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Does Your Brain Get Tired Like the Rest of Your Body?

EXCERPTS FROM AN ARTICLE IN SCIENCE BY  Carrie Whitney, Ph.D. Nov 14, 2019

brain drain

(pic) Who hasn’t felt brain drain after a stressful day at the office? PeopleImages/Getty Images

Who among us has not experienced mental fatigue after working a long day, taking finals or driving the kids from school to numerous extracurricular activities? When this type of “brain drain” sets in, regardless of how hard you try to concentrate, you probably find yourself physically exhausted and unable to fully focus.

Is this kind of mental fatigue evidence that you’ve overworked your brain? Meaning, does your brain actually get tired in the same way your other muscles do? And is there any difference between mental fatigue and good old exhaustion?

While the answers to these questions involve some complex chemical science, luckily there are ways to get a handle on mental fatigue before it leads to burnout, and those are easy enough for anybody to understand.

So let’s get this out of the way first. Your brain is technically an organ, not a muscle. It does have a bit of muscle tissue, but for the most part it’s mostly fat. In the brain, electrical cells called neurons transmit messages via chemicals. Although the brain isn’t a muscle, its cells do use energy to function.

“The brain requires fuel and energy,” says Gary Figiel, M.D., a geriatric psychiatrist in Atlanta who specializes in neurology and psychiatry. “The brain uses glucose as the primary source of energy.” When glucose enters the brain’s cells, it gets turned into adenosine triphosphate (ATP), a complex organic chemical for storing and transferring energy in cells, by the mitochondria.

It’s the compound ATP that researchers from Australia and Belgium thought could be the key to brain drain. The idea was that when your brain works hard, it uses up all that glucose, leaving you feeling depleted. The lowered glucose levels then raise levels of ATP, which blocks dopamine — that chemical that makes you feel good and keeps you motivated.

The study, which was published in the journal Sports Medicine in 2018, concluded that when your brain can’t get enough dopamine, you’re less likely to stay on task. So even though your brain is not a muscle, chemically you can tire it out by thinking too much.

“We are not wired to use the ‘higher order executive function’ all the time,” says Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D., clinical psychologist in the Bay Area, California, and author of “The Stress Proof Brain.” While “higher order executive function” can include obvious tasks like taking the LSAT, it can also comprise a combination of smaller challenges, like processing a lot of new information coming at you at once.

“After a while, our brains automate things and take less energy,” Greenberg says. For example, if you drive the same way to work every day, that activity will use less brain energy than if you had to constantly find new routes. When your brain is dealing with an ongoing supply of new information, it must put energy into every decision, which overuses that executive function and can cause mental fatigue.

 

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Suresh Rao

Mellowed out and enlightened septuagenarian. Tech savvy. Social writing is just a pastime to kill time. I keep contributing to several developmental projects in the area of engineering education, IT and Healthcare projects launched by my kith and kin. I am too lazy to write a book, 'cause I think my life itself is a book! I am also at www.facebook.com/sureshnrao
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RAMARAO Garimella
RAMARAO Garimella
1 year ago

Excellent scientific explanation. Hitherto, I thought the best way to keep the brain healthy is to exercise it by doing crosswords, sudoku, word games like word crossy and playing bridge. Now that you say there is a small muscle in the brain, I realize I have been wasting my time. What do you suggest to keep my brain ticking? Mind you, I am 81 plus.

Navneet Bakshi
Navneet Bakshi
1 year ago

There is a lot of scientific jargon to make one understand what really happens, but 1. One has to be physically fit, rested enough, to get the best out of his brain. Maybe, the repetitious work cause mental fatigue or disinterest but productivity of brain may still be there. On the other hand when one is physically tired a bar of chocolate or an injection of glucose may not set him ready for solving complex equations, but a walking in the fresh air and a good sleep may do him a lot good.

Navneet Bakshi
Navneet Bakshi
1 year ago
Reply to  Suresh Rao

Maybe it is. Perhaps the people who do such work that requires serious mental activity will know the difference. From writers point of view, I can say that yes, at times one doesn’t feel up to it and at time the quality of what you produce doesn’t measure up to your own standards, but being physically fit is a precondition to this.
Symptoms can include fatigue, confusion, lack of concentration, sleeping issues, forgetfulness, and headaches…have heard about such things, but perhaps they occur when one is living a constantly stressed life

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