I have always had a passion for the biological sciences, but when I experienced my first course in neuroscience, I knew I found my niche. My brain almost squealed with delight. I guess you could say I’m nuts about neurons. I even considered pursuing an advanced degree in neuroscience, but I just couldn’t wrap my brain around it, so to speak.
I couldn’t see myself working in a lab all day. I’m more of a people person. But I sure did love the subject. I still do; it’s like candy for my brain. But you don’t have to be a nerd about neurons to appreciate how our nervous system works. It’s a fascinating subject and it’s really not that complicated, so I decided to share some of the basics with you. After all, why should the neuroscientists have all the fun?
Neurons are nerve fibers that receive information from our environment and transmits it to our brain. These are sensory neurons. Our brain processes this information and responds by completing a specific action or movement. These are motor neurons. Sensory and motor neurons communicate to each other and to the neurons in our brain through a series of electrical impulses and chemical reactions, which is really pretty cool when you think about it.
This reaction is a result from a stimulus in our environment. However, the stimulus must be strong enough to excite the sensory neurons to get the ball rolling. Once the sensory neurons start firing, a specific sensory and motor pathway is activated. Once this pathway has been established, stimulating the same chain of neurons over and over again strengthens and reinforces the pathway. A strong feedback loop is created, and less of a stimulus is required for the same neuronal pathway to be activated.
This is a type of self education through experience, and explains why we can move through our environment without having to stop and figure out how we are going to move from sitting to standing, standing to walking, walking to running, jumping, playing, dancing….you get the idea. However, neuronal pathways and specific responses doesn’t only apply to movement. It also applies in the context of feeling, sensing and thinking as well.
We have to challenge our neurons and our nervous system to keep it fit and healthy. Engaging in a new physical activity, studying a foreign language, learning to play a musical instrument, reading a variety of literature, or writing yourself are just a few examples how to keep our neurons firing. Like I said, it is a fascinating subject, isn’t it?
Cheryl Ilov, PT, GCFP