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Question Your World: Does the Brain Clean Itself?

The human brain continues to be one of the most mysterious and impressive topics in the science field. In addition to creating nearly all of our day to day experiences the brain continues to impress scientists as they discover new things about the brain. A recent study asked another question: Does the brain clean itself? Learn more in this week's Question Your World Radio Report by the Science Museum of Virginia.

Look at the world around you for a moment. There's probably some electricity involved, perhaps plastics, technology, community, finances, recording history, and so on. The brain has been able to handle a multitude of tasks and continues to innovate and change the world we live in. Everything from the Magna Carta to pet food to Hee Haw are all a result of the brain. This neurological powerhouse uses about 25% of the oxygen we take in. Scientists have been studying the brain during its down-time for a while now. Many researchers have broadened our understanding of the various functions of the brain while we sleep; organizing memories, fixing damaged cells, and so on. 

Recently, scientists at the University of Rochester examined another interesting aspect of the brain, its cleanliness. In this experiment they took some colored dye agents and injected them into the brain of mice. They noted that during the day time, when the brain is alert and active, the dye didn't seem to move too much. When the neurological activity calmed down and went into sleep mode a whole new change seemed to happen. The cellular structure seemed to actually change. The neurons that are packed tight next to one another seemed to decrease in size and the cells between the neurons, glia cells, seemed to inflate instead. The glia cells took the dyed color agent and started to flush it from the system. They studied how these cleaning cells took the foreign elements and flushed them into the glymphatic system, which ultimately took the toxins out to the liver. Pretty remarkable!

This recent spring-cleaning discovery further supports the importance of sleep. Without that downtime the brain would not get the opportunity to serve vital tasks like organizing memories, healing cells, and now cleaning up around the place. A full night's sleep is important to a fully functional…and neat and tidy brain.

Article by Prabir Mehta, Science Museum of Virginia

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