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The Puzzle of Why the Brain Stops Functioning

The disordered brain tells no tales.

Daniel Day/Stone+/Getty Images

When a killer is on the loose in novels or on the silver screen, there's a special urgency for the detective on the case. It's a race against time to capture the culprit before he or she strikes again. The mystery of how brain cells are killed off by degenerative neurological diseases is no different. As millions of individuals and their families can attest, a brain disorder or injury can be frightening, frustrating and ultimately fatal.

One thing that makes these disorders especially fearsome is just how little is known about why they happen or what you can do about them. Take, for example, the case of Alzheimer's. This disorder leaves behind two very important clues: amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. But what do these clues mean? Does their presence begin the process of Alzheimer's, or do they develop as a result? And if these two features are the perps, what can be done about keeping them off the scene of the brain? As of yet, there's no magic bullet that can restore brain function or re-grow brain cells after they're lost.

In 1990, President George H.W. Bush declared that the last decade of the 20th century would be known as the "Decade of the Brain." Bush's proclamation regarding the brainy decade acknowledged the advances that had been made in understanding how the brain works while pointing out just how much more needed to be learned about what happens up there [source: Bush]. The president cited a number of neurological disorders he hoped to understand further, including Alzheimer's disease, stroke, schizophrenia, autism, Parkinson's disease, Huntington's disease and muscular dystrophy.

As you might guess, just one decade of the brain was not enough to solve all of the problems that plague the lump atop our spinal cord. To understand how the brain stops working, researchers need to do more work on how the brain actually functions. While scientists know the general function of various parts of the brain, there's only a very basic sense of how the brain's systems work together, especially with all of the functions a person requires of it in a single day. How does it work so fast? What other systems in the body does it use or rely upon?

All these questions might make you tired, and you're more than welcome to take a nap, but set an alarm clock so that you don't sleep through the next mystery on our list.

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