Every morning I get up and ride my exercise bike for 20 minutes. Even if I don’t want to. Even if I’d rather be doing something else. It takes a real emergency to keep me from my morning ride. What started out as a way to wake myself up (I’ve never been a morning person, but the working world is unsympathetic to my plight), has become a daily ritual that’s helped me lose 25 pounds over the past 2 years — and keep the weight off.
Sometimes I’ll lift free weights afterwards, but my primary purpose when I get up, is to get on the bike.
That’s really when I do most of my news-reading and social media checking. I don’t have a lot of time, in the course of the day, to keep up with current events. I’ve got a full plate at work, and I keep busy with a variety of other activities that don’t leave me a whole lot of time for Twitter or Facebook or (especially) Pinterest and Instagram and the other outlets for social interaction. So, I read while I ride.
Some days, I really question the wisdom of starting out the day reading the news. I mean, seriously. It feels a little masochistic, considering all the … problems we’ve got going on. War, pestilence, crime, a whole range of sexual infractions, and the endless political battles over really core aspects of our lives, like taxes and insurance and who gets in and out of the country. sigh. (I’m too weary to capitalize that.)
What a way to start the day.
Then again, I’m asking for it. Nobody’s forcing me to keep the news tab open on my browser and refresh it, first thing when I unlock my phone. So, I have only myself to thank for the sinking feeling that accompanies the breathlessness that sets in when I’m having a really good ride.
And every now and then, I get rewarded. If I can manage to scroll past the irritants at the top of my feed, something interesting now and then crosses my path. Something in science or technology. Something that sheds light on the nature of how we’re built, and gets me thinking about what it all means. And on a semi-regular basis, something neurological comes up.
I’ve been fascinated by the brain for years, now. Advances in imagery, along with increased computing power and the increasing availability of research papers online, have opened up the whole subject for me. I’ve participated in a couple of online neurology courses from the University of Chicago and Hebrew University of Jerusalem (thank you, Coursera), and I’ve picked up a bunch of textbooks and classics from my favorite site of all time — abebooks.com. And over the past 10 years, I’ve become comfortable enough with the concepts and terminology, that I recognize topics of interest to me at first glance.
Here’s something I discovered today:
Wednesday, November 29, 2017
Microglia: The Brain’s First Responders
By: Staci Bilbo, Ph.D., and Beth Stevens, Ph.D.
Editor’s Note: New knowledge about microglia is so fresh that it’s not even in the textbooks yet. Microglia are cells that help guide brain development and serve as its immune system helpers by gobbling up diseased or damaged cells and discarding cellular debris. Our authors believe that microglia might hold the key to understanding not just normal brain development, but also what causes Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease … schizophrenia, and other intractable brain disorders.
Early in the 19th century, the nervous system was believed to be a continuous network— essentially one giant cell with many spidery extensions bundled to form the brain and spinal cord. The discovery that nervous tissue, like any other bodily tissue, is composed of individual cells upended this theory, but the idea of interconnectedness persists.
Indeed, one of the most surprising findings in the neuroscience field in recent years is the degree of the nervous system’s interconnection. We ’ve learned that its cells are intertwined not only with each other but also with those of the immune system, and that the same immune cells that work in the body to repair damaged tissues and defend us from infections are also critical for normal brain development and function. 1,2 Some of these immune cells, called microglia, live permanently interspersed with neurons in the central nervous system and play crucial roles in nerve cell development, brain surveillance, and circuit sculpting.
This is the kind of news I love to read. Something that shows how much more we’re learning about how our internal systems work. It’s important we learn this, for it reaches beyond our biology and actually affects how we think about — and understand — ourselves in a larger sense.
We leverage our knowledge about our physical systems all the time in our larger lives. We talk about “stretching” ourselves, thinking about extending our abilities and professional capabilities in much the same way that we think about stretching our leg muscles before a run. We talk about “growth”, getting a palpable sense of increase as we draw on our lived experiences about growing up and watching things around us grow. We use physical metaphors all the time to wrap our heads around abstract concepts, and we don’t think twice about it.
That’s just something we do to make sense of our world so we can interact with it, master some parts of it, or at the very least learn a thing or two.
So, it’s pretty exciting for me to read about new discoveries and developments on a microscopic scale. Because even though everything’s playing out on a stage so small you need advanced equipment to see much of it, it’s still playing out. And all those minuscule interactions are affecting us on an all-encompassing scale — they make up the difference in mass with sheer quantity, just as successful crowdfunding initiatives collect hundreds of thousands of dollars from a flood of relatively small contributions.
For me, seeing new research (which is so new it’s not in any textbooks) about how microglia interact with and support the nerve cells of the body… doing things nobody thought they could (or would) do… gives me a palpable sense of potential that’s absolutely massive. Those glial cells may be tiny, but the implications of their activities has real impact. And as our understanding about the literal jobs they do continues to deepen, we create new metaphors that parallel that knowledge — and widen how we think about the rest of our world as a result.
Scientists now realize that certain kinds of cells they’ve been discounting / dismissing for years actually serve a vital purpose that lets other cells function at their best. Where else might that be true in our lives? What else have we been discounting, that actually matters? The shift in our thinking might not be obvious, and it might not be instantaneous, but I’m convinced that it does happen. And it’s such a subtle process, we don’t even realize it’s happening.
I hope you’ll read the rest of the article and have that same sense of discovery and wonder.
Because our bodies really are amazing.
And so are we.
The daily news notwithstanding.