Thursday, June 22, 2017


The brain is a city called Venice, where the buildings line canals instead of streets and when the tide comes in, the water rises, but when the tide goes out, all the debris of business and pleasure are washed out to sea, floating along in a barcarole of renewal.  The buildings, each a small palace of elegance with high ceilings and echoing marble, repositories of culture and memory, while the rising sun tints their walls with the beginning of a new day.

Brain research has come up with another of those surprising metaphorical discoveries, this time that the brain works like a living city of canals, able at night to draw up the neurons into themselves so that the interstitial fluid can wash through the widened spaces between the cells.  This link is a clear vid describing the discovery and what it means.  For instance, this may be a clue to Alzheimers and certainly explains why troubled nights lead to muddy thinking the next day.

The link below is to a longer printed explanation.

Naturally, there will be dozens of entrepreneurs marketing “brain washing” pills, strategies and equipments.  Their first task will be changing the meaning of the phrase away from its long-term connotation of forced power-washing by captors demanding obedience.  In fact, this new discovery is not about “cleaning” the thought content at all, but about the microfunctions of neurons, a general shift from one metaphor based on reflection about one’s own thinking to a far more concrete mechanical process based on experimental evidence.

We’re told that when they judge the efficiency of the cleaning of interstitial spaces by filtering the CSF (cerebrospinal fluid) of mice when they wake up, they discover that mice who sleep on their right side have better CSF cleaning.  I get a mental image of waking a curled up mouse and gently pouring brain fluid out its delicate ear, but — alas — I’m afraid they just cut off the mouse’s head with scissors.  More brutal than torturous brain-washing, but quicker.

When I was diagnosed with “dry eye syndrome” not long ago, I began to read about the fluids of the head, because I couldn’t quite grasp what was happening.  The symptom was waking with crusty stinging eyes, an alkaline rime formed at the base of my eyelashes, treated by washing away that rim.  Rimming one’s eyes — hmm.  It tastes like tears, so I suppose it is dried tears.  One adds tear-replacement drops labeled “lubricant.”  (Eyes are so sexy.)

I asked my eye doctor about my theory that a head is constantly bathed in fluids and he agreed but said it was likely to be “mucus.”  Docs are fussy about being exact.  So I look up “mucus” and find “phlegm”, “saliva,” "snot."

“The term water on the brain is incorrect, because the brain is surrounded by CSF (cerebrospinal fluid), and not water. CSF has three vital functions:
It protects the nervous system (brain and spinal cord) from damage
It removes waste from the brain
It nourishes the brain with essential hormones.
The brain produces about 1 pint of CSF each day. The old CSF is absorbed into blood vessels. If the process of replenishment and release of old CSF is disturbed, CSF levels can accumulate, causing hydrocephalus.”

It turns out that:  “Your respiratory system is protected by a special type of mucus, known as phlegm. Its job is to protect the lungs from stuff that could get in there, like dust, pollen or smoke. The stuff that makes it to your nose is called nasal mucus, or snot.”  Couldn’t find a source.  Must be common knowledge.  (When does snot become a booger?)

“Mucus is 95% water, 3% proteins (including mucin and antibodies), 1% salt and other substances. Mucin droplets absorb water and swell several hundred times in volume within three seconds of release from mucus glands. Mucus strands form cross links, producing a sticky, elastic gel.The solid gel layer acts as a physical barrier to most pathogens and the constant flushing movement prevents the establishment of bacterial biofilms. However, the pore size of the gel mesh means small viruses can easily penetrate it.”

This is how I get so hooked on looking things up — there always turns out to be so much more to know.  And it’s useful, so when I got out there and cut my shoulder-high grass and woke up almost paralyzed and stifled by overzealous mucus, I knew to get a decongestant.  Since mucus trying to protect one by plugging up all the bone sinus spaces in the face is so painful, one can only be grateful that plugged up spaces in the soft tissue of the brain are supposed to have no nerves that feel pain, but they still mess up function.

As with “dry eyes” there are two things that can go wrong with fluid IN the brain, that fluid washing out the canals between the cells at night.  One is too much fluid and one is not enough.

"Loss of the fluid that cushions and protects the brain may lead to intracranial hypotension, intense headaches. The most common cause of intracranial hypotension, or low cerebrospinal fluid  (CSF) pressure in the brain, is CSF Leak. CSF cushions and protects the brain and spinal cord. It is held in place by a sac-like covering called the meninges. The thickest outer layer of the meninges is the dura. Normally, the brain floats in this fluid.

We are more aware of hydrocephalus, too much fluid that can actually force the skull to be enlarged from within— but even before that — presses the brain painfully against the bone.  Many of my readers (indigenous people) are aware that Sherman Alexie was born with hydrocephalus, hereditary, and shared by his son.  Recently, Terry Gross of NPR, interviewed Alexie, who told us that in addition to his early surgeries as a baby, he had recently had surgery for a small brain tumor.  The tumor was easily removed, but it had fused with the dura mater, the covering of the brain and also a blood vessel.  This caused complications like blood loss and some loss of function in the brain itself.  He feels that he has been edited.  Some feel this is an improvement.  He still functions well, and continues to write. h

As the screens traditionally put around hospital beds are lowered and the patients speak frankly, we can get a better idea of what goes on within and between us.  My prejudice is obviously towards “knowing more”, though sometimes I hit limits.  (I do not wish to witness the scissored deaths of mice.)  Usefulness and reform is one of the compensatory forces.  Many people prefer compassion.  We should be grateful.

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