Seahorses, Hummingbirds, and Rats

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Seahorses are fish that look like horses and swim like hummingbirds.  Their snoots are shaped like a horse head, thus their name, but they move by flapping their dorsal fins thirty-five to seventy times per second.  They mate for life and typically travel in pairs with their tales intertwined.  I once had a friend who was so enamored, he had a couple in his aquarium.   He watched them so often I claimed he had “seahorse on the brain.”

Fantastically enough, we all have seahorses on the brain, or should I say IN the brain.  There is a structure within our brain called the hippocampus that is shaped like this aquatic creature.  It is in the temporal lobe which is to say on the side of our head.  To be more accurate we have two hippocampi, each residing on either side.

The word hippocampus derives from two Greek words, hippos which means “horse” and kampos which means “sea monster.”  The hippocampus has a definite function in memory.  Often the first signs of Alzheimer’s Disease become apparent when the disease forms in the hippocampus.

When I was in college in the 1970s, I assisted in a study on the hippocampus.  My professor had a federal grant to study the relationship between the hippocampus and short-term memory. As a psychology major, I was asked to help and readily agreed.

First, we trained white lab rats in a “Skinner box” to perform for food.  Throughout the weeks, the rats could learn to receive a pellet of food for executing precise tasks. I was surprised rats could be so smart and trainable.  I suppose I should have expected it since they survive in the most inhospitable places and environments, so they must be smart.  If not cute, be smart.

After training the rats, we performed a surgical operation.  We made an incision on the scalp of the anesthetized animal and peeled back the skin.  After drilling two tiny holes, we inserted electrodes into the two hippocampi and delivered a small amount of electricity for a specific amount of time.  We intended to cause damage to the hippocampus of all the white lab rats in the study.

After a time of healing, the rats were again tested to see how much memory of the previous training they had retained.  Autopsies were performed to determine the accuracy of the lesion.  Studies like this, accumulated over time, helped neurobiologists better understand the hippocampus and its relationship with memory.  Similar experiments on animals as well as autopsies on humans helped us better understand dementia.

Alzheimer’s Disease progresses differently in every person, but it almost always starts in the hippocampus.  Traveling to other areas of the temporal lobe it can affect emotion and facial recognition.

Though the brain has specialized areas, those areas don’t operate in isolation.  As Alzheimer’s Disease migrates into other lobes, it becomes somewhat evident by the symptoms it evokes.  Those having difficulty with mathematical skill and language comprehension likely have damage in the parietal lobe which is located at the top of the brain.  Individual’s having problem with planning ahead, expressing thought, or lacking inhibition probably have experienced damage to the frontal lobe.

So, the symptoms reveal the progression of the disease.  There are many theories on how it starts and spreads, but nothing is definitive.  Some medications seem to help cognition, but they don’t cure the disease.  One major study in England claims mineral water “cleanses” the brain of aluminum which is a known neurotoxin.  This may help the dementia patient’s synapses transmit electrical signals reducing the symptoms.  Other studies indicate coconut oil, which is about 65% medium-chain triglycerides (MCT), provides nutrition to the brain cells.  One such study suggests immediate effect resulting in higher test scores the same day as digested.  Personally, I find coconut oil or pure MCT oil helps me with “brain fog.”  An unrelated benefit for me is it reduce hunger when I’m dieting (always).

So, you may ask, what do seahorses, hummingbirds, and white lab rats have to do with dementia?  Not very much but it makes the physiology lesson more interesting.

God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarmed after their kind, and every winged bird after its kind; and God saw that it was good.  Genesis 1:21