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    You are here : Home » About MS » Communication


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    Cellular Communication... is the key to cellular function

    It’s Good To Talk

    British Telecom’s dictum caught on not merely on account of clever advertising but because it is very true! Communications are crucial to the good running of all human activities, between groups of people, including nations and individuals. When communications break down it is common experience that things go wrong or at any rate do not quite go in the best directions.

    Communicating is crucial at all levels. Take, for example, the human egg just after fertilisation, when the “go ahead” signal for the first division into two cells is given. Over the short span of nine months they will produce a fully developed baby consisting of billions of cells organised into specialised tissues and organs, brain, nervous system, muscles, bones, eyes, ears ... the lot, all working together. The first two cells have to “agree” between themselves what particular job to undertake and as they split up to produce more cells, all their progeny in their turn have to agree their specialised roles.

    This amazing “democracy” can only operate by sending and receiving messages between all the cells involved at all times. Their coded instructions could effectively mean - “OK...that’s now been completed... it’s time for... but don’t overdo it... etc, etc”.

    When the multiplicity of integrated systems are completed in the embryo, growth and development after birth depend on more systems of control and communication, not least because the new baby is now exposed to a hostile environment which will try to impose itself on the baby’s beautifully balanced and exquisitely crafted systems.

    For example, the temperature of the body cannot be allowed to vary with the environment because the chemistry and physics of the body processes can only function efficiently at 37 degrees centigrade. The control of temperature depends on passing precise measurements to sensors in the brain which in turn have to pass appropriate instructions to the organs of the body to retain or lose the necessary amount of heat.

    The precise amount of every single chemical in the blood (there are many hundreds known) has to be strictly controlled within tight limits and this depends on the ability of monitors to pass information to the control systems for each substance. These are relatively simple examples about which we know a little of the mechanisms involved. The message, from the little we know, is that health depends on the ability of all parts of the body to “talk to” and respond appropriately to all other parts.

    Disease is so often the inevitable result of a breakdown in the communication and control systems. The popular, modern way of talking about the body as a “holistic” system is a way of expressing these concepts. All the parts talk to all the others - they have to!

    The brain and nervous system are, of course, important means of communication which we can picture because of our familiarity with the way electricity passes along wires. Such impulses form a pattern which can be translated at the far end and put into effect. Muscles contract, glands secrete and the heart beats in rhythm because of the messages transmitted in this way. If nerves are damaged the messages may become garbled or simply fail to arrive and paralysis may occur.

    Some parts of the nervous system are autonomous and function without us having to think about them. This is known as the “autonomic” system which controls respiration, the heart and blood vessels and the bowels, to mention only a few. The voluntary system is under our own control - my thinking about this article and the muscles I am using to type the letters into the word processor are good examples of voluntary control.

    Systems Maintenance

    Maintaining the systems of nerves and protecting them from damage is an important function built into the body. The peripheral nerves are much better at maintenance probably because they are relatively exposed and therefore much more liable to damage. Even if you cut a nerve in your finger, provided the ends are brought into contact during healing the nerve fibres will grow again. This same ability is not found in the brain and spinal cord which are normally protected within the skull and spine. Damaged nerves in the central nervous system (CNS) tend to remain damaged (an MS plaque is an example of this) though recent research has suggested that they have some powers of repair which might be encouraged if we know more about them. A research centre in Cambridge, financed by the Medical Research Council and the Multiple Sclerosis Society, is committed to the discovery of the mechanisms of repair in the CNS and finding ways of encouraging them.

    Nutrition is important

    Nerves are dependent on nutrition for their proper function. We know this because malnutrition or the lack of certain vitamins produces nerve damage. Damage to the central nervous system in pernicious anaemia, where lack of vitamin B12 is the key problem, is an example of this. There is no doubt that nerve function and regeneration must be favourably influenced by a balanced diet. It has also to be said that the intake of certain toxins in the diet (an excess of alcohol and tobacco spring to mind, though there are many others) is known to compromise nerve activity and growth.

    Nerves may also be damaged during certain infections. Sometimes the nerves of the brain and spinal cord are singled out - as in MS. In other conditions the peripheral nerves may be damaged preferentially, as in a paralysing disease called the Guillain-Barre syndrome. We do not know the cause of either of these diseases but it looks as if they are the result of some sort of infection which induces the immune system to attack the nerves, called an autoimmune response.

    The Endocrine System

    Another system of control and communication which is not so easily understood as the wiring of the nervous system, involves the numerous chemical messengers produced by the “endocrine” system. The best known of these is insulin, produced by the pancreas and involved in the control of sugar. Without insulin, sugar which is necessary for energy cannot be used and it accumulates uselessly in the blood and spills over into the urine, as every diabetic person knows.

    A host of hormones involved in the control of a vast range of bodily functions are produced by glands scattered around the body. These chemical messengers act as “keys” turning on and off the targeted functions. The structure of the hormone, resembling the notches and grooves of a door key, carries the message to open or close particular processes and to regulate the speed at which they must function. Numerous diseases result from the uncontrolled production of hormones.

    Communicating for life

    However, as one would expect, the nervous system cannot function independently of the endocrine system - they have to talk to one another - and they do, of course! One important part of the brain known as the hypothalamus is connected directly and also by a special arrangement of blood vessels, with the most important endocrine gland, the pituitary. The pituitary produces hormones that control many of the other outlying glands such as the thyroid, the adrenals and the ovaries or testes. The communication between the brain “above”, the hypothalamus and the pituitary in the “middle” and the outlying glands “below”, means that the higher thinking processes may have an influence on the whole range of bodily functions.

    It is not, therefore, at all fanciful to think that hopeful and optimistic thoughts can affect favourably very ordinary functions. The converse is unfortunately true: depression affects unfavourably many functions, as any depressed person will testify.

    We are only at the beginning of understanding the networks of communication in the body. It seems very likely that the immune system is influenced by the nervous system and by the endocrines to the extent that our ability to combat infection may be influenced by our mental health and perhaps by our personality. The ability to deal with pain and other forms of distress may also be influenced by these networks.

    © Multiple Sclerosis Resource Centre (MSRC)

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