Some of my earliest exposures to classical music were through Looney Tunes, such as The Barber [Rabbit] of Seville, by Rossini. If you have ever watched the animated cartoon show called Powerpuff Girls, you may have been introduced to Sara Bellum. She is a brainy character, naturally. Let me introduce you to Ms. Bellum’s namesake, the cerebellum.
The cerebellum is a part of the brain located at the base of the skull. It coordinates movements, especially unconscious movements like standing or sitting upright. It operates on an unconscious level, so that once you decide to hop over a puddle while carrying a bag of groceries, your cerebellum coordinates all the muscles needed to perform this act. Until recently, we thought the cerebellum was kind of like a “dumb jock,” only suitable for physical tasks.
Of course, science presses onward, regardless of whether we think we know all the answers. In 1979, we learned that although the cerebellum accounts for 10% of total brain mass, it contains more than half the brain’s neurons. Each neuron (nerve cell) in the cerebellum talks to 150,000-500,000 other neurons. The cerebellum is our movement specialist that relays information about muscles and joints to other parts of the brain.
In the past 30 years, we have discovered that the cerebellum also plays a key role in organ function, memory, learning, and emotions. Remember that the main input to the cerebellum is signals of movement and physical activity. What does that mean? Movement is a necessary nutrient for the brain. Conversely, a lack of movement to the brain is interpreted as a sign of injury. Injury, of course, leads to inflammation and increases in stress hormone output. We know that chronic inflammation and elevated stress hormones accelerate the aging process, and most people want to know how to age as slowly as possible.
Among elderly people, we have documented the positive effects of exercise on brain health. We’re also learning that proper movement of all joints is critical for children’s brain development. Consider that 65 percent of brain development occurs in the first year of life. The primary way a baby learns about the world is by physically interacting with it. Since the brain is primarily fed by movement, it is critical that all babies are moving well, in all joints, during their first year of life. Ear infections, colic, torticollis, and preference for one-sided breastfeeding are all early signs that an infant’s spine is not moving well.
At any stage of life, movement is a necessary nutrient for the brain. Maintain a healthy spine and nervous system, for life!