activity of neurons in the brain, especially in the parts that deal with emotions. Like barbiturates, they work by increasing the activity of a naturally occurring neurotransmitter, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).

How are benzodiazepines used?

In 1975 Valium was the world's bestselling drug 15% of Americans were taking it. Most doctors have now stopped prescribing benzodiazepines for long-term use because of worries that they might cause addiction. Benzodiazepines are still widely used to treat anxiety attacks, to help people who have difficulty sleeping and to calm people before a general anaesthetic or dental treatment.

Can a drug make you smart?

Smart drugs were initially developed for patients with conditions such as Alzheimers disease and attention deficit disorder. However, they are increasingly used in non-medical situations, for instance by shift workers such as doctors or nurses, or by students to help them concentrate during exams. As we live in a society that puts such value on education and qualifications, smart drugs have a great appeal and are creating much debate. Would you take a smart drug if it could improve your brain power?

How does your brain grow?

Your brain started to wire itself up before you were born, and carried on until you were two years old. Your brain now contains 100 billion interconnected cells, known as neurons. How do they know which parts of your body to link up to?

How changeable is your brain?

Your brain changes throughout your life. Every experience you have will impact on the structure of your brain. A changing brain enables us to learn, remember and adapt to our surroundings. At birth, a babys brain contains 100 billion neurons, roughly the number of stars in the Milky Way. Before birth, the brain produces these neurons and the connections between them known as synapses. During the first years of life, the brain undergoes a series of extraordinary changes. In your teenage years the brain undergoes a pruning process, eliminating connections that are seldom or never used.

Does your brain change when you're an adult?

Even the adult brain is now thought to be far more adaptable than was previously believed. The steady formation of new neurons in adults may represent more than merely patching up the ageing brain. New neurons may give the adult brain the same kind of learning ability that young brains have, while still allowing the existing mature circuits to maintain stability.

When did your neurons form?

Once the embryo has marked out its future brain and spinal cord, it can start to make vast numbers of neurons. At times, 4000 new neurons are made every second. They will eventually

connect to form huge networks, allowing the brain and body to communicate via electrical signals. The embryo also needs to make billions of glial cells, which help to guide these networks and provide the neurons with support. They then glue the networks together.

How did your neurons form?

The nerve cell factory in the developing embryo is the lining of the neural tube, which forms both the brain and spinal cord. Each new cell moves through to the outside of the growing brain. The earlier a cell is made, the deeper in the brain it will end up, like the rings in a tree trunk. The outer layer, the cortex, is built up between the 13th and 28th weeks of the embryo's life. But nerve connections carry on forming up to the age of two

How does the brain develop?

The embryo forms the basic structures that become the brain and spinal cord between the third and fourth weeks of its life. A groove running along the length of the embryo folds up to make a cylinder called the neural tube. Three different compartments start to grow at the head end of the tube, which will become the forebrain, midbrain and hindbrain. The embryonic brain then balloons - it gets 30 times bigger and fills with fluid.

Why is folic acid important?

Women who are trying to conceive should take folic acid daily until the 12th week of pregnancy. This is because folic acid is essential for the embryonic brain and spinal cord to grow properly. By taking folic acid, the mother reduces the risk of both spina bifida and anencephaly, conditions in which the tube forming the spinal cord and brain hasn't closed properly

How does your brain wire up?

As you developed in your mother's womb, the neurons in your brain grew, then found and connected up with the different parts of your body. After birth, your brain continued to grow and develop as you grew up. Around the age of ten, the brain starts cutting some connections and strengthening others, making itself more powerful and efficient.

How do neurons know where to grow?

As the growing axon winds its way through the developing embryo, long- and short-range chemical signals guide it. Some chemicals work by attracting the growth cone at the tip of the axon, and others by repelling it. Long-range signals come from the targets - like beacons, and short-range signals from 'signpost' cells along the way. Like real signposts, these signals tell the axon where to turn or stop.

How do genes help?

Genes make the chemical signals that guide the axons to their targets. But the body's instruction manual only contains around 24,000 genes. Even though about half of these may be involved in making and connecting the brain, there aren't enough to specify each of the billions of connections needed. Instead, the signals get the axons to roughly the right place, and the remaining connections form as they are used both before and after birth.

Connect or die?
The embryo produces many more neurons than it needs to ensure that all possible connections can be established and there will never be too few. The neurons that get to the right place and successfully make connections survive. Once an area of the brain has enough connections, any others growing towards the same point will die by switching on a 'cell suicide program' apoptosis.

Time for birth?

If a baby waited until its brain was fully developed before birth, it would be in the womb for nearly two years. By then, its head would be too large to fit through its mother's pelvis. So there is a 'trade-off', which has enabled humans to keep both their large brains and upright posture: we are born with underdeveloped brains. Although we are born with most of our brain cells, the connections between them are not completed until the age of two.

How do babies brains develop?

A baby's brain develops through experiences, gained during certain periods of its development. For example, the circuits connecting the eyes to the brain mostly wire up as we look around during the first few weeks after birth. Different circuits wire up at different times during infancy we learn to smile at about 6 weeks, crawl at about 9 months and walk at 12 months. However, the brain is quite flexible if any of these periods are missed, most circuits are still able to wire up until about 10 years of age.

How does experience help?

The more experiences a child has, the more connections its brain cells will make. Many glial cells support and maintain these circuits, which almost triple the size of the brain in the first three years of a baby's life. Children who don't play or are rarely cuddled have underdeveloped brains. These children have the same number of brain cells, but fewer connections between them.

Use them or lose them?

Your brain is unique its connections are the result of everything you learnt and experienced as a child. After the age of about 10 or 11, the circuits in your brain are drastically pruned. You get rid of any connections that aren't used, while the ones that remain are more powerful and efficient. Never again will your brain be able to master so many new skills so easily.

Male and female brains?

Male and female brains appear to wire up in different ways a result of different hormones acting on the growing embryo. Some of these differences are apparent right from birth. Baby girls prefer to watch faces whereas baby boys watch everything equally. By school age, boys tend to be better at spatial skills, whereas girls are usually better at language skills. However, no abilities are just 'male' or 'female'.

What is special about human language?

Human beings are the great communicators of the animal world. They are the only living creatures that use language words or symbols that represent objects, actions, qualities, feelings and ideas. Other animals communicate in much less complex ways.

How does your brain control language?

In most people, the left side of the brain which controls the right side of the body deals more with language. For example, if you hear two different words played over headphones at the same time, you will probably repeat back the one heard in your right ear.

What tone of voice?

There's much more to language than just speaking and understanding words you actually need both sides of your brain to get the 'whole picture'. You seem to use the right side of your brain when judging the tone of someone's voice and the emotion behind it. Scientists also think you use the right side of your brain to put words into context to understand sarcasm, jokes and metaphors.

What is Brocas area?

When you speak (or write) words, you are using a part of your brain known as Broca's area, named after the French doctor Paul Broca. In 1861, he described a patient who could only say one word 'tan' even though he understood speech perfectly well. Tan, as Broca called him, had damage to the left frontal cortex of his brain.

How do you speak?

We now know that there is a complex network between the areas of your brain that were originally thought to control speaking (Broca's area) and understanding words (Wernicke's area). About half of the brain is involved in the understanding and production of language. When you speak a word that you have read or heard, the message goes to the parts of your brain concerned with seeing or hearing, and then to both language areas before an instruction is sent to other areas concerned with movement of the tongue and lips.

How do you understand words?

When you listen to (or read) words, you are using a part of your brain known as Wernicke's area. It was named after the German doctor Carl Wernicke, who first realised that speaking and understanding words were controlled by different parts of the brain. He described patients who couldn't understand speech. Although they could speak words clearly, they made no sense. They had damage to the left temporal cortex of their brains.

How do you learn to talk?

You are born able to recognise language newborn babies can tell the sounds 'b' and 'p' apart. Before they learn to talk, at six months, babies have the potential to speak any language: they start to babble, making noises including ones that are unknown in their own language. For example, Japanese babies can still tell the sounds 'ra' and 'la' apart, but most Japanese adults cannot.

How do you learn language?

Babies listen to people talking from the time they are born, and so they are learning language from the very beginning. Adults tend to use exaggerated 'baby-talk', stressing particular parts of speech and attracting the baby's attention. From the age of six months babies begin to concentrate on their own language. They stop babbling by nine months or so and later learn single words, two-word speech, and whole sentences around the age of three. By the age of 18, you may have learnt around 60,000 different words.

Can you speak another language?

Learning more than one language is easy if you do it before you are seven years old. Up to that age, the language areas of your brain can change, depending on the speech you hear. Later, these areas are 'wired-up', and learning another language is much harder. If you learn two languages early in life, the same area of your brain deals with both. Some researchers believe that if you learn a second language later in life, you use a different area of your brain.

When did humans start talking?

There are many theories about when and how humans started to develop language. Some scientists think that all human languages arose from a common language spoken by our ancestors in Africa. There are over 5000 different languages in the world today, although some of these are nearly extinct.

What is language?

Our sense of 'self-awareness' is one of the factors that make us human. It connects our experience of the world around us to our minds. This sense may have evolved after language provided us with an 'inner voice' that allowed us to think and make plans. Our early ancestors, Homo erectus, could make and use tools for hunting. By 40,000 years ago, our modern human ancestors, Homo sapiens, could also describe hunting in words and paintings.

How did humans start talking?

Scientists disagree over how human language arose. Some think that our human ancestors started talking as soon as their brains became large and sophisticated enough. Others think that language evolved slowly, from the gestures and sounds used by our earlier ape-like ancestors. To test whether present-day apes have the ability to communicate using language, researchers have tried teaching them different kinds of language.

Can apes learn language?

Apes cannot speak their mouths and throats are too different from ours. But in the 1960s, several chimpanzees were taught to use sign language. One, called Washoe, appeared to have learnt 160 words by the age of 4. However, critics said that Washoe and the other signing chimps were just copying their instructors to get rewards. The bonobo, or pygmy chimpanzee, seemed to have greater language ability. Using special keyboards, which have symbols representing words, they showed that bonobos can learn some aspects of language.

Who is Kanzi?
Kanzi, a bonobo ape born in 1980, can use more than 200 keyboard symbols. He can also make up simple sentences similar to a child of two. This is a considerable feat, but is still not human language. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, who developed the keyboard and taught Kanzi, thinks he learnt language by watching and imitating as researchers tried to teach his mother, Matata. Kanzi, who was always present at the sessions, may have learnt the symbols at the same time.

What are the genetic origins of language?

Scientists have found areas of our genome implicated in the development of language, shedding light on how networks of genes help to build our language-ready brains. Work has focused on the FOXP2 gene a gene that regulates the activity of other genes. Variations in related genes such as CNTNAP2 can affect a persons risk of developing a particular speech disorder. This is likely to be due to faulty wiring in the nervous system involving a protein called neurexin.

How many languages can you speak?

Language is one of the most fascinating human attributes. Humans use over 6500 languages across the world today. Your brain seems to be wired to learn language from birth, so what makes some people better at learning languages than others? Research into language ability

suggests that bilingual people have better mental control, as they are always choosing which language to speak. Other research suggests that being fluent in a number of languages might help your brain to age better.

Why is your memory so important?

Your memory is your brain's filing system. It contains everything you have learnt. You can store an amazing amount of information for example, as a child you learned around ten new words a day, and you may eventually know 100,000 or more.

How does your memory work?

How does your brain lay down and retrieve memories? Your brain is made up of 100 billion neurons. As you grow and develop, these neurons are 'wired up' to each other, and communicate through thousands of connections synapses. Memories are formed when certain connections are strengthened.

How do neurons create memories?

How do connections between neurons become strengthened, so that the connection is 'remembered'? Scientists know that if they give an electrical impulse to a pair of neurons, the two will communicate more easily in the future. This process is known as long-term potentiation (LTP). The effect can last for weeks, or even months long enough to make a memory. LTP is especially obvious in the hippocampus, one of the areas of the brain active in memory.

Where are your memories?

Say you went for a walk in the park: you might remember the weather, the person you were with, the conversation you had and the flavour of the ice cream you ate. The information making up this memory would be stored in many parts of your brain in the areas dealing with sensations of temperature, taste, face recognition and language. Other areas oversee the laying down, storage and retrieval of these memories.

How do you create memories?

A part of your brain called the hippocampus is vital for forming new memories. Scientists think that the experiences making up a memory are sent from the senses to the cortex, then on to areas surrounding the hippocampus. These 'bind' the memory together, before it is sent to the hippocampus itself, where information about context or location is added.

What happens if you lose your short-term memory?

People with amnesia gave doctors the first clues that the hippocampus is vital for converting short-term memories into long-term ones. People who have a damaged hippocampus, or whose hippocampus was removed to relieve epilepsy, keep their earlier memories, but cannot lay down new ones. A person with this sort of amnesia would not forget that New Year's Eve is 31 December, but would have no memory of the last New Year's Eve party they went to.

Where do you store long-term memories?

There is no single 'store' in your brain for long-term memories. Instead, they are all over the cortex, in the brain areas which were active when you first experienced them. So for a complete memory (composed of sights, sounds, etc.) to be retrieved, all the different bits must be brought together. How this happens is still a mystery, but it may be co-ordinated by the hippocampus.

Remember or forget?
Why are some experiences more memorable than others? Routine events interrupted by something unusual are remembered more intensely, such as a day at work or school when you received some surprising news. The hippocampus is the structure in the brain most closely aligned to memory formation. It is important as an early storage place for longterm memory, and it is involved in the transition of longterm memory to even more enduring permanent memory.

How does your brain control working memory?

When you use your working memory, you have instantly to retrieve many different memories and keep them all in your mind at once. For example, to talk to a friend on the phone, you need to recognise their voice, understand what they are saying, and think up replies. This 'on-line' information seems to be held in the prefrontal cortex area of your brain. Working memory is crucial for solving problems and making plans.

How good is your memory?

You store most things in your brain for only a short time for example, you can remember a phone number long enough to make the call, but then usually forget it. This is your short-term memory in action: your working memory. But information can pass into your long-term memory, where it stays for days, weeks, or even your whole life.

What is long-term memory?

You have different sorts of long-term memories memories of events, how to do things and facts. Your memories of things that have happened to you help you deal with the present and plan for the future. Your memory of how to do things like riding a bike will allow you to do something automatically once you have learnt how. Facts, such as names, events and places, on the other hand, have to be consciously retrieved.

What is working memory?

Your working memory is the 'blackboard of your mind'. You use it when adding up a bill or thinking up a sentence. To do any of these things, you need to instantly retrieve and use many different bits of information. Many researchers think that working memory is the key to human intelligence enabling us to solve problems and plan ahead.

What is your earliest memory?

For most people, their earliest memory is a fragment of something that happened when they were 3 or 4 years old. You cannot access most of your childhood memories by the time you grow up. But your memories did become easier to retrieve after you were old enough to describe them in words. It may be that your early memories were laid down in a form that your mind either cannot understand or cannot find.

Can you improve your memory?

Practice can improve your memory for facts dramatically. Simple ways include associating a picture with a word, making up a story, or rhymes ('30 days hath September'). The key is to associate facts with meanings a strategy used by professional memorisers, or mnemonists. Associations can sometimes lead to false memories if you see a list of closely linked words (sugar, chocolate, cake), you might 'remember' a related word that was not in the list (sweet).

Know any memory tricks?

The ancient Greeks and Romans were very skilled at using memory. As very few of them could read or write, lawyers and politicians had to speak for hours without notes. The Roman lawyer Cicero recommended breaking a long text into bits. Then he would visualise a familiar place a house, for example and put different bits of the text in different rooms. To recall it again, he would just walk through the imaginary house, room by room.

Would you take smart drugs?

'Smart drugs', claiming to improve memory and intelligence, appeared in the early 1990s. They are believed to work either by increasing the blood flow to the brain or by boosting the release of certain brain chemicals. They were originally developed to help people who had suffered a stroke, and those with Alzheimers disease (who lose their memory over time). Smart drugs can improve healthy peoples concentration, but not necessarily their memory.

What is dj vu?
Have you ever experienced dj vu (French for 'already seen') the feeling that something has happened before, when in fact its happening for the first time? Dj vu is more common in

younger people, in people with a certain form of epilepsy, and also when you are ill, tired or stressed. It may last for just a few seconds or several minutes. How your mind can fool you in this way is still a mystery, although there are several theories about it.

What causes dj vu?

One side of your brain is usually 'in charge' of a particular skill for example, in most people, the left side of the brain deals with language. One explanation for dj vu is that there is a splitsecond delay in transferring information from one side of the brain to the other. One side of the brain would then get the information twice once directly, and once from the 'in charge' side. So the person would sense that the event had happened before.

Can you imagine losing your memory?

Nearly everyone's memory gets worse to some extent as they get older it takes longer to recall information. This seems to be due to general 'wear and tear' of the brain. But imagine life without memory. You wouldn't be able to remember your name, how to look after yourself or recognise your family and friends.

What is amnesia?
Many things can cause amnesia, for example head injury, surgery, alcoholism, certain drugs and disease. There are different types of amnesia some are temporary, others permanent. Amnesia can affect the storing of new memories, or the retrieving of old ones, or sometimes both. Amnesia rarely affects memories of how to do things. Most sufferers can still carry out daily activities like getting dressed or cooking, even if afterwards they cannot remember where they were at the time.

What are emotions?

Most people feel happiness, surprise, fear, sadness, disgust and anger at some time these are the six basic emotions. There are over 600 words in English to describe them and we use 42 muscles in our faces to express them.

Which area of your brain controls emotions?

Emotions enable us to react to situations for example, anger or fear will set your heart racing, and feeling happy will make you smile. One of the key areas of your brain that deals with showing, recognising and controlling the body's reactions to emotions is known as the limbic system.

Do you have animal emotions'?

Emotions enable us to react to situations for example, anger or fear will set your heart racing, and feeling happy will make you smile. One of the key areas of your brain that deals with showing, recognising and controlling the body's reactions to emotions is known as the limbic system.

Are you scared?

Fear triggers immediate changes in you just as in other animals your hair stands on end, your heart beats faster, and your body gets ready to either attack or run. When you recognise danger, or feel afraid, you are using an area of your brain called the amygdala. People with damage to this area can no longer recognise fear in others

Which part of the brain controls fear?

The amygdala is linked to the parts of the brain that govern your senses, muscles and hormones enabling your body to react quickly to the sight or sound of a threat. The same information can also travel via the cortex, where it is put together to get the whole picture. This route is probably slower, but allows you to modify your behaviour if the situation isn't as dangerous as it first seemed.

Are you happy?

Enjoyment triggers areas in your brain known as 'pleasure centres'. They release 'feel-good' chemicals, in particular dopamine. All animals have this reward system, usually triggered by food or sex. However, the system can be affected by drugs, including nicotine and alcohol. At first, these act in the same way as 'natural' rewards, producing pleasure. But with increased use, the drug is needed to stop unpleasant symptoms that appear when it is not available ('withdrawal'). These effects contribute to drug addiction

What makes you laugh?

Being tickled, jokes, slapstick comedians but why? We don't really know, although researchers in California have found the part of the brain that may be responsible. The doctors were performing brain surgery on a 16-year-old girl, for epilepsy. Every time a small area at the front of her brain was electrically stimulated, she burst out laughing. The girl always came up with a reason for her mirth 'You guys are just so funny!'

What makes you angry?

Danger can make you feel either angry or frightened: both these emotions are triggered by the same part of the brain the amygdala. The amygdala in turn triggers a response in the hypothalamus, a key area for many of the things your brain does 'without thinking' including this 'fight or flight' response.

How are emotion and memory linked?

When remembering an emotional event, you recall not only what happened, but also how you felt an emotional memory. Both sorts of memory can be triggered by something you heard, saw or even smelt, at the time. Scientists think that you store early emotional memories, even if you cannot remember what actually happened. These memories may still affect you as adults

Why do you have emotions?

If you feel afraid, you try and escape from the danger. If you're happy, you relax. If you are disgusted, you may feel sick. Your emotions influence your behaviour. Our ancestors relied on their emotions to survive. But these days, we use our emotions more for making lifestyle decisions than simply staying alive.

How do you use your emotions?

You use your emotions to help manage and plan your life. We call this part of decision-making a 'gut instinct' or 'intuition'. People with damage to the front of the brain sometimes lose both their powers of reasoning and their emotions showing that the two are closely linked.

What happens if you lose your emotions?

What happens to people who lose their emotions? A famous case is that of Phineas Gage, a railroad worker. In 1848, an explosion blew a thin iron rod straight through the front of his head, and landed about over 20 metres behind him. Amazingly, he survived, and was able to talk and even walk immediately afterwards. But he changed overnight, from a responsible, sociable, capable man into an impatient, impulsive, unreliable one who had difficulty making decisions.

What happened to Gage?

The iron rod went in under Gage's cheekbone, and came out through the top of his head. It destroyed most of the front of the left part of his brain. Modern-day patients with the same area of brain damage are affected in the same way. They show no reaction to emotional events, and are unable to make personal or social decisions. They cannot plan, even a few hours ahead. These patients show how important emotions are to our powers of reasoning.

Can you recognise emotions?

You look at people's faces to see if they are familiar, to judge their gender and age, and also to see what mood they are in. You are usually very definite about what someone is feeling. Look at the pictures below, showing a range of expressions from happy to angry. Most people can instantly recognise each face as reflecting happiness, surprise, fear, sadness, disgust or anger rather than a mixture of two or more.

All around the world?

All people frown when they're angry and smile when they're happy. But is this just learnt as we grow up, surrounded by pictures, photographs and television? Apparently not: even people who live in isolated parts of the world use these same expressions.

Can you fake it?

You can pretend to be happy, angry or sad, just by changing your expression. But, for example, when you fake a smile it is very hard to use all the muscles you use when really smiling especially those surrounding the eyes. Your true feelings can also show through your posture, body movements and tone of voice. However, most people will take others at face value, and do not realise when emotions are faked.

What do mirror neurons mirror?

Mirror neurons are a set of neurons active both when you perform an action and when you see or hear others performing the same action. Research into mirror neurons has increased hugely since they were discovered in the 1990s. Mirror neurons are clearly important in a variety of brain processes, but we are only just beginning to understand them. Some scientists think mirror neurons will be key to explaining complex human processes such as empathy and imitation.

How do you feel empathy?

Many scientists think mirror neurons help in empathising with other people. Studies show mirror neurons are active both when you see someone upset and when you feel upset. Other animals have mirror neurons, but they are probably not as sophisticated as ours. This may explain why we have the seemingly unique ability to empathise. Damaged mirror neurons have been linked to autism. People with autism can find it hard to empathise and this can impair their social behaviour

Whats the problem with extreme emotions?

You need to be able to feel and recognise a range of emotions, but extremes of emotion can cause problems. Sadness can become depression, anger can become unprovoked aggression, and pleasure can lead to addiction. Feeling afraid in a dangerous situation is natural and useful. But being too fearful can cause unhelpful anxiety, phobias and panic attacks.

Could your fears ever be unlearned?

Inhibitory learning is an active process of undoing learnt behaviour that is different to just forgetting. It is important for organisms to be able to suppress detrimental memories. Experiments using mice in which a particular receptor for the brain chemical glutamate had been

removed demonstrated that the mice could not unlearn or adapt spatial information. So glutamate and a specific glutamate receptor seem to be important in inhibitory learning. This research could lead to therapies for phobias and anxiety disorders which boost or increase glutamate receptors or glutamate in the brain.

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