The Beauty of the Brain, Part 2

Part 2: Brain Research from Memory to Meditation

In the National Geographic article, “Beyond the Brain,” James Shreeve describes scientific research on amazing brain functions conducted by well-known scientists. If you missed it, peruse Part 1: Cognitive Functions and Corina’s Language Abilities.

Memory Training

28-year-old Glen McNeil wants to earn his green badge and become a licensed taxi driver in London. In order to do this, he has to pass three sets of examinations that will test his knowledge of London streets and surrounding towns. Meanwhile, McNeilI’s hippocampus has to do extra work. The hippocampus is a critical part of the brain that supports the functions of memory and learning, along with the processing of spatial relationships in the environment.

An MRI study published in 2000 by scientists at University College of London, stated that in London taxi drivers the hippocampus was enlarged compared in the rear portion of the brain. This concludes that fact that the adult human brain cannot grow. While, on average, the front portion of the hippocampus is observed to be smaller in taxi drivers, suggesting that neighboring regions of the brain have to help build a very detailed map of where one needs to go.

On the contrary, in 1998 Fred H. Gage of the SaIk Institute in La JoIIa, California, presented that new cells can grow in the adult human hippocampus. Gage believes that stem cells exist everywhere in the brain as well. Stem cells are capable of developing into functioning new neurons that could provide hope for the treatment of Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, and a host of other degenerative brain disorders in future all due to nerve regeneration.

Universal Emotional Expressions

Forty years ago, psychologist Paul Ekman of the University of California, San Francisco, showed isolated Fore people in New Guinea photographs of Americans expressing various emotions. The Fore people recognized expressions of anger, happiness, sadness, disgust, fear, and surprise even though they had never been exposed to Western faces.

Ekman conducted the experiment again but in reverse. She showed Fore faces to Westerners this time. She observed that the emotions were again unmistakable. Ekman's study supported the notion that “the facial expressions of basic emotions are universal, an idea first put forth by Charles Darwin.” According to Ekman, by consciously being aware of the time spent on one emotion and what triggers it, we can manage our emotions better.

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Fear from Nature vs Nurture

It was seen in natural selection that those who retreated from threats survived, while individuals who questioned and were curious about the “threat” did not live as long to pass on their genes.

In the 1980s a series of studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison tested whether or not fear is in our nature or a product of our nurture. In detail, they compared the reaction (fear level) of lab-raised monkeys with monkeys born in the wild to test if one was more afraid of a snake now that one watched the other be scared of it. As a result, lab-raised monkeys, with no previous fear of snakes, began to show fear after watching wild-born monkeys show fear. However the idea that one monkey will be scared of the same thing if they see the other monkey react, does not apply to every object or living organism. In detail, when lab-raised monkeys watched wild-born monkeys be afraid of flowers, lab-raised monkeys did not react the same.

In more recent research, scientists have found that the amygdala is where in the brain's emotional system fear is activated. Shreeve noted that “it seems likely that there is indeed, etched into the primate brain, a predisposition to dread natural phenomena that can hurt us, but no predisposition to learn to fear something that will not.” However, the predisposition requires a social experience, such as the two types of monkeys seeing one be scared of a snake, to be activated.

Neuroatypical

Fifteen-year-old Tito Mukhopadhyay has low-functioning autism where it is very difficult for him control his own behavior and difficulties with communication. However, despite the chaos and disconnect in controlling his body and mind, Mukhopadhyay wrote his own autobiography and demonstrated cognitive functioning and understanding. He described himself as two separate selves; one cognitive self, which he has control over to learn and grow, and the behavioral self that he has not been able to manage.

Michael Merzenich, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco noted that genes do play a role in such a diagnosis. Even one-year old infants who are eventually diagnosed with autism later tend to have an atypical brain growth spurt, which may be partially due to nerve impulse cells that overproduce in brain's white matter.” Other regions of the brain related to reading social cues and interacting with people tend to be less active. However, such a diagnosis is complicated and there is not just one identifiable cause.

Musicality

Those who have “absolute or perfect pitch,” “speaking words and repeating them days later at the same pitch,” can identify the sound of an E flat or G sharp as easy as anyone who can see that grass is green or the ocean is blue.

Investigators at the University of California, San Diego, suggests that the phenomenon may not be as unusual as one may think. Those who study music and those who speak tonal languages are more likely to have absolute pitch. A study found that only 7 percent of non-Asian freshmen at Eastman School of Music had perfect pitch, however more than half (63 percent) of Asian freshman at the Central Conservatory of Music had perfect pitch.

A genetic predisposition for “absolute pitch” is observed to be more common among cultures who have a tonal language, however this ability is also found to be more common in those cultures who value music and early musical training.

Object Permanence and Facial Recognition

At the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development at Birkbeck, University of London, researcher Jordy Kaufman develops a “Babylab” that helps to understand what is going on in a baby's mind. Kaufman uses electrode caps on six-month-olds to view and record brain waves, or electrical activity in their brains. The infants then view a cartoon version of a train driving into a tunnel.

The goal is to test an infant’s sense of object permanence by observing the activity in a babies' right temporal lobes when an object in a video is suddenly hidden from view. Object permanence is the ability to understand that the object still exists even if it’s not physically seen. When the train disappears into the tunnel, a burst of activity in the babies' right temporal lobes is observed, demonstrating that the infants are actually trying to maintain the visual representation of the train even though it was shown to disappear into the tunnel.

Similarly, Babylab's Hanife Halit demonstrates that most infants have a predisposition to focus on and recognize faces in the first year of life. While neurotypical babies prefer faces, originally monkey and human faces, that are facing them, children with Autism may not have this genetic predisposition. Halit conjectures that without consistent interaction with people and their given emotions, a baby’s brain might fail to stay engaged with new social interactions.

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Somatosensory Cortex vs Visual Cortex

In 1996 Pascual-Leone, a professor of neurology at Harvard University and Boston's Beth Israel hospital, and his colleagues at the National Institutes of Health performed a study that demonstrated that blind adults who were learning how to read Braille were using information gained from their fingers while reading Braille lights up the visual cortex of the brain as well as the somatosensory cortex. This means that not only are they feeling the raised Braille, but they are also visualizing what they’re reading as well.

Pascual-Leone’s research was to blindfold individuals and after a couple of days, the individual’s sense of touch and hearing were enhanced due bursts of activity in their visual cortex. Once the blindfold was off, activity returned to normal information gained from the eyes.  Although this time length was too short for new nerve connections, the research suggests that the true purpose of the visual cortex is to identify spatial relationships.

Creativity

On any given morning Alice Flaherty, a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston,” writes whenever she can, wherever she can.

Flaherty developed a case of hypergraphia, which is the compulsive and dire need to write. The need to write would come at any given moment, whether it be at 4 o’clock in the morning or at 6 o’clock at night, it was always there.

Flaherty ended up writing a book on her own condition because it interested her so much. She determined that her biggest flare-ups or episodes were those caused by large hormonal changes with childbirth, which is also a common trigger for depression, mania and other mood disorders. This condition is commonly associated with temporal lobe epilepsy, resulting in abnormal sensations and possible hallucinations.

Hypergraphia may offer important information to the idea of creativity in the brain. The frontal lobes provide judgment and flexibility of thought, however the temporal lobes and limbic system supply drive and motivation. This drive and motivation may provide more creativity than the frontal lobe as Flaherty suggests that the drive and motivation are more important than the critical thinking.

Meditation

Western neuroscientists have taken an interest in new evidence for the brain's plasticity, regarding Buddhist training and their techniques to steer their emotions into more compassionate and positive feelings rather than negative.

Richard Davidson and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have been studying brain activity in Tibetan monks, both in meditative and non-meditative states. He noticed that those who had negative emotions displayed activity in their right prefrontal cortex, while those who had more positive feelings had activity in the left prefrontal cortex.

Davidson tested this theory on volunteers from a high-tech company where one group of volunteers received eight weeks of training in meditation, while a control group did not. Both groups received a flu shot as part of the study.

At the conclusion of Davidson’s study, there was significant brain activity towards the left prefrontal cortex in those who were meditating, illustrating an increase in positive emotions. Regarding the flu shot, the group who was meditating also had a healthier immune response from the flu shot, demonstrating that the meditation not only created effects with their brain functioning and positive emotions, but also produced positive physiological effects.

For more information on brain development, emotion, and neurofeedback brain training, please contact us or visit our website.

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

To review the first Beauty of the Brain blog post, read Part 1: Cognitive Functions and Corina’s Language Abilities.

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.

Have You Ever Been So Tired You Can't Sleep?

Truck driver Joe Diemand (76) feels that way all the time. Working long and late hours like Joe or working the night shift have even been called carcinogenic by the World Health Organization. U.S. Center for Disease Control recommends at least 7 hours of sleep a night and reports show that more than 80 million Americans are sleep deprived. Just look at the spike in fatal car accidents and heart attacks (increases 24%) the Monday after day light saving time!

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We have an internal molecular clock that is set to mirror and stay in sync with the sun. Because of technology and brain imaging, these three Nobel Prize (2017) winning scientists discovered this so called circadian cycle and it is now known that disruption to this cycle can lead to things like diabetes, heart disease, and dementia. 

Disruption to this sleep cycle is due to our eyes and their exposure to certain light at certain times. I can't help but feel guilty as I stare at my computer screen late at night while reading about the negative affects of reawakening my wake cycle through exposure to this type of light. According to the most recent National Geographic, Michael Finkel states light at night inhibits the production of melatonin, the hormone that helps regulate our daily biological rhythms.

Insomnia is the main reason 4% U.S. adults take sleeping pills each month. But there is research to show that people who generally take longer to fall asleep, wake up for prolonged periods during the night, or both do not need medicine. Neurofeedback has been shown to improve sleep . 

The engine of our brain, the prefrontal cortex, is the first to begin to deteriorate when we do not get enough sleep. Finkel reminds us that this is the home for our decision-making power and problem solving abilities. It's no wonder why we are cranky when we are tired. Chiara Cirelli (a neuroscientist at the Wisconsin Institute for Sleep and Consciousness) tells us, “Every cognitive function to some extent seems to be affected by sleep loss.” So, what better way to improve symptoms of sleepiness than by training your brain with Nuerofeedback which directly  addresses symptoms for each individual client by focusing on certain parts of the brain that need strengthening. Using certain electrode site placement on the head and frequency levels, people report improvements in falling asleep, staying asleep and quality of sleep after the recommended 20 sessions of Neurofeedback.  These sessions in turn improve a healthy lifestyle as lack of sleep can induce overproduction of ghrelin, the hunger hormone, and can lead to obesity. Even those who get 6 or less hours of sleep per night are at higher risk for depression, psychosis, and stroke. Neurofeedback has not only been reported to help with sleeplessness but also these exact diagnoses. 

A common symptom of ADHD is daytime sleepiness (Timimi & Leo, 2009). This symptom served as a predictor for homework problems and academic impairment in adolescents with ADHD (Langberg, Dvorsky, Marshall, & Evans, 2013). Those with Autism have also having difficulty falling asleep and experience disturbed sleep once they do. ASD has also been linked to anxiety and depression. Neurofeedback addresses any dysregulated state of the brain and research has shown it improves many symptoms of these disorders. 

In this case, if you snooze, you don't lose! Biofeedback is now a "Level 1 - Best Support" for Attention and Hyperactivity behaviors or ADD/ADHD interventions based on The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Other treatments such as Behavioral Therapy and medications are considered "Level 1- Best Support" treatments as well. Based on the dysregulation model, neurofeedback addresses common symptoms of ADHD like inattentiveness and impulsiveness by "brain training" and helping to regulate brain activity. Not only can neurofeedback address behavioral, academic and emotional symptoms, it can help regulate our sleep to allow for the full potential of " playtime of the brain" (Finkel, 2018). Sleep Help guides and tips are a great place to start, and if you'd like more information on how neurofeedback can improve quality of sleep, contact us today. 

~ Written by Hannah Berry, M.Ed.

References: Finkel, Michael. (2018). "While we sleep, our mind goes on an amazing journey." National Geographic, Aug. 2018.

Langberg, J. M., Dvorsky, M. R., Marshall, S. and Evans, S. W. (2013). Clinical implications of daytime sleepiness for the academic performance of middle school‐aged adolescents with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. J Sleep Res, 22: 542-548. doi:10.1111/jsr.12049

Timimi, S., & Leo, J. (2009). Rethinking ADHD: From brain to culture. Palgrave Macmillan.