This is a Neuron

The brain uses networks of these neurons, so small that 30,000 of them can fit on the head of a pin - to process information.

By Philippa Norman MD, MPH

This is a neuron. Your brain has about 100 billion of them!


healthy_neuron.jpgThey help you think, learn, move and experience your world. The brain uses networks of these neurons, so small that 30,000 of them can fit on the head of a pin - to process information. This takes LOTS of energy - your brain uses about 2/3 of the energy from the food you eat!

Neurons depend upon support cells called glia. Glia help to insulate, nourish and protect neurons. There are about 9 glia for every neuron.

Messenger Molecules

Neurons communicate with each other. Within the brain there is a constant “chatter” of cells as they communicate with each other using a language of electrical impulses and chemical signals.

Information “travels” when electrical impulses within a neuron trigger the release of a burst of messenger molecules (called neurotransmitters or NTs) from the end of the neuron. The NTs then flow into a tiny space called a synapse.

The NTs within the synapse then contact the next neuron, triggering another electrical impulse and the continuation of communication along the next neuron.

Building Information Highways

Neurons connect with each other to form neural networks that serve to carry information from one area of the brain to another. A typical neuron forms 1000 to 10,000 synapses with other neurons, thus forming a neural network.

Electrical impulses travel across neurons at speeds up to 400 miles per hour. We can instantaneousely tap into a memory, “get” a joke, feel inspired -  all because of these neural networks.

Railroad Tracks or Wildflowers?

railroad tracks and wildflowersYou might have passed by old railroad tracks with wildflowers growing nearby. In past years, scientists believed that brain connections were like  railroad tracks – basically permanent, with no significant growth and development during adulthood. During aging, we believed, neurons and connections would fade away like old defunct railroad tracks.  This view left little hope of reversing memory loss or building up cognitive reserves to promote brain health in aging.

Photo by Phil Squattrito


In the past several years, we have learned that neurons are more like wildflowers rather than railroad tracks. Scientists have found that new neurons sprout throughout life. The brain naturally develops by balancing periods of exceptional growth - called “blooming”  - with periods of trimming back or “pruning.” But things we do in everyday life – exercise, learning something new – also promote sprouting of new neurons.

A New Brain Every Day

Your brain is “magni-ficient!” Magnificent, and at the same time, efficient, your brain changes and grows to help you function in your life. Your networks are the “behind the scenes” wiring that allow you to express your unique qualities.

The networks within your brain are dynamic. Your brain creates new connections as you have new experiences and learn new things. When you practice a hobby or skill, the brain networks supporting that skill become stronger and develop more connections.

Your brain prioritizes important networks to maintain efficiency. Thus, networks that are used infrequently may become less dense or even disintegrate over time. We can think of this in terms of our own minds, our own lives. For instance, my geometry networks are frail at best. However a “mathlete” like my daughter, will develop a thicker and stronger neural network supporting geometry, as she continues to learn and enjoy math.

A strong neural network can serve as the biological basis of learning new information – that is why it is easier to learn new material if it can be linked to something you already know. Thus analogies, stories and other techniques that build on previous knowledge are very effective tools to promote the physical changes in our neurons that occur as we learn.

You live, you learn, you sprout, you connect.

Thus, today, your brain is slightly different than yesterday. Amazing!

Prescription for Healthier Brain

It is fascinating that we can use this idea of plasticity in our daily lives... that our brains grow and change based on our lifestyle.

A life full of learning, adventure, play, sleep, exercise, good food, love, spiritual connection and friendship will help you to feel better and have a healthier brain. Who could ask for a prescription better than that?

Just what do you feed your neurons? Here are 10 brainfoods to enjoy now.

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