How often do you stop and think about it?
To think of thinking seems like a peculiar task. For most of us, thinking occurs constantly despite rarely giving it a thought. However, as Jess Hazelton discusses below, when we take a few moments and evaluate what our brain is capable of, it is truly astounding!
Acting as a control centre for our entire body, we can understand our brain in terms of its four lobes pictured below. It’s your friend’s birthday next week – how do you go about planning a surprise party for her without her knowledge? The frontal lobe has got you covered. This area is responsible for your executive functioning, which includes the ability to plan, pay attention and problem solve. When you play sports, like soccer for example, how do you know where to position yourself before you kick the ball?
The parietal lobe integrates sensory information and creates a 3D map so you can interpret your position in relation to your surroundings.
What about when you see the sunset over the horizon on a midsummer’s afternoon? The occipital lobe, at the back of your brain, works hard to rapidly process your ever-changing visual environment.
Finally, have you thought about how you are able to use language and sounds to communicate what you see and feel to others, form complex memories and feel emotions like excitement or fear? These processes depend on the temporal lobe.
The constant communication and interaction between each of the lobes in your brain allows you to operate smoothly through everyday life. It is baffling that all of these processes can occur from within your head, from an organ than weighs a little more than a bag of sugar.
The function of our brains is truly bewildering. On top of continuously operating to keep us alive and well, our brain hosts a constant internal monologue of thoughts and ideas. The broad spectrum of this monologue varies from the basic, “I’d like a glass of water” to the very complex, “I wonder what my existence on this planet really means”.
Indeed, our thoughts can even be seen as representations of who we are as individuals – they are what make us unique. The philosopher Rene Descartes described this idea best when he said, “I think, therefore I am”. However, our thoughts are more than just who we think we are – they are what connect us with one another.
Through the use of verbal and non-verbal communication, we exchange ideas, express our feelings and become part of an external dialogue powered by thought. These complex processes occur throughout the waking day, seeming so innate, stable and routine that we rarely question them much further. However, what happens when these abilities break down and we start to lose our ability to think in the way that we are used to?
Amidst a number of health complications that are more likely to occur with age, one disease that we may confront in our lifetime is dementia. The FRONTIER research group at NeuRA is interested in understanding dementia syndromes, especially frontotemporal dementia (FTD).
FTD is a type of neurodegenerative brain disease where the brain cells in the frontal and temporal lobes gradually become damaged. Individuals with FTD can experience difficulties in aspects of their thinking, behaviour or their language skills. The types of difficulties experienced in FTD depend on the location and severity of the changes in these brain regions.
The impact of FTD goes beyond the affected individual, but also impacts on family members and friends. It is life-changing, as individuals progressively lose their ability to communicate with those around them. This loss of connection can be incredibly isolating, for the patient and for their loved ones.
Currently, no cure or effective treatments that can prevent or slow down dementia exist. Therefore, it is essential that research continues so that we can better understand this disease. At NeuRA, our research focuses on studying the changes that occur in thinking and behaviour over the duration of the disease.
Importantly, we are also interested in the impact that FTD has on the patient and the family over time in order to find ways to better support carers. It is our hope that this ongoing research will facilitate early detection and diagnosis, provide support for people with the disease and their families, and identify drugs which may be useful for FTD in the future.
Visit FRONTIER for more information.