Does Your Brain Work Differently Depending on the Seasons?by Ahmed Zayed, MBBS | April 19, 2016
The brain is the body’s the most mysterious organ. It functions in ways that experts are still trying to figure out. As much as we know about this organ, there are still various things left to discover and learn. For instance, did you know that the brain functions differently in winter than it does in summertime?
Brain function and the seasons
The conclusion that the brain works differently in winter than it does in summer came as a result of a study conducted by Gilles Vandewalle and Christelle Meyer of the University of Liege in Belgium. The researchers who worked on the study inspected the cognitive brain functions of 28 Belgians during each season of the year.
During each season, participants spent about 4.5 hours in the lab where they didn’t have access to the external world or seasonal cues such as daylight. For the purpose of the study, researchers scanned participants’ brains while they performed tasks, the primary aim of which was to test their ability to sustain attention as well as to store, update and compare information in their memories.
The results of this study were published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and they showed that participants’ performance didn’t change regardless of the season. However, scientists discovered that the neural cost of performing these cognitive tasks (i.e. the amount of brain activity involved in the performance) changed with the season.
For instance, levels of brain activity associated with working memory peaked in the autumn and they were lower around the spring equinox. On the other hand, levels of brain activity that are linked with sustaining attention peaked in June – around the summer solstice – and they were at their lowest in December around the winter solstice.
Although alterations in brain activity during different seasons were evident, scientists aren’t sure what mechanisms are behind them. It is assumed that the levels of certain neurotransmitters like serotonin and the levels of brain proteins involved in learning vary with the seasons as well.
This is the first study ever to show that brain functions differ depending on the season.
Season changes and the body
The findings of this study present an additional evidence supporting the claim that the human body functions differently in summer and winter months. Previous studies showed that season changes are associated with alterations in other processes related to daily functioning.
For example, this Nature Communications study conducted by Chris Wallace of the University of Cambridge showed that the activity of the genes changes with seasons together with the immune system. That same study also found the link between mood and season changes. For instance, some people suffer from SAD (Season Affective Disorder) during cold winter months.
Various scientific researches have confirmed that our bodies function differently when seasons change. However, the study discussed in this article was the first research ever to inspect how the brain functions during different periods of the year. Its findings show that although people’s performances remain unchanged, brain activity is different. It peaks in June while its lowest point is in December. However, it’s not certain what mechanisms contribute to these changes.
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