Does aging always mean losing mental ability? How are physical diseases such as stroke and psychiatric diseases such as depression linked? How do food, sleep, and stress alter brain function—and vice versa?
Science does have some answers. In the past few years, using new technology and techniques in the lab, researchers and other doctors have learned a lot about how our brains work and why they trip up sometimes. But only a trickle of that news has made it into public consciousness.
Part of the reason is that few non-scientists can translate the hard science into practical, everyday words. Even on the Web, sites with good information on advances in brain science are too specific—and often assume you already know the basics.
The three editors of the Dana Guide to Brain Health (now in paperback) aim to fix that problem, even including the text on a CD-ROM that people can copy into the family’s computers. “It’s a very friendly book for people who want to learn about the brain, the most complex organ in the body,” says co-editor M. Flint Beal, M.D., neurologist-in-chief of the New York-Presbyterian Hospital and chairman of the department of Neurology and Neuroscience at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University.
“It’s a landmark project,” Beal says. The editors were able to get 104 of the elite neuroscientists and clinicians in the world and the United States to write on their specialties, then revised their work into easily readable state-of-the-art reviews that tell you everything you want to know.
The idea was to help people who are concerned about their or their children’s brains or the brains of someone they know who has been diagnosed with a problem. Here they can find out what the problem is, what might happen in the future and what they should ask the doctor the next time they go to the office, says co-editor Floyd E. Bloom, a past chairman of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and former editor-in-chief of the journal Science who now is founding CEO of Neurome, Inc. But to do that, the editors realized, they first had to explain what is known about the brain, how it puts itself together and how it adjusts to changes.
Not a textbook
The first three of the four major sections of the Dana Guide do just that, from descriptions of how we see and hear to what causes mood swings and what is considered “normal” brain behavior when a person is three, thirty, sixty, and older.
The fourth section is a solid survey of the various illnesses and diseases that arise when the brain “misfires” in some way, what the symptoms are and how they might be treated. Also included are a glossary of terms, a listing of drugs by generic and brand names and what they are intended to do, and information and links to support groups, professional societies, and sources of further information. The CD that accompanies the book includes its full text, as well as interactive diagrams and clickable links.
“This is not a textbook. We have plenty of those. What we don’t have is something that all the people who are not studying or practicing in the areas can pick up. And that’s what we were devoting much of our time and energy to” in developing the Dana Guide, says co-author David J. Kupfer, M.D., chairman of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and medical director of the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic there.
After reading on the brain-body loop and discovering the range of what is considered normal in brain development and aging, he said, people may appreciate even more fully the connectedness between what goes on in the brain and what goes on in the body.
“And once you begin appreciating that much more, you appreciate that these diseases are really pieces of the same puzzle,” Kupfer said. “You have a better understanding, for example, how depression can go along with heart diseases or certain aspects of stroke.” Readers might also be able to spot when the brain-body response loops aren’t working so well, even before they see signs of a full-fledged disease.