Putting Your Brain on Pause is Harder than You Think

Like grinding a truck to a halt on a downhill slope, putting the brakes on a thought takes abundant power—more energy than Case Western Reserve University mathematicians Daniela Calvetti, PhD, and Erkki Somersalo, PhD, expected before they studied the workings of the brain in wind-down mode. In a study published in the November issue of the Journal of Cerebral Blood Flow and Metabolism, the two researchers and then-PhD candidate Rossana Occhipinti, now a School of Medicine postdoctoral researcher, observed in a computer model of brain metabolism that inhibiting thought calls for copious energy.

"Say a thought is going through and we want to stop it. That's the personification of what inhibition is," Calvetti says. "But," she emphasizes, "we're actually looking at the brain at the cellular level."

Because of the implausibility of baring the brain for monitoring, the research team relied on computer simulations of the neurons involved in transmitting and inhibiting thought. The model illustrated the biochemical changes in the brain tissue during inhibition-a process that, like message transmission, is believed to be crucial for learning and functioning-and revealed, among the surprising findings, that the brain requires ample oxygen to thwart thought.

The researchers hope such understanding will improve brain disorder detection and treatment. "Many brain diseases, from epilepsy to Alzheimer's disease, are associated with energy metabolism," Somersalo points out. "Understanding how the brain functions during inhibition could help clarify what is going wrong in various diseases."