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February 23, 2019

When the cerebellum is the VIP: a look at New Year

The cerebellum. Photo/COURTESY
The cerebellum. Photo/COURTESY

The period before the New Year is supposed to be a time of reflection on the year gone past before a fresh start, marked by celebration on January 1. While many countries today mark the first day of the year as a holiday, it does not follow that everyone starts their new year then. China the most populous country on earth and Ethiopia the oldest country in Africa have different calendars and therefore different new years.

Kenya, as it does in many things, follows the western world at least in the celebratory aspects of the holiday perhaps less so in the reflective part. The calendar we follow was designed in 46BCE, by Sosigenes, an Alexandrian astronomer at the request of Julius Caesar the Roman emperor.

The problem then was that the lunar calendar then used would fall out of step with the earth’s rotation so that the seasons would not correspond to the calendar. Worse the Roman politicians would interfere with the calendar to extend their political terms or mess with elections, a problem Kenya still grapples with more than 2,000 years later. Sosigenes advised that the calendar be based on the solar calendar calculating that a year would be 365 and 1/4 days. Caesar then added 67 days to 45 BC, making 46 BC begin on January 1, rather than in March.

January named after Janus Roman god of doors and gates was felt appropriate as the year start. Janus has two faces one looking forward and one back. By the 1500s Europeans were back observing March as the New Year, but in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII revised the Julian calendar, which had an error of eleven minutes every year equivalent to adding seven days every 1000 years. The Gregorian calendar stuck with January 1 as the start of the year and made rules about leap years to take into account the synchronizing errors introduced by Caesar.

To create these calendars both Julius Caesar and Pope Gregory XIII, politicians, called on the scientists of the day to help them. Contrast that with Kenya at 51, which spends enormous amounts of time and energy not solving the problems we have to the benefit of only a few. This compares a little like the human brain, which though it weighs forty times less than the human body, consumes 40 per cent of body’s daily energy requirements.

Of greater interest is that the cerebellum a part of the brain that sits just below the cerebral cortex accounts for just 10 per cent of the brain’s volume but contains 50 per cent of all the neurons.

The cerebellum controls movement and is vital for maintaining balance and posture; coordinating voluntary movement in terms of force exerted by different muscles and the timing; and in cognitive functions such as language. So when you find the expressive storyteller who uses the whole body to tell a story that is their cerebellum in action. The cerebellum does not initiate action but ensures that once it begins it is smooth and coordinated, it acts the way a good government should be, not seen not heard, not the VIP, but ever present, allowing everyone to go about their daily business.

The New Year is an important time for the cerebellum because people test the system to the full. Alcohol inhibits the control mechanism that the body relies on to maintain the key functions of the cerebellum.

Take too much alcohol too quickly and a blackout ensues, a body shuts down unable to figure out its posture and balance, coordinate muscles movement or even speak coherently. That is easy to diagnose the problem and the solution is relatively straightforward.

A sneaking problem is one that develops amount chronic drinkers that continues into alcoholism. Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome is a condition that affects about 40 per cent or more alcoholics after 10 or more years of heavy drinking. The cerebellum shows signs of shrinkage and people with the syndrome have two distinct problems.

The first problem is Wernicke’s encephalopathy where patients have symptoms of mental confusion, paralysis of the nerves that move the eyes and difficulty with muscle coordination. So they cannot stand straight and their eyes flicker from side to side involuntarily

The second problem is Korsakoff’s psychosis where the patients have persistent learning and memory problems. Such patients have a faulty long-term memory but also have great difficulty remembering what has just happened. So the person will meet you at a party tell you a great story then half an hour later have no recollection whatsoever that they had met you.

The underlying cause of Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome is a lack of vitamin B1, thiamine, which is needed by all cells but especially brain cells. Thiamine is not made by the body and so must be taken in the diet.

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