The Beauty of the Brain, Part 1

Part 1: Cognitive Functions & Corina’s Language Abilities

In the National Geographic article, “Beyond the Brain,” James Shreeve depicts a young patient’s journey through a life changing operation that will physically change the way one sees themselves.

Thomas Willis, known as the father of neurology, was the first to discover that the brain is the locus of the mind because of its multiple cognitive functions. These cognitive functions occur in specific locations. For example, where one remembers a sequence of their best friend’s telephone number is not in the same location in the brain, as where one recalls their familiar face.

Shreeve notes that “in the past few years, however, powerful new techniques for visualizing the sources of thought, emotion, and behavior are revolutionizing the way we understand the nature of the brain and the mind it creates.” For example, 28-year-old Corina Amarillo had a brain surgery that was going to test specific language abilities as the doctors at the UCLA medical center removed a brain tumor. As a bilingual, the neural territories may overlap because she was taught to speak both English and Spanish at a young age. Throughout surgery, she was asked to identify an object on a picture card as the doctor touched her brain with an electrode. As this happened she would answer some of the questions in English while others in Spanish. The two surgeons in the UCLA operating room said that “when Corina makes a mistake or struggles to identify a picture of some simple object, the doctors know they have hit upon a critical area, and they label the spot with a square of sterile paper, like a tiny Post-it note.”

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In the 1950s American neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield used an electrode to stimulate certain spots on the brains of epilepsy patients while they were awake during operations instead of relying on damaged brains to illustrate the origins of normal cognitive function. By labeling the critical area in the brain, doctors can use an electrode to denote where the main problem is on the brain. Having the patient awake on the operating table helps the doctors understand what they need to do in order for the patient’s linguistic skills to be smooth and understandable.

As a child, Corina comprehended and learned more information than any other at her age through her senses. Because so many neurons were stimulating in her brain, Corina's cognitive functions were less focused where her sense of self was not developed until a later age. For example, in studies conducted by Daniel Povinelli and his colleagues at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, young children were recorded playing a game while an adult put a sticker in their hair. When shown the videotape later on, most children over the age of three reached up to their own hair to remove the sticker, while younger children did not make the connection that there was something there. This demonstrates that the three-year-olds understood that the person in the video was the same as the one in the present moment and could react because their sense of self.

As scientists are learning about all higher cognitive functions, they discover that it resides in a particular location or that matures all at once. Jay Giedd of the National Institute of Mental Health, one of the lead scientists on the neuroimaging studies says that “the executive brain doesn't hit adult levels until the age of 25." In fact, one of the last areas to mature in the brain is the prefrontal cortex where judgements, decisions, plans, and behaviors are determined.

In comparison, Corina's cortex was thickest at the age of 11 where her basic functions, such as sensory processing and movement, in the front and back of the brain were developed at a younger age. Corina could remember some memories, while she couldn’t with others. She only remembered the emotional connection to the memory, not the memory itself.  During surgery, the doctors found that as Corina named the pictures on the cards, the changes in the way lights reflected off the brain caused an increase in blood flow in certain spots. This indicated that there is neurotransmitter conductivity and cognitive activity in that exact spot.

Furthermore, by studying thousands of people, doctors and scientists may be able to learn more of where conductivity is strongest which will tell us how the brain is organized.

Coming soon - Part 2: Brain Research from Memory to Meditation

For more information on conductivity, sense of self, brain development, and how neurofeedback brain training can help provide optimal health and performance, please contact us.

-Written by Lily Schmitt and Tanya L. Hilber, PsyD

References

Shreeve, James. “Beyond the Brain.” Science and Innovation. National Geographic Magazine. Web. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/health-and-human-body/human-body/mind-brain/

Brain Basics and Neurofeedback

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The brain is a wonderfully complicated, three pound organ that controls all functions in our body. Our brain controls everything from automatic functions, such as breathing and controlling hunger, to higher functions, such as planning and organizing. Our brain interprets information from the outside world through our five senses of sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing, and assembles that information in a way that makes sense for us, and can be encoded and stored into memories. Thanks to continuing advancements research, we continue to learn more and more about the brain and its complexities in functioning. Here, we will cover just a few of the different areas of the brain in order to better understand the influence our brain has on our day to day lives and how it is related to Neurofeedback.

The Cerebrum, Cerebellum, and Brainstem

The brain is made up of many different parts that work together, but each part is an expert in the job they have been designed to do. The brain is composed of three main parts, the cerebrum, cerebellum, and brain stem, with many other systems in place within these three main parts.

The cerebrum is the largest part of the brain and what we usually picture when we think about the brain. It is composed of the left and right hemispheres that are joined together by the corpus callosum, which allows messages to be transmitted from one hemisphere to the other. These messages are called neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters and sent and received by our brain cells called Neurons. There is a saying that, “neurons that fire together, wire together”, meaning that the more that certain neurons communicate with each other, they begin to generate neural pathways. These pathways and connections can change and are influenced by our experiences, and which is why our brains are referred to as having neural plasticity. This explains why long time habits are hard to change, but also shows us that we have the ability to influence these pathways with our behaviors and actions. The left hemisphere is commonly referred to as our “logical brain” as it is responsible for analytic thought, logic, language, numbers and reasoning. The right hemisphere is known for being the more artistic and creative brain as it is involved in creativity, imagination, intuition, and emotional intelligence.

The cerebrum contains the cerebral cortex, which is made up of tightly packed neurons, or brain cells, and is the wrinkly outermost layer of the brain. The cerebral cortex can be divided into four different lobes.

  • The occipital lobe is responsible for processing visual information from the eyes.

  • The temporal lobe is responsible for processing auditory information.

  • The parietal lobe is responsible for processing information that has to do with taste, touch, or temperature.

  • The prefrontal-cortex is different from the occipital, temporal, and parietal lobes as is it not directly involved with processing sensory input. In fact, the prefrontal cortex is responsible for higher order mental functions such as judgement, decision making, planning, future-oriented thinking, and time management.

Research has shown that in those individuals diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), there are often correlating issues with the prefrontal cortex, such as decreased activity, decreased size, or under-regulation. The prefrontal cortex is also one of the last parts of our brains to develop, and does not become fully developed until we are about 25 years old. This is especially helpful to remember when thinking about children and teens when “problem” behaviors like impulsivity and poor decision making are common. They lack the part of their brain that helps them slow down and make informed choices about what is right or wrong, mediate conflict, or predict probable outcomes of an event.

The cerebellum is located under the cerebrum and is involved in muscle coordination, balance, and posture. The brainstem connects the cerebrum and cerebellum to the spinal cord and regulates automatic functions such as heart rate, breathing, body temperature and wake and sleep cycles.

The Limbic System

The Limbic System is another complex set of structures located just underneath cerebrum, compromising inner sections of both the frontal and temporal lobes. The limbic system combines higher mental functions, such as learning and formation of memory, and primitive emotions into a single system. The Amygdala and Hippocampus are two of the major structures within the limbic system.

The Amygdala is a small, almond shaped structure responsible for assessing and processing the emotional valence of a situation. The amygdala is the part of the brain that is especially good at detecting fear and as a result, activates our fight, flight, or freeze mode, in order to protect ourselves from the detected fear. Although this part of the brain is designed to protect us from danger, overactivation of the amygdala can cause problems for people. For example, research shows that people who struggle with Anxiety disorders often have hyperactive amygdalas, which is responsible for the overestimation of fearful or dangerous situations that those with Anxiety disorders often struggle with.

The Hippocampus plays a critical role in the formation, organization, and storage of new memories as well as connecting sensory input and emotions to those memories. Damage to this area of the brain can result of loss of memory and difficulty establishing new memories.

Researchers have been interested in the role that PTSD plays on the limbic system and vice versa. Research has found that there is reduced volume and activity in the hippocampus and increased activity in the amygdala. This explain why those with PTSD often have trouble remembering certain details of the traumatic event or often experience intensely vivid and always present memories of their trauma. The increased activity in the amygdala promotes hypervigilance and impairs the ability to discriminate threatening and non threatening stimuli.

How is this related to Neurofeedback Treatment?

All of this information on the brain and its functioning determines Neurofeedback treatment. For example, if an individual struggles with emotional reactivity and regulation, treatment would include electrode sites on the right side of the brain. If negative thoughts are a common symptom, treatment would include electrode sites on the front-left part of the brain. Neurofeedback works to optimize your brain functioning at these specific sites, based off self-reported symptoms.

Contact us today to hear more information about Neurofeedback and how training your brain may help yourself or a loved one with symptoms you or she may be struggling with .

~Written by Alex Stautzenbach, M.A.

References:

https://www.additudemag.com/adhd-brain-prefrontal-cortex-attention-emotions/

Sherin, J. E., & Nemeroff, C. B. (2011). Post-traumatic stress disorder: the neurobiological impact of psychological trauma. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 13(3), 263-78.

Therapists are using neurofeedback to treat ADHD, PTSD and other conditions

In the article “Therapists are using neurofeedback to treat ADHD, PTSD and other conditions,” Arlene Karidis  describes the life of Chris Gardner and how he got brain surgery to remove a tumor. However, this operation restricted the 58-year-old’s mobility and cognition until he tried a form of biofeedback, called neurofeedback, that is a brain exercise based on brain waves and immediate feedback on how the brain is functioning. For example, movies, video games, computers and other equipment can be used to monitor ones brave waves in a sense that when a number of one’s brain waves are displayed to be too fast or too slow, the movie is automatically paused in order to gain control of a steady number of brain waves once again and to test why this erratic change happened in the first place.

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Although there are other skeptics, such as Silver Spring psychologist Robb Mapou, who think there are other therapeutic ways to affect an individual’s outcome, many scientists and researchers believe that this stop-and-start feedback decreases the number of infrequent brain waves and yields them to a more-normal number which can improve an individual’s ability to focus and relax. Karidis affirms that “better focus and relaxation can seemingly help improve or eliminate such conditions as migraines and anxiety,” which could all an all improve one’s quality of life.

However, a common condition called Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), has been on the minds of many. Here, an individual’s attention, focus, and organization skills are compromised from the time they developed this disorder in their childhood all the way through adulthood. A recent trial published in March in the Journal of Pediatrics states that “those who received neurofeedback had improvements in attention and impulse control, while those who did not receive the therapy did not.” Those who partake in neurofeedback may get better results and can even grow out of this disorder. In detail, according to Michael Sitar, a Bethesda psychologist certified in neurofeedback, “people with focus problems can switch tasks easier. Kids who repeat themselves and who are emotionally labile become calmer and don’t repeat as much and nonverbal people become verbal.”

Furthermore, Karidis cites Deborah Stokes, an Alexandria psychologist, who compared neurofeedback to riding a bike: “It’s non-conscious learning, based on the feedback, that, with repetition, can be long-lasting.” For example, there are many cases where this occurs such as...

  • Chris Gardener: he was projected to have a two-to-three-year recovery period, but by his ninth neurofeedback session, he was driving, taking power walks and working from home. He went from not feeling anything to being able to do almost everything he could do before.  Karidis elucidates upon Gardner’s case where he sat in a chair while tiny, pulsed signals were sent to his brain that would enable the brain to revive its communication channels (which can become impaired after a brain injury).

  • Thomas Nicklin: a teenager who was in boarding school, did 45 neurofeedback sessions over three months last year (Karidis).“Over time, Thomas went from three or four blinding migraines a week, vomiting and daily pain, to no symptoms,” said his mother, Pat Nicklin, because of the neurofeedback.

  • Mary Lee Esty, a Bethesda clinical social worker: who is starting up a study which would help treat veterans with PTSD. She has used neurofeedback to treat more than 2,500 people with the help from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (which gives participants in her program post-treatment evaluations).

  • Rex Cannon, past president of the International Society for Neurofeedback and Research, based in McLean, Va.: discovered that after neurofeedback treatments a significant reduction in seizures had occurred in a meta-analysis of 10 studies on epilepsy patients.

These are just a few examples of patients and experts that have experienced and seen the promising results of Neurofeedback. But if “about 1,850 professionals have been certified through the Biofeedback Certification International Alliance” (Karidis) than at least 1,850 patients can be helped with sessions two or three times a week, for a total of 10 to 40 in 1 to 4 months.

Do most people become totally normal? We don’t necessarily know. We also know that normal is vague and vastly different from one person to the next. But they can see an improvement on their symptoms by taking part in neurofeedback treatments.

Neurofeedback is able to help children, teenagers, and adults who have symptoms of ADHD, migraines, sleep issues and more. If your symptoms have not improved enough to meet your goals, your brain may need some training. Neurofeedback can train your brain to regulate, stabilize and focus itself so you're able to function at your optimal level, concentrate better on your tasks and follow directions that are given to you.

Contact us for more information on how Neurofeedback can help you and your family find the focus you need to function at your best.

-Written by Lily Schmitt and Tanya L. Hilber, PsyD


Reference

Karidis, Arlene. “Therapists are using neurofeedback to treat ADHD, PTSD and other conditions.” The Washington Post. Health and Science. Web. 19 Jan. 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/therapists-are-using-neurofeedback-to-treat-adhd-ptsd-and-other-conditions/2015/01/16/b38e6cee-5ec3-11e4-91f7-5d89b5e8c251_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.bf4b688f61b7