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What Keeps Harmful Substances Away From The Brain

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How Does The Brain Work

Our body has special cells called neurons that carry messages back and forth between the brain and other parts of the body. The neurons send messages to each other by releasing chemical substances called neurotransmitters into the gaps between cells. These gaps are called synapses.

The neurotransmitter crosses the synapse and attaches to a receptor on another reuron, like a key fits into a lock. This is how neurons talk to each other to make your brain and body do things. For example, when you want to walk up a flight of stairs, your brain sends a message to your feet to move, using long chains of neurons.

Learn more on our Drug Facts page: How does the brain communicate?

Small Molecule Lends Big Hope For Brutal Seizure Disorder

Two decades ago, when my healthy, bright, energetic toddler, Leo, started having seizures, his neurologist sent us home with a list of five or six possible diagnoses. All were daunting and scary, but one, Dravet syndrome, stopped me in my tracks.

Dravet is degenerative and brutal. Seizures typically start before age 2, after which they intensify and diversify in type. Cognitive and social development often slow, stall and regress so do strength and coordination. Early death is common.

Fortunately, Leo did not have Dravet but a more tractable form of epilepsy, which his doctors were eventually able to control. But between 10 and 20 children in the U.S. are diagnosed with Dravet each day for these children and their families, any medical breakthrough brings long-awaited hope.

“There is no cure for Dravet, and we don’t know how to control the seizures or adverse effects on brain development very well,” said epilepsy researcher David Prince, MD, the Edward F. and Irene Thiele Pimley Professor of Neurology and the Neurological Sciences.

But research by Prince, postdoc Feng Gu, PhD, and Alzheimer’s specialist Frank Longo, MD, PhD, the George E. and Lucy Becker Professor and chair of neurology, points to a new possible approach to treating Dravet. It’s a small molecule — LM22A-4, LM for short — that unlocks a natural repair mechanism in a type of brain cell known as parvalbumin interneurons, which malfunctions in Dravet. The research was published Feb. 15 in PNAS.

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Toxins That Can Reach The Tissues When Inhaled:

  • Air pollutants, whether industrial or associated with lifestyle
  • Smoke from cigarettes, other tobacco, or marijuana vaping of inhalants, secondhand smoke from being around smokers. All hot gases entering the lungs can be toxic.
  • Automobile exhaustcarbon dioxide and monoxide, but also numerous categories of small particulate matter that come out the tailpipe
  • Cleaning chemicals
  • Paint and solvent fumes

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What Conditions And Disorders Affect The Nervous System

Thousands of disorders and conditions can affect your nerves. An injured nerve has trouble sending a message. Sometimes its so damaged that it cant send or receive a message at all. Nerve injury can cause numbness, a pins-and-needles feeling or pain. It may be difficult or impossible for you to move the area thats injured.

Nerve damage can happen in several ways. Some of the most common causes of nerve damage include:

The Hypothalamus: The Brains Center Of Homeostasis

So far, we have described how the brain collects information from the body and decides which commands to send in order to maintain homeostasis. The specific region of the brain where most of this activity takes place is called the hypothalamus, which means under the inner chamber in Greek . The hypothalamus controls many important body functions, such as sleep, blood pressure, temperature, hunger, thirst, and energy consumption and storage. Much like a computer microprocessor, the hypothalamus runs an algorithm that computes the information by following a set of rules. Then, the hypothalamus makes a decision about whether or not to send commands to the body. This type of computation occurs in brain cells called neurons. The neurons in the hypothalamus can receive feedback both from inside the body and from the external environment. They can also produce various hormones.

  • Figure 2 – The meeting point between hypothalamic neurons and pituitary capillaries.
  • On the right, the hypothalamus is highlighted in green and the pituitary in blue. On the left, you can see that commands from the hypothalamus travel along the neurons to the pituitary gland. The pituitary then releases commands in the form of hormones into the bloodstream, via the fenestrated capillaries.

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Associated Conditions And Problems

The blood-brain barrier is usually effective at keeping foreign or toxic substances out of your central nervous system. Most of the time this is a good thing, but it can pose a problem when developing new drugs for the nervous system. For example, one of the major challenges in treating brain tumors is that it can be difficult to make a medication capable of getting across the blood-brain barrier to reach the cancer. Because of this problem, researchers are developing medicine to try to bypass the blood-brain barrier.

The blood-brain barrier can sometimes also be broken down by injuries and infections. Research shows that strokes and traumatic brain injury can damage the endothelial tissue and cause the blood-brain barrier to open. Researchers have also found that those with early signs of cognitive impairment have a breakdown of the blood-brain barrier. The findings could help to lead to early diagnostic tests for Alzheimers disease and other conditions that cause cognitive impairment.

Why Is This Important

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Fenestrated blood vessels serve as important gateways that allow communication between the brain and the blood. However, blood vessels with fenestrae are also found in other important organs, such as the pancreas, liver, and kidneys. In these organs, it is also necessary to exchange molecules with the blood circulation. Yet we still know very little about how fenestrae are formed. Revealing the secrets of window-making could be very useful. For example, while the BBB safeguards the brain from infection, it also prevents the passage of medicines into the brain. This makes it difficult for doctors to treat brain diseases. If we find a way to create fenestrae in the tightly sealed blood vessels of the brain, it may be possible to deliver drugs across the BBB to treat disorders, such as epilepsy, Parkinsons disease, and autism.

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Treatment Of The Cause

The cause of stupor or coma is treated when possible.

For a low blood sugar level, glucose is immediately given intravenously. Giving glucose often results in instant recovery if the coma is caused by a low blood sugar level. Thiamin is always given with glucose because if people are undernourished , glucose alone can trigger or worsen a brain disorder called Wernicke encephalopathy Wernicke Encephalopathy Wernicke encephalopathy is a brain disorder that causes confusion, eye problems, and loss of balance and results from thiamin deficiency. Wernicke encephalopathy is caused by a severe deficiency… read more .

If a head injury is the cause, the neck must be immobilized until doctors can check for damage to the spine. Some people in a stupor or coma after a head injury benefit from treatment with drugs that can help nerve cells function better, such as amantadine. Such treatment may help people regain some level of function more quickly. However, such treatment may not make any difference in improvement over the long term.

If opioid overdose is suspected, the antidote naloxone is given. Recovery may be almost immediate if the opioid is the only cause of impaired consciousness. If people take opioids, their doctor may prescribe a naloxone auto-injector for them. This device enables a family member or other caregiver to give them naloxone immediately if an opioid overdose is suspected.

Who Is At Risk


Lead is particularly dangerous to children because their growing bodies absorb more lead than adults do and their brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to the damaging effects of lead. Babies and young children can also be more highly exposed to lead because they often put their hands and other objects that can have lead from dust or soil on them into their mouths. Children may also be exposed to lead by eating and drinking food or water containing lead or from dishes or glasses that contain lead, inhaling lead dust from lead-based paint or lead-contaminated soil or from playing with toys with lead-based paint.

Adults, Including Pregnant Women

Adults may be exposed to lead by eating and drinking food or water containing lead or from dishes or glasses that contain lead. They may also breath lead dust by spending time in areas where lead-based paint is deteriorating, and during renovation or repair work that disturbs painted surfaces in older homes and buildings. Working in a job or engaging in hobbies where lead is used, such as making stained glass, can increase exposure as can certain folk remedies containing lead. A pregnant womans exposure to lead from these sources is of particular concern because it can result in exposure to her developing baby.

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Windows Between The Brain And Blood

As mentioned, the bloodstream acts like a postman, collecting and delivering chemical messages to and from the brain. However, there is a major obstacle in the postmans path. The blood vessels of the brain are sealed tightly by a special safeguard, called the blood-brain barrier . The cells that build the blood vessel walls are connected tightly to one another, similar to bricks glued together by cement, so almost nothing can pass through . The main purpose of this barrier is to protect the brain from infection. When the BBB is loosened as a result of disease or injury, bacteria might enter the brain and cause severe damage or even death.

  • Figure 3 – To BBB or not to BBB?
  • There are two types of capillaries in the brain. On the top, you can see fenestrated capillaries lacking the BBB. The wide-open windows in the capillary wall allow passage of molecules to and from the bloodstream. On the bottom, you can see a tightly sealed BBB capillary, which restricts entry of molecules to keep brain cells safe.
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Keeping The Body Balanced And Steady

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The outside world in which we live is constantly changing. The inside of our bodies also changes after we eat, drink, exercise, or sleep. Yet, despite these continuous changes, the body is able to keep its inner environment stable. We call this ability homeostasis, which is a combination of two words in Greek: homeo, meaning similar, and stasis meaning stable. For example, all the cells in the human body function best at a temperature of around 37°C. Therefore, the body works to maintain this temperature. When it is hot outside, we cool the body by sweating. When it is cold outside, we warm up by shivering, which produces heat. If we were unable to control body temperature, our cells would fail to function properly. That is why all living organisms, from single-celled bacteria or yeast to large animals, such as elephants, must maintain homeostasis to stay alive.

  • Figure 1 – The brain maintains the bodys well-being.
  • A constant conversation between the brain and the rest of the body takes place to keep physical conditions steady and balanceda state called homeostasis.

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Why Are Toxins So Harmful

Toxins can and do negatively affect every part of the body. Toxic effects on the brain include poor memory and concentration, erratic behavior, word confusion, mood issues, headaches, vertigo, and cravings. Toxic brain exposures, as from alcohol abuse, are also linked to accelerated mental decline.

Common toxins can be absorbed through the skin , ingested , or inhaled . Use these lists to see if youve possibly been exposed to any toxic substances:

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Keep Harmful Chemicals Away From Children

    Growing up in Maine, I can remember the rotten egg smell in my nose and the burning pain in my lungs when the local mill released sulfur dioxide waste into the wind. When outside, it sometimes felt like acid rain was inside my respiratory tree.

    Because that particular chemical is now known to be an asthma trigger and a carcinogen, it makes me wonder what harm occurred when I was young and why I now wheeze when I run.

    Pediatricians know that childrens bodies are uniquely vulnerable to chemical harm. Why is that so?

    First, kids of all ages have more exposure to chemicals. A developing fetus can be exposed through umbilical cord blood and an infant through breast milk. Small children spend more time on the floor and ground, exploring by putting objects in their mouths, making them more at risk for chemical exposures than adults who are upright. Teenagers tend to try plenty of chemical products in their drinks, on their hair and for their skin.

    Pound for pound, children and adolescents eat more food, breathe more air and drink more fluids that adults. These developing brains and organs are more susceptible to damage. The young are more susceptible and often more exposed to toxins than adults.

    Ask me now, as a pediatrician, what chemicals are safe for children, and I will tell you it is best to be cautious. The federal Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 is the law that should have protected our kids. But it is obsolete, ineffective and in dire need of update.

    Avoid Environmental Mold And Mycotoxins

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    Environmental mold can be a serious problem for some people.

    Unfortunately, most people arent even aware that mold is in their home or workplace and affecting their brain function.

    In water-damaged buildings, mycotoxins are released into the air.

    If youre genetically susceptible, they can wreak havoc on your brain, and your cognitive function and mental health can deteriorate for no apparent reason.

    One way mold and mycotoxins can disrupt brain function is by causing leaky brain.

    Researchers have discovered that mycotoxins can clearly reduce the integrity of the blood-brain barrier .

    Theyve also concluded that exposure to mycotoxins in an indoor environment can cause neurological damage. One way it does this is by breaking down the blood-brain barrier .

    Several other studies have found that mycotoxins increase the permeability of blood-brain barrier and disrupt the functioning of the nervous system .

    I lived in a moldy house for more than a year, and my blood-brain barrier likely became significantly leaky during that time, as my brain and mental health deteriorated. I also suffered a terrible concussion while living in that house, making my brain even more permeable. It took a while to get back to normal.

    Today I use this air filter in my apartment to protect myself from any mold. It removes any mold spores and smoke that may be in the air.

    Several B vitamins have been shown to support the blood-brain barrier and help heal leaky brain.

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