There is guilt of course.
There is a lime green file. It is full of pages of neurology and psychopharmacology. It is mind bogglingly hard to fathom. When it starts to grind down to the DNA in the cell and the enzyme RNA polymerase I feel something slipping in my brain. I read and reread the same sentence. Neuronal stutter. Like the old Holden EH clutch that my mother’s foot fumbled with at the hill by the prison going to visit my Dad in hospital as a child. How she dreaded the hill. Even as children, in the back seat, we felt my mother’s dread of the hill. Sitting on our hands on the sticky blue vinyl. Her anxiety a wave of heat. Please turn green lights so she doesn’t need to ride the clutch and do a hand brake start and risk rolling backwards into the car behind, or else konking out.
The green file notes try to make analogies that are easier for the brain to grasp. For instance, it cutely describes neurotransmission as a “pony express.” But somehow I can’t quite make the jump from molecules to horse riders and it just makes the whole thing harder still. I am learning that the brain is not a collection of “wires” (I am not sure I ever thought it was) but rather is a chemical “soup”. The neurotransmitters are swilling around, turning on and off the genes in cells so that axons grow and stop growing. Make connections. Stop making connections. I don’t think it’s quite that simple, but that’s how I am imagining it. This is today’s take home message. Brain = chemical soup.
I learn that 90% of the neurons made by the foetal brain commit apoptotic suicide before birth. The discoverers of the process who named it apoptosis wanted the word to rhyme with the messy process of cell death called necrosis and used the Greek ptosis meaning “falling” and apo meaning “off”, just as autumnal leaves fall from a tree. Even in science humans search for words to be beautiful. Cell death = falling petals. In apoptosis the neurons just shut themselves off and disappear. No pus. It seems only the strongest and fittest neurons survive and thrive in our adult brains. In the adult brain there are still changes being made all the time but they are not as dramatic as those of the foetus or child. An adult brain is like a well-established garden where the neurons, like roses, need pruning and shaping, but, please, no major landscaping.
Even in science, or maybe especially so, we need to keep bringing it back to something more understandable. Something more concrete. Gardens and cooking. Houses and sheds. Nerves as having branches, brains as full of soup. For who can imagine the inside of a cell with its mitochondria and endoplasmic reticulum. We need the mitochondria to be the energy power house, the nucleus the central headquarters. But despite its helpfulness there is still chemistry and molecules and who can really understand that everything living is made of atoms of carbon?
And maybe some where along the way I lost that neuron (or two) that was responsible for that little bit of understanding and that’s why it’s so hard. Perhaps when all the neurons were in a lemming-like mass walking off their apoptotic cliff there were a couple who really should not have leapt. They were the ones supposed to “get” the DNA and RNA and the enzymes and peptides. And as science is able to dig deeper and examine more and more finely we discover more and more detail. You think you have come to the end of something and then they explode it apart and describe it again at a more intricate level. Ad infinitum. When once seeing inside the cell seemed miraculous, now we can see inside the structures inside the cell. Just as space goes on for ever, can we continue to magnify and see deeper and deeper into molecular structure? We can explode apart genes so they become lists of proteins. We can see what receptors are made of. Like an artist who constructs a world on the top of a pin. Each cell is a world.
Doesn’t it blow your mind?