1) What made you decide to be a neuroscientist and why the extensive research into Parkinson’s disease?
“Men ought to know that from nothing else but the brain come joys, delights, laughter and sports, and sorrows, griefs, despondency, and lamentations. And by this, in an especial manner, we acquire wisdom and knowledge… And by the same organ we become mad and delirious, and fears and terrors assail us… All these things we endure from the brain when it is not healthy… I am of the opinion that the brain exercises the greatest power in the man.” – Hippocrates, On the Sacred Disease
To me, this inspirational description of the brain summarizes my enthusiasm in neuroscience and the devotion towards deepening my understanding on how our brain functions. Advancements in technology and medicine have increased significantly the average life span of humans. In many parts of the world, particularly cities with great advancement in technology and economy, one of the socio-economic challenges that the society has to face is the ageing population and the requirement of vast amounts of resources to take care of the long-term needs of individuals suffering from disorders associated with ageing.
Parkinson’s disease is one of the major age-related disorders of the brain that has no effective treatment to cure or even delay the progression of the disorder. Interestingly, most of the cases of Parkinson’s disease do not have a clear and direct correlation with particular genetic factors. It is therefore an important question of how various environmental factors could possibly interact with our genes to result in the acceleration of the neuro-degenerative process. Understanding this will provide important insight into the progression of Parkinson’s disease and possibly provide reference to other neuro-degenerative diseases.
2) What are the main differences between male and female brains, and how does this affect us in terms of language ability, memory, concentration, spatial awareness and creativity?
The overall structures of our brain and the basic cognitive functions are mostly determined by our genes. However, our brain constantly receives information from the environment and is highly capable of fine-tuning its functions to adapt to the environment. Adaptations could be in the changes in the number of connections among the neurons (synapses), the amount of neurotransmitters that are responsible for the signal transmissions among the neurons, and the firing frequencies of the electrical signals passing through the neurons. All these determine the final outcome of the cognitive performance. Therefore, environmental factors like diet, enrichment of experiences (e.g. exposure to different learning environments), stress, infections, etc, play an important role influencing our cognitive performance.
3) What are the top 3 gender-related myths about the brain?
The top 3 gender-related myths about the brain are:
Myth 1: Brain size is proportionately linked to intelligence. Women’s brains are typically 8% smaller than the brains of men, so they are considered to be innately less intelligent. However, this is not true as if absolute brain size were all that mattered, large mammals such as whales and elephants – both of which have larger brains than humans – would outwit humans in terms of intelligence.
Myth 2: Male and female brains are shaped by their respective “male” and “female” hormones – essentially, that males have generally more testosterone while females have more estrogen. While males generally have more testosterone and females have more estrogen, the truth is that both men and women have both hormones as these hormones have other functions – for example, the female brain requires testosterone to develop and maintain libido while the male brain requires estrogen for normal brain development and sustenance.
Myth 3: Men are naturally better in Math and women are naturally better in verbal tasks. This is untrue as the differences seen in such cognitive tests are not a true reflection of innate differences. Instead, other factors come into play – such as the influence of the social environment.
4) How can we increase the ‘fitness level’ of our brains? How much do Sudoku puzzles and mahjong help, anyway?
Brain fitness can be defined as the optimal state of cognitive performance. It requires proper and efficient communications among the neurons in the brain. This depends on the efficiency of the electrical (in forms of action potentials) and chemical (communications among neurons at the synapses, gaps between neurons) signals passing through the neurons. The efficiency of communication in turn depends on the proper structure of the brain (i.e. with sufficient number of neurons and their proper functioning). Therefore, to maintain brain fitness, brain health is important.
To maintain peak cognitive performance, it is first important to have a good and healthy lifestyle that provides us with a balanced diet, sufficient sleep and exercise. This can help to maintain a healthy brain that can perform properly.
Also, maintaining a mentally active lifestyle is important as it engages our brain to actively acquire and integrate new information from our environment. This is the principle of “use it or lose it”. As we learn, we not only increase in our knowledge, our brain is also changing its very structure and increasing its capacity to learn. Unlike the computer, the brain is constantly adapting itself. The more actively we engage our brain in various cognitive activities (e.g. being active at work, participating and socializing in our leisure time), the more efficient our brain will become so that we can learn and perceive with greater precision, speed, and retention of information.
On the other hand, some environmental factors such as chronic stress have negative effects on cognitive performance and can limit the brain from functioning at its optimal condition.
5) I used to drink many bottles of BRAND’s Essence of Chicken when preparing for exams. I know it really helped me stay awake and focused, but I do not know how exactly. So, what is the science behind this?
Brain foods such as BRAND’S® Essence of Chicken can help to boost brain health. Carnosine, an active ingredient naturally found in BRAND’S® Essence of Chicken, is a powerful peptide which has positive effects on brain health. Good brain health and boosted brain fitness, lead to mental sharpness.
Mental sharpness is a desired state of ideal cognitive performance, characterized by a brain that is functioning at optimal performance, with the ability to focus, recall, concentrate, learn and comprehend well.
BRANDS sent me some chicken essence (the original flavor plus 3 other flavors). I have grown to love the original flavor of BRANDS chicken essence so even though the other flavors are interesting, I believe I’ll still stick to what I love best. 😀
The chicken essence with tangkwei tastes closest to the original, with cordyceps a close second. I think the american ginseng with chicken essence is truly an acquired taste – it is rather bitter, so I don’t count myself a fan of it. 😀
I think chicken essence is great on those days when I really need a perk-me-up boost. I don’t drink ‘red bull’ ‘cos of the high sugar content. And if you ask me, I’d really recommend the original flavor of BRANDS essence of chicken. I kinda grew up with it! 😀