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Brain trust: Experts to discuss latest research, surprises about ‘most powerful computational device’

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Scientists have learned that the brain is much more dynamic, able to change, all through life.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Our brains have abilities beyond what we now know.

“We have this perception that our brain is a fixed structure that gradually deteriorates as we age. In fact, that is wrong,” says Dr. Barry Ramo, a local cardiologist and clinical professor at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center.

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Bill Shuttleworth, Ph.D., director of UNM Brain and Behavioral Health Institute.

Ramo will introduce three brain experts who will discuss the latest developments in research, “Your Dazzling Brain – Keep It Bright,” from 6:30-7:45 p.m. Tuesday at the Albuquerque Academy Simms Center.

“The brain isn’t a static organ that declines as we age,” says one of the speakers, neuroscientist Bill Shuttleworth, who recently won a $11.5 million grant for UNM-HSC. “Your brain can be as finely tuned at 70 as it is at 17. It doesn’t have to slow down and wear out. It’s not like a machine that’s rusting as it ages. It’s constantly updating and adapting. For better or worse, every interaction, every communication, affects the structure of our brains.” Shuttleworth is director of the UNM Brain and Behavioral Health Institute.

The past five years of research have revealed surprises about the brain’s abilities that spur more research and generate hope, Shuttleworth says.

“We want people to know there is hope. The brain is much more dynamic than we thought even five years ago,” he says. “New brain cells are born throughout our lifetimes. The brain changes. We can improve our brain function. There is much more hope than we thought.”

What astonishes him every day, even after 30 years of research, is that the brain has 80 billion to 100 billion neurons, each with tens of thousands of connections. “That gives you right between your ears, the most powerful computational device in the known universe.”

Attendees will be able to look at a preserved human brain before the lecture. “I think it’s important for people to know that the brain is real. It’s not abstract, but part of our physical body,” he says. Understanding the brain as a body part, helps people overcome obstacles to getting help with problems.

“If you have brain problems, go talk to a professional. If you broke your leg and didn’t treat it, you would always have a problem. As with anything in your body, you either use it or lose it,” he says. “We know that brain cells that fire together, wire together. If you don’t treat brain problems, you may be reinforcing the problems.”

Pari Noskin, a master’s level social worker, with a community coalition representing groups that support people with brain disorders and their families, helped create the event. The coalition, New Mexico Brain Network, wanted to share the latest in brain research with the larger community, she says. “We want to help people learn what they can do for their own brain.”

Another speaker is Dr. Davin Quinn, a psychiatrist and medical director of the UNM Psychiatry Consultation Service. Among other responsibili-ties, he pursues National Institutes of Health-funded research in noninvasive brain stimulation to discover if it can help people with traumatic brain injury.

While scientists continue to uncover the best ways to keep the brain healthy, Quinn says mental and physical exercise, restful sleep, good nutrition and balancing stress are shown to be beneficial.

Getting stuck, as someone does in depression, for example, means the individual may need some help, he says.

“We know unrelenting negative emotions have an effect on the brain. The brain is meant to be flexible, just like other parts of the body – the heart, the kidneys, the stomach. Just like the heart beats hard and fast sometimes and then other times it rests, the brain is meant to be flexible too,” he says, adding it is possible to rebalance and gain equillibrium.

“It may take time. Sometimes what we are feeling is out of control, but it’s best not to judge it. It could have the opposite effect,” he says, explaining that judging can reinforce the negative thoughts, emotions and behavior.

Dr. Jessica Richardson, assistant professor at the UNM department of speech and hearing sciences, will also speak. She works closely with people with brain injuries and their families to improve their quality of life.

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