Electrical charges cause brain to devour energy

2 July 2012

Our brains consume about twenty per cent of all the calories that we eat. Brain researchers at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience (NIN-KNAW) have investigated why the brain consumes so much energy. For the first time ever, they have succeeded in measuring brain metabolism and have shown that the brain not only consumes a large amount of energy but that its consumption is also variable.

The internationally acclaimed journal Nature Neuroscience recently published the results of the study, which may be important to research on such brain disorders as multiple sclerosis.

Researchers have long suspected that the brain consumes a large amount of energy in order to sustain the electrical charges generated by the neurons. A team of brain researchers headed by Maarten Kole (NIN-KNAW) used computer modelling to show that the more brain activity there is, the less energy is consumed per electrical charge. They also showed that some of the energy is required to stabilise electrical charges over longer distances so that they arrive safely at their destination.
The model was based on measurements of a single rat brain cell. This gave the researchers a glimpse into the brain cell’s metabolic system. Not only does their research show how – and in particular how many – ions travel across the cell membrane, but it also reveals that cells expend most of their energy on guiding electrical charges over the axons. These results are useful for further research on certain brain disorders involving a deterioration of the myelin sheath around the axons, such as multiple sclerosis. It is possible that such deterioration is caused by damage to the cellular structures that generate energy. Further research on the brain’s metabolic system may help predict where and when too much energy is being consumed.

Maarten Kole has headed a NIN-KNAW group since 2011. In 2010, he was the recipient of an ERC Starting Grant (€ 2,000,000). Other researchers who participated in this study: Stefan Hallermann (ENI – Göttingen), Greg Stuart (ANU – Australia) and Christiaan de Kock (CNCR, VU University Amsterdam)