The seasonal brain

We can all agree that weather and seasonal changes affect us. But how much this has to do with our brain?

This post is also available in Dutch.

Raise your hand if you have ever found yourself lethargic over the winter months. The cold, the dark…, together they easily convince you that there is no place better than your, ad hoc blanket-equipped, couch. And then only a few months later, it is summer. Sunny, warmer days are back and you feel like the strongest gladiator in town (or at least somewhere close). It is not only about your energy though. All of these winter-summer differences affect your mood as well. You are not the only one to experience the winter blues, and definitely not alone either in enjoying the summer boost. In addition, seasonal changes also seem to affect our general cognition.

Throughout the year, our energy and mood seem on a rollercoaster. So, what is the effect that season has on the way our brain processes information?

To answer this question, researchers in Belgium decided to monitor the brain activity of healthy young people while they were engaged in some cognitively demanding tests. What these researchers added -compared to other fellow neuroscientists- is that they measured this this brain activity at different seasonal time points. As a result, they could clearly see that the brain responds differently across seasons. The regions of the brain that allow us to sustain our attention through long periods seem indeed more active during the summer months, whereas their activity is at its minimum in December. In contrast, those brain regions that help you to maintain the information relevant to complete a task, are more active in autumn but less in spring.

Therefore, it can be concluded that the way our brain responds to cognitive demand is season sensitive. But is this the entire story?

Hold on! Neuroscientists apparently have gone crazy about the season topic. They started wondering if seasons could even influence the size of our brain. According to a study on more than 3,000 people, the answer is yes. The volume of the brain fluctuates throughout the year. These fluctuations vary across different parts of the brain and while the inner areas of the brain, the so-called subcortices, decrease through summer, the cerebellum seem to increase in size because of the hot temperature. These changes in brain volume could then potentially explain the differences reported seasonally in cognition and mood.

If seasons have such an impact on our energy, mood, and ultimately our brain, will climate change, by reducing seasonal variability, take a tool on our brain too?

Sadly, the odds that it will are pretty high. The effect of climate change on the weather conditions are indisputable. Just this year, for example, the Netherlands went from snow in May to 33 degrees in June. Apart from the unavoidable wardrobe mayhem, our brain must get confused too. The seasonal variation in cognitive functions that we mentioned above may get lost then. Under such circumstances, the brain might not work at its full potential, and this could potentially initiate new adaptative neural changes in the coming years.

Author: Martina Arenella
Buddy: Kim Beneyton
Editor: Ellen Lommerse
Translation: Wessel Hieselaar
Editor translation: Felix Klaassen

Photo credit to OpenClipart-Vectors via Pixabay

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