Charity begins at home, and the brain is no stranger to this maxim. The brain is not only immunologically active on its own behalf, but also plays a role in protecting the rest of the body. The brain directs cell-to-cell communications, but those messages do not always host good news. Sometimes they carry the black cloud of inflammation, which is supposed to be a protective response to an insult, injury, or destruction of tissue, but it also may lead to loss of some kinds of function, including thought. The chemicals that coordinate the inflammatory process are called cytokines, and they amplify immunological activity.
Given the role of cytokines in the neuroimmune process, it has been suggested that these molecules influence cognitions—the mental processes of knowing, which is an exercise that includes awareness, perception, reasoning and judgment. Investigators at the St. Vincent Hospital, in Indianapolis, studied the relationship between inflammation and cognition and found that, “There is abundant evidence that inflammatory mechanisms within the central nervous system contribute to cognitive impairment via cytokine-mediated interactions between neurons and glial cells,” adding that there is a growing awareness of the role of cytokines in “…the inflammatory processes in neurodegenerative diseases…” (Wilson. 2002) A considerable volume of such activity results from stress and its effect on immunity.
A dab of semantic guidance might be appropriate. First, glial cells are a kind of scaffolding that supports and surrounds nerve cells. Each neuron is surrounded by several. In the brain, glia account for about forty percent of brain volume. They’re smaller than neurons, maintaining the capacity to divide and form part of the blood-brain barrier that is designed to regulate the passage of matter between the blood and the central nervous system. Second, cytokines have multiple tasks, including blood clotting, growth and development, and, of course, immunity. They comprise several groups. There are those that regulate T-cells and B-cells in the immune system, called interleukins; those that block pathogens such as viruses, called interferons; and those that promote cell proliferation, called transforming growth factors, among others.
Cytokines can get excited by physical, mental, spiritual, biochemical, and psychological stress. That runs the gamut from strenuous activity to poor diet to arguing with the kids to sickness or disease, all of which can lead to lack of mental clarity, confusion, tiredness, difficulty in concentrating, and forgetfulness—brain fog. The cytokines can interfere with complex cognitive processes at the molecular level, where the regulation of neurotransmitters is disturbed and memory is distorted. (McAfoose. 2009) Recent studies in the Netherlands found that women are more prone to cognitive deficiencies caused by inflammation than men. (Trollor. 2011)
When markers of inflammation are elevated they offer an explanation for the subsequent brain fog. Of the several markers, C-reactive protein (CRP) is one of the most commonly measured. Its elevation denotes the presence of inflammation somewhere in the body. Not all inflammation is as painful as that from an ingrown toenail with its accompanying redness, swelling and pain. But high CRP may account for, and even predict, memory impairment. (Noble. 2010) The diseases that are attributed to old age, such as arthritis, and the recruitment of the immune system, such as during a viral or bacterial attack, will increase circulating interleukins as well as CRP, both of which affect memory, attention, abstract thinking, the initiation and inhibition of appropriate actions, and planning. (Hoth. 2008)
The factors that cause brain fog have a more profound effect as we age. If, however, we learn to control those factors now, it makes geriatric life a breeze. Removing dietary insults is one step. The hardest slap comes from sugar and refined carbohydrates. Supplementation with the B vitamins, the stress fighters, helps to maintain nerve integrity and function. Sleep, a little exercise, counseling, and meditating on those things that are just, pure, lovely and of good report can ameliorate those little irritations that accumulate into seemingly insurmountable roadblocks to peace and the mental clarity that ensues. By the way, keeping your teeth in good shape can help. (Kamer. 2011)
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Marioni, Riccardo Emilio Inflammation and cognition : the association between biomarker levels, their genetic determinants, and age-related cognitive decline. The University of Edinburgh. 2010 http://hdl.handle.net/1842/4436
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