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Is Your Brain Shrinking? (Or Eating Itself?)

How your health could be going straight to your head.

August 15th, 2011

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Brains Eating Themselves, and Other Freaky Facts

From dieting to sleep apnea, it seems our day-to-day lives may affect our brains more than previously believed.

We won’t name names, but certain major organs—ahem, the heart, liver and kidneys—seem to have been hogging the research spotlight when it comes to how they’re affected by diet and overall health. But judging from several recent studies, our brain doesn't get a free ride.

"We've managed to treat those diseases, such as heart disease and cancer, that would otherwise kill us," says Dr. Charles DeCarli, M.D., the director of Alzheimer’s Disease Center at the University of California at Davis in Sacramento and a fellow of the American Academy of Neurology. "As we live longer, the brain becomes more and more important because that's what fails as we age."

QUIZ: How Does Your Health Impact Your Life?

Alzheimer's has been the primary brain-related heavy-hitter that we worried about, but researchers have revealed that there are more brain matters to be concerned about.

The most freaky and somewhat disturbing new study found that certain neurons in the brain actually begin to eat themselves—yes, folks, eat themselves—when the body is in starvation mode.

Although it sounds like something straight out of a horror flick, researchers found that autophagy, or the act of self-eating, occurs in certain hunger-inducing neurons within the hypothalamus to give the body a head’s up that it’s time to eat.

It’s important to keep in mind that the study, published in the August 2011 issue of the journal Cell Metabolism, was only conducted on mice, so any research on self-cannibalism within the human brain has yet to be reported. The jury is still out on whether or not a human brain will turn on itself in the same way (or even if it's necessarily a bad thing), but it's not too far-fetched to imagine what might happen if you frequently crash diet.

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