Category Archives: Neuroplasticity Articles

Why Girls May Be Worse Affected By Childhood Trauma Than Boys.

 

Approximately 2℅ of boys who have experienced just one ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience) go on to develop chronic depression. In the case of girls who have experienced one ACE, however, this figure dramatically increases to 18%.

And, in the case of boys who have experienced 4 ACES or more, 33% will go on to develop chronic depression; for girls, however, this figure rises to a massive 60%.

 

adverse_childhood_experiencesFor more information and infographics about the effects of ACES, click here.

 

A study lead by Harringa, PhD, highlighted three areas of the brain that can be adversely affected by the experiences of ACES. These were:

the prefrontal cortex

– the amygdala

– the hippocampus

Below, I briefly describe the function of each of these brain regions:

1) Prefrontal cortex: we use the prefrontal cortex to refect upon and analyze information and to decide how we should behave and act.

2) Amygdala: this brain region is involved in our emotions and our response to fear and threats (Fight/Flight/Freeze/Fawn). In effect it serves us our internal alarm system.

3) Hippocampus: this part of our brains is involved with storing memories and helps us to discern between a genuine and real threat and a false alarm.

interaction_prefrontal cortex_hippocampus_amygdala

It seems that how the prefrontal cortex interacts with the hippocampus is disrupted in both boys and girls as a result of the experience of ACES (even if these ACES are relatively mild). This results in:

– increased hypervigilence

– overreaction to perceived threats

– a debilitating feeling of being on constant ‘red-alert’

– constantly feeling in danger, unsafe and under threat (even in the absence, objectively speaking, of any external causes for this)

However, on top of this, in the case of girls, the experience of ACES also appears to disrupt communication between the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus as well. This results in a still greater inability to effectively control the fear response and, too, more severe overreactions to stress and perceived threat.

This extra problem that develops in girls as a result of the experience of childhood trauma is thought to be a major reason that females are more likely to develop both depression and anxiety as a consequence such trauma than are males.

 

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

 

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How The Brain Can Change And Recover From Harm.

 

Whilst the basic structure of the brain is formed by early childhood, this physical structure changes throughout life as a result of our experiences and learning.

A well known example of this is relates to a study of London taxi drivers (who undergo years of extensive training to learn their way around the London streets) ; it was found, through the use of brain scans, that as a result of this training the part of their brain that deals with spatial awareness actually increased in size.

This ability of the brain to physically change throughout life is due to a quality it possesses called neuroplasticity.

The main phases of brain development and change can be divided into 3 stages. I briefly describe each of these below:

1) The Precritical Phase:

This occurs during early childhood. During this phase, the brain’s neurons (nerve cells) are formed, as are the connections between them.

These neurons communicate with each other by the process of electro-chemical signalling.

The brain consists of about 100 billion (100,000,000,000) neurons and each of these neurons may be connected up to 10,000 other neurons.

Mind-bogglingly, this means that our neurons communicate with one another via a network of about 1,000 trillion (1,000,000,000,000,000) connections (known as synaptic connections).

2) The second phase relates to the changes that occur to the brain after childhood as a result of our learning and the experiences (eg. see example of London taxi drivers above).

3) Later life : If the brain does not receive adequate stimulation, its processing ability may be adversely affected, as may memory. However, brain training exercises can help to prevent such deterioration.

BRAIN DAMAGE REVERSIBILITY:

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We have seen, in other articles that I have published on this site, that severe childhood trauma can harm the way in which the brain develops.

However, such harm to the brain is frequently reversible, at least in part. Two ways in which the brain is able to repair itself are:

– by developing new connections between neurons

– redirecting specific brain functions to alternative brain regions.

Furthermore, studies now reveal that, in certain situations, the brain is actually capable of developing new neurons.

APPLICATIONS TO ANXIETY AND DEPRESSION:

Meditation, visualisation and repeated hypnosis/self-hypnosis that enhances relaxation has been found to alter the brain in a beneficial manner. These changes help to dampen down negative emotions such as depression, anxiety and anger; also, they help both the brain and the body to heal themselves.

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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

 

 

 

 

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Those In Grip Of BPD Do NOT Deserve Blame For Their Actions

 

We have seen in many other articles that I have posted on this site that there is a strong association between the experience of childhood trauma and the development of BPD (borderline personality disorder) in later life (to read one of these articles, click here).

Sadly, compounding their problem, those suffering from BPD can be stigmatised by their friends, associates, work colleagues, and even by their own parents and siblings. As well as, of course, by society in general.

One reason for this is that when someone with BPD upsets others s/he may be accused as having behaved badly deliberately, intentionally, wilfully and premeditatively. This state of affairs is, of course, inevitably going to exacerbate yet further the BPD sufferer’s already intense feelings of rejection, isolation, alienation and disenfranchisement.

However, research clearly shows that a mistake is being made in assuming that those in the grip of this serious illness have any real control over their less than helpful behaviours. Indeed, neurological studies have now revealed DIFFERENCES IN THE BRAIN of BPD sufferers compared to non-BPD sufferers that affect, in particular, three dimensions of their behaviour.

These three behavioural dimensions are as follows :

1) Emotional control

2) Impulsivity

3) Cognitive abilities (specifically, learning, memory and reasoning)

NB. BPD sufferers are not an homogenous group and individual BPD sufferers will vary in relation to the extent to which the three behavioural dimensions are adversely affected.

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What has gone wrong in the brain to cause these 3 behavioural dimensions to be adversely affected?

1) Problems with emotional control (sometimes referred to as EMOTIONAL DYSREGULATION) appears to be connected to disruption of the part of the brain called the AMYGDALA.

2) Problems controlling impulses appear to be connected to disruption of the parts of the brain called the ORBITOMEDIAL and ANTERIOR CINGULATE SYSTEM.

3) Problems relating to learning, memory and reasoning appear to be connected to disruption of the part of the brain DORSOLATERAL PREFRONTAL SYSTEM.

All of the above neural systems can be damaged during their development by the experience of significant childhood trauma. To read my article on this, click here.

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People who suffer from BPD are also far more susceptible to the negative effects of stress than the average person (which is also due to neurological dysfunction). This is particularly unfortunate as, when a BPD sufferer is under stress, the behavioural dimensions described above are liable to be especially badly affected. It is imperative, therefore, that BPD sufferers who wish to maximise their chances of recovery live in as near to a stress-free environment as is feasible. Indeed, in a supportive, positive, substantially stress – free environment the brain can gradually begin to recover and repair itself. This is due to a quality in the brain known by psychologists as neuroplasticity.

From the above, we may infer the following conclusion:

– dysfunctional behaviours of BPD sufferers are not intentional or deliberate. They are also not premeditated, overturning the cynical theory that BPD sufferers are ‘manipulative’. Essentially, BPD sufferers do not have the social skills, cold, calculating control capabilities (quite the opposite, in fact) and rational planning abilities to be manipulative. They act, impulsively, according to their feelings and cannot help these extremely powerful and overwhelming emotions or their impulsivity to show them. From this perspective, they act authentically.

Neither is their behaviour self-indulgent, as it is not under their control. Indeed, their behaviour tends to ultimately hurt themselves more than anyone else, filling them with shame and self-hatred. People do not willingly choose to be so utterly self-destructive and anyone who thinks they do is a fool.

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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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3 Types Of Emotional Control Difficulties Resulting From Childhood Trauma

We know that those who suffer significant childhood trauma are more likely to suffer from emotional dysregulation (ie problems controlling their eemotions) in adulthood compared to those who had a relatively stable upbringing. This is especially true, of course, if they develop Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) as a result of their childhood experiences (BPD is strongly associated with childhood trauma and one of its main symptoms is emotional dysregulation.

It is theorized (and there is much evidence building up which supports the theory) that one main reason childhood trauma causes the person who suffered it to develop problems controlling his/her emotions in later life is that the experience of significant childhood trauma can lead to damage of the brain structure called the amygdala which is responsible for our emotional reactions to events. (It is also thought that the experience of childhood trauma can also damage other areas of the brain that affect our emotional responses, such as the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex). Click here to read my article on this.

The three types of emotional control difficulties that an individual who has suffered significant childhood trauma may develop are:

1) Severe emotional over-reactions.

2) A propensity to experience sudden shifts in one’s emotional state (also known as emotional lability).

3) Once triggered, emotions take a long time to return to their normal levels.

Let’s look at each of these in turn:

1) Severe emotional over- reactions:

We may react emotionally disproportionately to the things that happen to us. For example, disproportionately angry as a result of what would objectively appear to be very minor provocation, disproportionately anxious in response to a very minor threat or even suicidal behaviour/self-harming behaviour in response to events that the ‘average’ person could take in their stride with little difficulty.

To take a personal example : when I was a teenager I had a minor argument with a friend. As a result, he demanded that I leave his house. Before I knew it, I had punched him. It was only years later (because I’m stupid) that it occurred that I’d reacted as I did because the incident reminded me, on an unconscious level, of my mother throwing me out of the house some years earlier (when I was thirteen years old); in so doing, it had triggered intensely painful feelings associated with the memory of this ultimate rejection.

2) A propensity to experience sudden shifts in one’s emotional state:

For example, one minute the individual may be withdrawn, depressed and reticent but then suddenly swing, with little or no provocation, into a highly agitated, angry and voluble state.

3) Once triggered, emotions take a long time to return to their normal levels:

It thought that this is due to problems of communication between the prefrontal cortex and amygdala (in healthy individuals the prefrontal cortex acts efficiently to send messages to the amygdala to reduce its activity once the cause of the emotions is over – the amygdala being a part of the brain which gives rise to emotional responses).

Indeed, it is thought all three of the above problems occur due to brain dysfunction caused, at least in part, by early life trauma.

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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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Physical Brain Differences In Those Who Suffer Severe Anxiety.

effects_of_childhood_trauma_ptsf

Research suggests that those who suffer from severe anxiety conditions have brains which are different in terms of structure, chemistry and biology compared to the brains of those individuals who are fortunate enough not to suffer from such a debilitating affliction.

To date, research has provided evidence for the following differences:

1) Those who suffer from severe anxiety tend to have lower levels of the chemical serotonin (also known as a neurotransmitter) available in their brains than average (research has found that this also tends to be true of individuals suffering from clinical depression).

This theory of serotonin deficiency is supported by the fact that medications that increase the level of serotonin in the brain, such as the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSSRIs) class of anti- depressants can effectively ameliorate the symptoms of anxiety.

2) Those who suffer from severe anxiety tend to have lower levels of the amino gamma-aminobutyric (GABA) available in their brains compared to average.

GABA’s  function is to calm and quieten brain activity ; when there is too little of it, research suggests it can lead to:

– difficulties sleeping/insomnia

– feelings of agitation/inability to relax/restlessness/ jitteriness

– ‘out of control’ thoughts/ racing thoughts

– a general feeling of anxiety/nervousness

This theory is supported by the research finding that benzodiazepines, which increase the effectiveness of GABA in the brain, can help to alleviate the symptoms listed above. Unfortunately, however, this medication is addictive and (here in the UK, at least) doctors are very reluctant to prescribe it, particularly for more than a very short period of time (a week or two, in my own personal experience).

3) Those who suffer from severe anxiety, research using brain scans have revealed, can show abnormalities in both the structure and functioning of their brains.

 

PTSD_in_children_and_teenagers

Physical differences in brains of those who have PTSD as a result of severe stress. PTSD can develop as a result of severe childhood trauma.

 

For example, individuals suffering from severe anxiety have been found to possess smaller amygdalae nd hippocampae (these are both brain structures involved in the experience of anxiety) than normal, one cause of which is thought to be as a result of the development of these two brain structures being adversely affected in childhood due to the suffering of severe trauma (click here to read one of my articles on this).

Indeed, one study found that those who had suffered severe childhood trauma had hippocampae which were only, on average, about seventy-five per cent the size of normal hippocampae.

Resources:

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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)

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Neuroplasticity: Functional and Structural

functional_and_structural_neuroplasticity

I have already written several articles about how severe childhood trauma can actually cause physical damage to the developing brain. However, as I have also written about, with the right kind of therapy the brain can recover due to a phenomenon of neuroplasticity (click here to read one of my articles about NEUROPLASTICITY).

The brain comprises over 100 billion (100,000,000,000,000) nerve cells called neurons and, we now know, can create new neurons and produce new connection between existing neurons. It is these processes which allow the brain to change and repair itself. We now know, too, that this process of repair can occur at any age, not just in childhood (although it remains true that the human brain is most changeable/’plastic’ during early life).

functional_and_structural_NEUROPLASTICITY

This neuroplasticity (ability to change) of the brain can be divided into two types:

a) FUNCTIONAL NEUROPLASTICITY

b) STRUCTUiRAL NEUROPLASTICITY

Let’s look at each of these in turn:

FUNCTIONAL NEUROPLASTICITY – if a part of the brain responsible for a particular function is damaged, in some cases it is possible for a different part of the brain to take over control of that function

STRUCTURAL NEUROPLASTICITY – specific brain structures are able to physically change and develop as a consequence of experience and learning (particularly if these involve systematic training and repetition). The brain’s grey matter in a particular structure can literally be induced to thicken – due to it receiving a greater blood supply/supply of nutrients the more it is used – and to strengthen the connections between its resident neurons.

functional_ neuroplasticity

 

Studies involving the brain structure called the amydala:

A brain structure known as the amygdala is responsible for our response to fear and, if we have to experienced a childhood in which we often felt under threat, this structure can become overactive so that, as adults, we constantly feel stuck on ‘red-alert mode’ and under constant threat (even if we have no idea why). It feels that our ‘fight or flight’ response, normally only temporarily activated in emergencies, is permanently switched on.

This results in us being oversensitive to perceived threat and overreacting to it. This can lead to problematic behaviours and to damage to our endocrine and immune systems (due to the physiological effect that constantly feeling in danger has on us).

 

Need to retrain the amygdala:

If we have an overactive amygdala as described above due to our traumatic childhood then one thing we can do to repair it is to retrain it so that it forms, through the process of NEUROPLASTICITY,  new and beneficial neural pathways between it and another part of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex so that the cconnection between these two brain structures is strengthened.

Why is it necessary to create this strengthened connection between the two brain structures? This is because the medial prefrontal cortex is able to regulate the amydala’s fear response and, therefore, reduce its activity, effectively overriding it.

Therapies which can help to retrain the amydala in this way include neurolinguistic processing (NLP), autosuggestion, hypnotherapy (especially repeated sessions), meditation, visualisation exercises and breathing exercises.

We need to repeatedly embed new and beneficial suggestions in our minds to ‘overwrite’ the harmful messages we may have absorbed in childhood. The more we can embed these new, positive suggestions in our minds the greater becomes the likelihood that the actual physical structure of our brains will undergo positive changes.

Resources:

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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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More on How Trauma and Stress can Affect the Child’s Developing Brain.

structural -abnormalities- in- brains-of-trauma-survivors

 

Our brains developed over millions of years of evolution. Different parts of the modern human brain evolved at different periods of this enormous time span.

The most primitive part of the modern brain, which evolved first, is known, rather unflatteringly, as the REPTILIAN brain. This part of our brain is ‘in charge’ of BASIC SURVIVAL PROCESSES such as the physiological aspects of the well-known FIGHT/FLIGHT RESPONSE such as heart rate (click here to read my article entitled : ‘ Fight, Flight, Freeze or Fawn.’

In contrast, the part of our brain which developed most recently (the NEOCORTEX) is involved with HIGHER LEVEL PROCESSING such as complex learning, talking and forming relationships with others.

Children who experience CHRONIC and SEVERE TRAUMA as they are growing up automatically UTILIZE THE MORE PRIMITIVE PART OF THE BRAIN FAR MORE THAN NORMAL as they are driven by the adverse environment that they inhabit to FOCUS ON SURVIVAL

This comes at the expense of the development of the regions of the brain concerned with higher level mental functioning – indeed, this part of the brain can become SIGNIFICANTLY UNDER-UTILIZED, thus IMPAIRING ITS DEVELOPMENT. This can lead to the child:

– developing a brain which is smaller than normal

– developing less neural connection in the parts of the brain involved with higher level mental processing.

In short, then, the primitive part of the brain becomes OVER-EXERCISED, whilst the part of the brain which has most recently evolved becomes UNDER-EXERCISED.

impaired-brain-development-in-children

The three regions of the brain shown above evolved at different times in our evolutionary history – the most primitive part is called the REPTILLIAN BRAIN and controls our basic survival mechanisms. The most recently evolved part is the NEOCORTEX which is involved in higher level mental processes such as abstract thought.

 

EFFECTS OF PRIMITIVE PART BRAIN BEING ‘OVER-EXERCISED’.

 

This results in the child becoming HYPER-SENSITIVE to the ADVERSE EFFECTS OF STRESS.

Because of this, such a child is far less able to deal with stress (ie s/he has a far lower stress- tolerance threshold) than children who have been fortunate enough to grow up in a more benign environment (all else being equal).

In other words, children who have grown up in traumatic environments MAY EXPERIENCE SEVERE PHYSIOLOGICAL STRESS RESPONSES TO RELATIVELY MINOR TRIGGERS/PROVOCATIONS.

Such dramatic responses are especially likely if the triggering event reminds the child, however tangentally, of the original experience of trauma.

Children suffering from such a condition may:

– have great difficulty concentrating/focussing their attention

– experience high levels of restlessness and agitation

– have high levels of anxiety

– behave aggressively/violently when under stress

– bully others (often, subconsciously, to gain a sense of control in a world in which they feel essentially powerless).

 

POST TRAUMATIC STRESS (PTSD) IN CHILDREN:

If the child develops PTSD as a result of his/her traumatic experiences his/her body will develop a chronic tendency to OVER-PRODUCE STRESS HORMONES (eg cortisol) on a day-to-day basis which may INTERFERE WITH HIS/HER ABILITY TO LEARN.

 

OTHER SYMPTOMS OF PTSD IN CHILDHOOD:

– dissociation (‘zoning out’) – click here to read my article on this

– arrested development (eg suddenly stops talking)

– nightmares/night terrors

– frequent waking during the night

– violent play (eg acting out violent scenarios with toys)

– frequent drawing/painting of extremely violent scenes

– bed wetting

– somatic complaints (eg stomach aches, headaches etc)

– anxiety/depression

– general behavioural problems

– problem drinking/drug use

 

THE GOOD NEWS:

However, the positive news is that, because of an innate quality of the brain called NEUROPLASTICITY (click here to read my article on this), it is able to repair and ‘rewire’ itself, thus reversing the damage done in childhood. The following experiences may help this to happen:

– physical activity

– the development of new skills

– relaxation and avoidance of stress

– healthy, pleasurable experiences

– the development of warm, emotionally fulfilling relationships

– enjoyable social activity

On the other hand, the following are likely to hinder recovery:

– continued exposure to stress

– substance misuse

(Click here to read more about this).

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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

 

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Anxiety, CBT and Neuroplasticity

effects_of_ptsd_parents_on_children

It is a relatively new discovery within psychology that the brain physically changes throughout our lives (not just during childhood and adolescence as many previously supposed).

Just as the brain’s physical development can be harmed (eg certain types of severe childhood trauma can interfere with the development of the amygdala, which, in turn, is related to the development of borderline personality disorder (BPD)click here to read my article on this), so, too, can its structure and functionality be repaired and enhanced by therapeutic interventions; the harnessing of the power of such  beneficial interventions has come to be known as  SELF-DIRECTED NEURO-PLASTICITY.

Self-directed neuro-plasticity essentially involves us teaching ourselves to think and act in new ways that can positively shape and control the functioning of our physical brain, altering its structure to our advantage and ‘re-wiring’ it in helpful ways (click here to read my article about how the brain can ‘re-wire’ itself).

 

anxiety_cbt_neuroplasticity

 

HOW THIS RELATES TO THE TREATMENT OF ANXIETY

A recent research study, conducted by the psychologist Schwartz, involved patients suffering from an anxiety disorder being treated with a cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) technique (called ‘mindfulness‘). CBT, to explain it in very basic terms, is a form of therapy based on the premise that by changing how we think, we can change how we act and feel, and, furthermore, that many psychological disorders have at their heart a faulty thinking style that causes distress. CBT seeks to correct this faulty thinking style.

But back to Schwartz’s study. He found that those treated with CBT improved to about the same degree as would be expected had they been treated with medication. This having been established, Schwartz then arranged for these improved patients to be given a brain scan (specifically, for those interested, a PET scan, or positron emission tomography scan).

This revealed that certain NEURAL PATHWAYS in the brains of the patients had undergone significant change. Specifically, there was seen to be, after the CBT therapy had been completed, significantly greater activity in the patients’ ORBITAL FRONTAL CORTEX.

FUTURE IMPLICATIONS

As research into neuroplasticity continues and more experiments, such as the one outlined above, are conducted, it is likely that more and more psychological disorders will be amenable to interventions that exploit the phenomenon of neuroplasticity, providing us all, even those with conditions  thought to be deeply entrenched, a good deal of hope that we can get very significantly better.

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

 

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