SPECIAL ARTICLES

Brain-Building

SIR JAMES CRICHTON-BROWNE

February 1 1910
SPECIAL ARTICLES

Brain-Building

SIR JAMES CRICHTON-BROWNE

February 1 1910

"Build me straight, O worthy Master ! Staunch and strong, a goodly vessel.

That shall laugh at all disaster. And with wave and whirlwind wrestle !”

THAT is practically the order given by every conscientious parent when he sends his boy to school. The vessel is the brain and the schoolmaster is entrusted with the building of it, but the fact is that it is already built before the schoolmaster’s aid is invoked.

I remember asking that gifted man, the late Dr. Rutherford, when he was Headmaster of Westminster School, whether I should be correct in saying that, regarding education as a preparation for life, seventy-five per cent, of it in England was done before a boy entered a public school. His reply was, “Put it at ninety per cent, and you will be nearer the mark. What we do in public schools is to impart a certain polish, but the form and function of the particular article of furniture, and the texture and grain of the wood, have been fixed and determined before it comes into our hands.”

It would take volumes to describe fully the building of the brain, and to discuss the merits of the different styles of cerebral architecture that have been recommended as best calculated to fit it for its perilous voyage. There are brains of all sorts and sizes, of many different calibres, but whatever their dimensions, capacities, or uses may be they are all built of the same kind of material. They are constructed of brain substance, white and grey, and it is about that, that I wish to say a few words.

The most wonderful stuff in the world is the brain substance—the apotheosis of protoplasm. If we could read it aright, and holding it in our hands understand what it is, we should have revealed to us more fully than by any “flower in the crannied wall” what “God and Man is.”

The brain substance proper, or grey mantle, composed of countless millions of cells, little pyramids of nucleated protoplasm, sending out branches in all directions, and enclosing the mass of white substance made up of conducting cables, differs demonstrably in structure in different animals and in different regions of the same human brain. As regards the form, number, arrangement, and connections of the elements of which it is built up, it is not alike in any two human brains—never was and never will be—for it is the arcanum of individuality.

But as regards its chemical constitution, brain substance is, everywhere, very much the same. It is impossible to distinguish in the test tube between a bit from the brain of an idiot and a bit from the brain of a philosopher. And yet we are justified in inferring that there are chemical differences in it if we could only detect them.

In certain diseased conditions chemical changes have been recognized in the nerve tissues and in the fluid that lubricates the great cerebro-spinal shaft and dome, and it is probable that subtle differences and substitutions in its diorganic compounds correspond with differences in temperament and habit of action.

It is upon the integrity and vigor of this brain substance that all mental manifestations depend, and therefore the due supply of proper nutriment to it is of paramount importance in connection with all human affairs. The brain must be suitably dieted if it is to do its work, and the question of the feeding of the brain is therefore one in which all are interested.

Now the brain, like all other organs in the body, feeds itself. The blood current, when normal, presents it with an ample choice of foods; and from these, it, with nice discrimination, selects those which are most suitable to its requirements. But the blood is not always normal ; it may be impoverished and the brain is starved ; it may be excessively enriched and the brain is surfeited ; it may carry pernicious ingredients and the brain is poisoned.

Strictly speaking, there is no especial brain food, but there are certain constituents of food that are essential to brain nourishment, and amongst these there is one that has been exalted into a position of primary significance, and that is phosphorus. “Ohme Phosphor kein Gedenke," said Buchner —without phosphorus no thought—a wild generalization founded merely on the fact that a phosphorized fat enters into the composition of the brain. We might as truly say, “Without sulphur or without iron no thought.”

Ever since its discovery in 1669, phosphorous, “the light bearer,” has been credited, more on analogical than on scientific grounds, with some integral part in mental operations, and modern research has so far confirmed this by showing that it is necessary to the completeness and growth of the brain. Whenever growth is most active, phosphorus is most abundant ; and the brain and the bones more especially demand supplies of it while they are developing.

A due admixture of it in the food of children and adolescents is therefore of vital importance; and while we cannot specify any particular diseased condition that is induced by a deficiency of phosphorus in food, we are warranted in concluding that as a deficiency of lime in the food causes softness of the bones, a deficiency of phosphorus may make the brain slow and slack in evolution.

But although phosphorus is essential to brain growth and health, quite enough of it for these purposes is to be found in an ordinary mixed diet, and there is no call for the use of phosphates in their inorganic form. It would seem indeed that phosphorus in its inorganic shape is much less useful than in its organic combinations, and it should therefore be furnished to the system as contained in food rather than in manufactured salts, which are phosphates of the alkalies and earths.

Foods, however, differ greatly in the amount of phosphorus they contain, and regard should be had to their phosphorous endowment in choosing and recommending foods for the young.

If the ultra-vegetarians had their way in the feeding of the young, indigence of the brain would probably be induced. A child reared on carrots and turnips, which contain 0.036 and 0.058 per cent, of phospohoric acid, respectively, would probably grow up sheepish, if it grew up at all, and make a poor show compared with another child fed on eggs and mutton, which yield 0.337 and 0.425 per cent, of phosphoric acid.

Of all ordinary foods cheese is richest in phosphorus. It contains as much, expressed as phosphorus pentoxide, as 1.81 per cent., while green vegetables contain only 0.18 per cent. As cheese, besides being well stored with phosphorus, is really the most concentrated form of nourishment with which we are acquainted, and contains in most suitable proportions the best nerve and muscle-forming ingredients—a pound of Cheddar cheese represents the total case in and most of the fat in a gallon of milk— it is a highly desirable food for the young. The drawback is that the fat it contains makes it indigestible for delicate stomachs, and young stomachs are delicate as compared with adult ones.

Apart from mere idiosyncrasy, which is sometimes responsible for a repugnance to cheese, a distaste for it often arises out of its indigestibility, and this again is often attributable to its not having been properly masticated, to its having been eaten too freely after a full meal, or when over-ripe and so tough and dry, or to its not having been combined with farinaceous matter of some kind, as it should be. Properly employed and of proper quality, it is a form of food that is appetizing, wholesome, nutritious, and cheap—excellent as a substitute for meat or to supplement an insufficient meat diet.

It is to be hoped that, having regard to these qualities and more particularly to its flesh and brain-forming principles, and its freedom from toxins which conduce to gout, cheese will hereafter enter much more largely than it has hitherto done into the dietary of children and adolescents in the brain-sprouting period.

Special preparations of it, such as the Casona cheese and cream, which make savory combinations with farinaceous and vegetable foods of all kinds, and in broths and soups afford concentrated nutriment to the sick, and which supply proteids and phosphorus in a highly digestible form, will, I believe, prove a boon to the rising generation.

The recognition of the need of phosphorus as a brain food, and the belief that fish contains much of it, have led to the extensive use of fish by brain-workers. But the belief is a fallacy—founded, it appears, on a random statement by Dumas, the chemist -—and those who seek phosphorus in fish will be disappointed. Fish is, nevertheless, an excellent food for brain-workers who are leading a sedentary life—as so many brain-workers do—for the lean kinds of it, at any rate, with a smaller proportion of proteids and of extractives, are less stimulating than meat. For young folks with excitable and unstable nervous systems or with neurotic tendencies, fish may with advantage to a large extent take the place of meat.

It was the quest for phosphorus, and a crude notion of like nourishing like, that originally led to the adoption of the brains of animals as a brain food for man ; but recently it has been suggested that they might be beneficial otherwise than through the phosphorus in the lecithin which they contain.

The wonderful effects that have followed the administration of extracts derived from certain glands of the animal body, or of these glands themselves, have created the hope that the growth and working of the brain might be furthered by feeding on animal brain substances or extracts which would supply to the lymph and blood in an easily assimilable form the active principles which are essential to brain nutrition.

It is now a matter of common knowledge that a transformation that may be called astounding has been wrought in cretinous idiots and the victims of myxoedema—a grim disease—by preparations of the thyroid gland of the sheep. Dwarfish, feeble-minded, toadlike, hide-bound beings— mere human caricatures—have been made to add a cubit to his stature, to display intelligence and assume comely lineaments by the supply to them of the material of which they had been deprived by defect in their own thyroid glands.

The triumphant results thus obtained have instigated experiments with many other healthy animal glands and bodies, with the view of rectifying many varieties of impaired nutrition and degeneration : and what may be called a fair trial has been given to cerebral or brain extract.

That trial has not proved satisfactory. The extract is not without some slight physiological action, but in mental disease it has been practically useless, and no indications have been obtained that brain-feeding in any shape will stimulate brain function or growth. The brains of animals may, therefore, continue, as they have hitherto done, to form a not very popular element in diet, a readily digestible but not highly nourishing food ; but no expectation need be entertained that they will do more than this, or contribute to what, in slang phraseology. is known as “braininess.”

As I have said, there is no special brain-food. At all stages of life a rational dietary based on physiological common-sense, which holds the balance between economy and prodigality, will yield the brain all that it wants to make the best of its resources.

In the first stage of life—in infancy—mother’s milk is the only thoroughly wholesome brain-food. No foster mother, or cow, or bottle nursing, or patent packet, can take the mother’s place. Many a failure in life has been due to the denial of this natural right, and to a check given to brain-growth by improper feeding during the lactation period.

After infancy, at every stage the diet may be regulated on general principles. without any attempt at supplying any particular kind of building material to the brain. At every stage there are errors to be avoided and modifications to be adopted, but these can be adequately dealt with only in a treatise on dietetics.

At every stage a proper quantum of proteid—that omnipotent tissue former—which seems to have a stimulating influence on the brain, should be provided, and as growth goes on this should be derived more and more from animal foods, which are its most compact and digestible source.

There is one stage of growth when the proper feeding of the brain is of especial moment, and that is during the transition from childhood to adolescence. With the metamorphosis that then takes place there is a change in the appetite for food.

While the wisdom teeth are growing tastes are altered. Childish things are put away. In boys the love of sweets and fruits becomes less clamant, and is replaced by an increased relish for animal food and savories. In girls, on the other hand, the appetite for sweets is intensified, and in them the reconstruction of taste that is going on is sometimes betrayed by squeamishness about certain kinds of food, or by morbid appetites, as for chalk and raw rice.

At this transition period and throughout adolescence there is a peculiar tendency to malnutrition and anæmia, and very liberal food supplies—more liberal, indeed, than those required by the adult—are absolutely necessary. If these be withheld, nervous exhaustion and unrest are not unlikely to arise, and these again may develop into a craving for stimulants. It is at this period that the drink habit which is so likely to end in inebriety in later life is formed ; so alcohol in all its disguises, and in all its happy associations, should be studiously avoided. But a generous diet should be insisted on, and foolish experiments in abstinence, whether from religious or athletic motives, or from pure faddism, should be discouraged.

There is one kind of food that seems to me to be of marked value as a food to the brain and to the whole body throughout childhood and adolescence, and that is oatmeal. Oats are the most nutritious of all the cereals, being richer than any other in fats, organic phosphorus and lecithins.

Wheat bread is, and will probably always remain, the principal nutritive substance of the civilized white man, and is pre-eminent for assimilable proteid ; maize is a food highly nutritious and sustaining, and is richest in fat; rice is richest in strachy matter, barley in mineral matter ; but oats have good qualities that are all their own.

Oats used to be often spoken of disrespectfully as a food fit only for the lower animals and Scotsmen. A recent French writer says the bread made from oats is coarse and consumed only in very poor countries, which shows that he is unacquainted with the vogue of oatmeal in England.

But while oatmeal has been gaining ground amongst the well-to-do in Great Britain, it has unhappily been losing its hold on the laboring classes. At one time it was the mainstay of the Scottish laborer’s diet, and it produced a big-boned, well-developed, mentally energetic race ; but it is so no longer, having largely given place to less useful and economical foods, and, in the case of the children in the large towns, at any rate, to tea and bread-and-dripping. This is much to be regretted, and it is to be hoped that the efforts now being made to win the people back to a faith in oatmeal will be successful. Oatmeal in the form of porridge with milk is, I believe, unrivalled as a breakfast food for children and for young men and women.

Some recent scientific observations have thrown new light on the physiological effects of oatmeal. It has been shown that in rats fed for eight weeks on oatmeal and water the thyroid gland was double the size of the same gland in rats that had been fed for the same time on bread and milk. Now the secretion of this gland is, as has been already said, intimately connected with nutritive processes throughout the organism—atrophy or destruction of the gland and cessation of its secretion being productive of cretinism or myxoedema. It seems probable, therefore, that the bulk and brawniness of the Northerners have been in some measure due to the stimulation of their thyroid gland by porridge in childhood. Oatmeal is apparently through its action on the thyroid, as well as directly, conducive to the building of the brain.

The ledger of the Almighty is strictly kept, and every one of us has the balance of his operations paid over to him at the end of every minute of his existence.—Huxley.