Category Archives: Effect Of Trauma On Brain Articles

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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Self-help audio pack:

Self-help audio MP3 pack for dealing with anxiety. Click HERE.

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).

 

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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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Mending The Mind : Self-Directed Neuroplasticity

childhood_trauma_questionnaire

We can use our own mind (which, for the sake of not over-complicating matters, I’ll define here as our conscious thought processes, feelings and experiences) to physically alter our brains, which, in turn, alters how our mind works.

This can lead to a positive feedback loop or a negative feedback loop (as well as anything inbetween). In this article I want to concentrate upon how we can develop a positive feedback loop.

HOW THE PHYSICAL BRAIN CAN BE CHANGED :

The physical brain is in a constant state of flux. Changes to it can be both TEMPORARY and LONG-LASTING. Let’s look at each of these types of physical changes in turn:

TEMPORARY :

a) changes in how the brain’s neurons (cells) are firing at any given time

b) the concentration of different types of neurochemicals (eg. a low concentration of the neurochemical serotonin is associated with the mental experience of depression)

c) changes in the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide that the brain is receiving (this is why taking deep breaths, or learning deep breathing exercises, helps to make us feel calm and why hyperventilating makes us feel even more panicked than whatever it was that led us to hyperventilate in the first place).

d) changes in glucose levels being delivered to the brain

neuroplasticity

LONG-LASTING :

Through therapies such as repeated self-hypnosis, the regular practice of mindfulness and cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), we can make long-lasting, beneficial, physical changes to our brains (like the title of this article, this is known as SELF-DIRECTED NEUROPLASTICITY).

In effect, such techniques ‘feed’ particular brain regions with an increased level of blood/nutrients, which, in turn, has a positive effect upon our state of mind (eg reducing feelings of depression and anxiety).

In other words, non-physical thoughts and feelings induced by the therapies mentioned above have a beneficial, physical effect on the brain which, in turn, improves how we feel – this is the POSITIVE FEEDBACK LOOP I referred to earlier in this article.

Ways in which this happens include :

a) NEURONS THAT FIRE TOGETHER WIRE TOGETHER. By increasing neural activity in specific brain regions (through our chosen therapeutic technique – see above) the neurons’ connections (synapses) are strengthened, and new connections (synapses) are formed

b) Over time mental practices like mindfulness etc can thicken the part of the brain known as the CORTEX

c) Therapies like mindfulness etc can increase the level of activation in the LEFT PREFRONTAL LOBES

d) Such therapies can also lower the production of CORTISOL (cortisol is a stress hormone – if, when we are under great stress over an extended period of time, too much of it is produced it can damage a part of the brain known as the HIPPOCAMPUS which, amongst other functions, is involved in memory)

e) GAMMA RANGE BRAINWAVES can be strengthened by therapies like mindfulness

f) Such therapies can also thicken a small region of the brain known as the INSULA, which is involved in how we feel about our existence.

NEUROPLASTICITY LEADS TO INCREMENTAL, RATHER THAN SUDDEN, CHANGE IN THE BRAIN :

When we use therapies like repeated self-hypnosis, mindfulness and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for the purposes of self-directed neuroplasticity the changes in the brain occur incrementally (proceeding gradually in small steps which build upon one another), rather than suddenly and dramatically.

RESOURCES :

– Mindfulness Training MP3. CLICK HERE.

– My book below, entitled ‘How Childhood Trauma Can Physically Damage The Developing Brain – And How These Effects Can Be Reversed’ is now available on Amazon for immediate download. $4.79. CLICK HERE.

 

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

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Specific Ways In Which The Brain Can Physically Recover From Severe Trauma

TO FIND OUT ABOUT MINDFULNESS TRAINING CLICK ABOVE

TO FIND OUT ABOUT MINDFULNESS TRAINING CLICK ABOVE

 

childhood_trauma_questionnaire

I have previously written articles on how early life trauma can adversely affect the physical development of the brain leading to, for example, psychological difficulties in adulthood such as finding it hard to control our emotions and finding it difficult to cope with stress (eg click here).

I have also written about how the brain can, to some extent, physically repair itself (eg click here) by a process known as NEUROPLASTICITY.

In this article I want to take a more detailed look at how neuroplasticity might work to enable our brains to overcome the physical effects on it of our childhood traumatic experiences.

We now know that the brain’s circuitory is not, as used to be thought, ‘hard wired’, but changes over the course of our lives, INCLUDING ADULTHOOD, as a result of new experiences. Specific ways in which these physical changes to the brain might occur in adulthood include :

– NEUROGENESIS

– SYNAPTIC PLASTICITY

– SYNAPTOGENESIS

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BELOW : DIAGRAM OF A NEURON AND ITS CONNECTIONS.

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Let’s consider each of these in turn :

Neurogenesis:

Studies on rats have conclusively demonstrated that, over the course of their adult lives, they can grow new brain cells (neurons) which has the effect of changing their ability to process information. However, it is still not certain whether the same process occurs in humans – further research needs to be conducted.

Synaptic plasticity :

This refers to the fact that a process takes place in the adult brain whereby connections between neurons (brain cells) become strengthened and enhanced. Many studies have confirmed this beneficial process.

Synaptogenesis :

This refers to the process by which NEW connections are formed between neurons (brain cells). Studies show the process definitely occurs in animals, and it is likely that it also occurs in humans.

TRAINING THE BRAIN IN ORDER TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF NEUROPLASTICITY :

Practicing particular activities has been shown in studies to strengthen connections between the brain cells (neurons) in the specific brain region which is involved in the execution of that task.

The therapy MINDFULNESS takes advantage of this, improving our ability to relax and conquer stress and anxiety (click here to read my article on mindfulness).

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A famous study showing how neuroplasticity works involved looking at London taxi drivers who trained intensely for many years to learn the layout of the streets of London. By the time they had completed the training, the grey matter in their HIPPOCAMPUS (the part of the brain which deals with navigating and spatial awareness) had SIGNIFICANTLY INCREASED IN DENSITY.

TO FIND OUT ABOUT MINDFULNESS TRAINING CLICK ABOVE

TO FIND OUT ABOUT MINDFULNESS TRAINING CLICK ABOVE

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

 

 

 

 

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Why Adolescence is a Time of High Vulnerability.

adolescent_vulnerability

Contrary to what used to be believed, we now know, through neurological research, that, during adolescence, the brain is still EXTREMELY PLASTIC (in this context, the word ‘plastic‘ means that the brain is susceptible to physical change in response to environmental factors. Click here to read one of my articles on brain plasticity and how childhood trauma can adversely affect the physical development of the brain). This makes the period of adolescence a time of particular vulnerability.

EMOTIONAL DYSREGULATION, IMPULSIVITY AND NEED FOR APPROVAL FROM PEERS:

Often, adolescence is a time of emotional dysregulation (difficulty in managing emotions). The adolescent can have dramatically fluctuating emotions, be moody, poor at making decisions, impulsive, sensation-seeking and a high risk-taker. Furthermore, approval from others is especially important during this period of life, so adolescents also tend to be very vulnerable to peer-pressure; this can make them even more likely to take risks (eg to impress friends).

THE PREFRONTAL CORTEX AND RISK TAKING :

The prefrontal cortex is a region of the brain that is involved in :

– decision making

– long-term planning

– impulse control

– delaying gratification

However, during adolescence, this brain region IS NOT YET FULLY DEVELOPED.

adolescent_risk_taking

Above : Adolescence can be a time of high risk-taking. This has both neurological and evolutionary explanations.

This means that adolescents are especially likely to be HIGH RISK TAKERS. This is made even more likely due to the fact that the ‘REWARD CENTRE’ in the brain of adolescents is more active than it is in children and adults. This leads the adolescent to OVERESTIMATE THE REWARDS RISK TAKING WILL PRODUCE, further increasing the probability s/he will take risks (eg unprotected sex, excessive drinking, taking elicit and potentially harmful drugs, fast and dangerous driving etc).

adolescent_risk_taking

ABOVE : Another example of high risk-taking behaviour amongst young people.

EVOLUTIONARY EXPLANATION OF ADOLESCENT PROPENSITY TOWARDS HIGH RISK-TAKING BEHAVIOUR :

It is likely that risk-taking behaviour evolved in adolescents amongst our ancestors in order to make the individual open to new experiences and situations, thus making it more likely that s/he will be willing to leave the relative safety of being cared for by parents and start to live independently.

LEGAL IMPLICATIONS :

It has been strongly argued by various parties representing the interests of young people that the lack of development of the prefrontal cortex in adolescents, together with other factors mentioned above, should be taken into account when trying to assess the extent of their culpability when they commit certain crimes. However, this conundrum is still far from being fully resolved.

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Harmful Effects of Poverty on Early Brain Development

effect_of_poverty_on_brain_development

A great many studies have now been conducted which show that those who grow up in poverty run the risk of the physical development of their brains being harmed, resulting in a negative impact on their adult lives.

HOW DOES POVERTY AFFECT BRAIN DEVELOPMENT?

Poverty can affect brain development as it can mean that the child grows up in a kind of cultural and intellectual vacuum, devoid of adequate mental stimulation; in effect, the child may become educationally impoverished. Such a situation places the brain under considerable stress.

As a result of this stress, the actual physical development of the brain (also called neurological development) can be harmed. Such harm has been found, through research, to :

– impair academic performance (eg Farah, 2005)

– make the individual more susceptible to mental illness in later life (eg psychosis, depression, personality disorders, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance misuse and problems with impulse control)

– make the individual more vulnerable to physical illness in later life and ultimately reduce life expectancy (click here to read my article about this)

effect_of-poverty_on_brain

COGNITIVE IMPAIRMENTS LINKED TO GROWING UP IN POVERTY :

Research carried out over the last decade or so has also demonstrated a link between the experience of early life poverty and the development of certain impairments of cognitive (mental) functioning. These include :

– impairments relating to visuo-spatial awareness

– language impairments

– memory impairments

WHAT SPECIFIC DAMAGE CAN GROWING UP IN A LOW SOCIO-ECONOMIC GROUP DO TO THE BRAIN?

Research shows that, specifically, the stress exerted upon the brain by growing up in poverty can :

– damage the development of the hippocampus (Teicher et al, 2012, found that those who grew up in poverty had, on average, a lower volume of grey matter in the hippocampus than those who did not)

– adversely affect the development of the prefrontal cortex

Further research has revealed that the hippocampus appears to be particularly susceptible to damage between the ages of 3-5 years, whereas the prefrontal cortex is especially vulnerable between the ages of 14-16 years. It is also important to note that there can be a significant time delay between the physical damage done to the brain’s development and overt symptoms of this damage becoming manifest.

IS THIS DAMAGE REVERSIBLE?

The good news is that much of this damage seems to be reversible – you can find out more about this by clicking here to read my article about such reversibility.

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

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Childhood Trauma, Stress and the Vulnerable Developing Brain

childhood trauma, psychopathy

Both studies conducted on animals and humans conclusively reveal that long-term and severe stress have a harmful effect upon the brain. If the brain is harmed in such a manner, an individual’s chances of developing mental illness is considerably increased. However, there is also good news : if the brain incurs such damage, this is frequently reversible (click here to read an article I previously wrote relating to this phenomenon).

Because the brain is still developing during childhood and adolescence, and its physical structure more ‘plastic’ (ie more susceptible to being changed)  than in adulthood,it is particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of stress during these periods (it is most vulnerable of all during infancy which is why these earliest years are of such critical importance).

brain_stress   effects_of_stress_on_brain

Above. The grey circle on the second diagram shows the part of the brain in which stress can cause executive functioning to partially shut down. The red circle shows the part of the brain in which stress activates the fear/ ‘fight or flight response.’

How severe and protracted the experience of stress during childhood will influence the degree of damage the developing brain suffers. The stressors themselves are varied ; they include poverty, neglect and abuse, or, indeed, a combination of these.

ANIMAL STUDIES DEMONSTRATING THE EFFECTS OF STRESS UPON THE BRAIN :

There have been literally hundreds of animal studies showing that stress can have a harmful effect upon the brain. For example, research on rats placed in high stress environments shows that both the structure and function of their hippocampus (the human brain, too, has a hippocampus ; the structure is involved in the stress response) is adversely affected.

Furthermore, similar studies show that when rats are deprived of proper maternal care their hippocampus is similarly damaged.

Other studies, also involving rats, show that when they are placed in impoverished environments (ie environments in which there is no stimulation), again there is a harmful effect on the structure and functioning of their brains.

THE GOOD NEWS –  REVERSIBILITY :

However, the good news is that these adverse effects on the rats’ brains, caused by the various stressors described above, are, at least in part, reversible. This reversing process can be achieved by transferring the rats from an impoverished environment to a stimuli rich environment, or transferring the rats deprived of maternal care into the care of a female rat that licks and grooms them, for example.

RESEARCH ON HUMANS :

It appears we can extrapolate from the findings of such animal studies described above and apply them to humans. Indeed, human studies have demonstrated that children who grow up in poverty, and have to cope with the stress of having little mental stimulation, can also incur harm to the structure and functioning of their brains, in particular, in relation to their prefrontal cortex and hippocampus.

Furthermore, it has been found that those children who are exposed to significant abuse will tend to have a lower brain volume than their peers who did not experience such abuse.

However, in humans, too, such damage appears to  be reversible (click here to read my article related to this).

TIMING :

It appears that, in humans, different parts of the brain are particularly susceptible to damage at different stages of the young person’s life. For example :

Between the ages of 3 years old and 5 years : the hippocampus appears to be particularly vulnerable.

Between the ages of 14 and 16 years : the prefrontal cortex appears to be particularly vulnerable.

EARLY INTERVENTION :

It is also now known that if a child is potentially being damaged by a highly stressful environment, the earlier intervention takes place to alleviate the stress, the more likely it is that any harm that has already been done to the brain can be reversed.

DELAYED EFFECTS :

Research has also found that such damage incurred by the human brain as described above may well not be immediately apparent. Indeed, it can take many years for the adverse effects to reveal themselves.

 

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

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Implications of Neuroplasticity for Treatment of Depression

effects of stress

depression and neuroplasticity

I have described, in other articles, how the brain goes on physically changing all our lives – the process does not stop when we reach adulthood. The quality of the brain, which allows it to continually restructure its architecture, neuroscientists call NEUROPLASTICITY (click here to read my article on this). The really exciting thing is, however, that it is now known, beyond all doubt ,that it is possible for us to very significantly influence our brain’s physical development throughout our lives in extremely beneficial ways simply by changing how we think and how we behave.

This discovery has enormous implications as to how psychiatric conditions like depression, anxiety, addictions and many others will be treated in the (hopefully near) future.

Indeed, if, soon, more and more individuals suffering from depression and other conditions are treated by teaching them to manipulate their own brain structure through behaviour changes and new ways of thinking, the need for medications will be reduced thus allowing many to avoid their sometimes negative side-effects  – in fact, studies now suggest that any positive effects anti-depressants have is largely due to the placebo effect (read my article on this by clicking here).

It is useful to give an example of a study that shows that what we think and do creates physical changes in the brain. In one particular study, a group of medical students underwent brain scans/imaging before and after weeks of intensive revision. It was found that the parts of the brain associated with this activity, by the end of their revision period, had become physically denser (due to the growing of more connections between neurons/brain cells).

This is similar to a study I referred to in another post involving London taxi drivers – after a long period of training (involving memorizing all of London’s streets and various landmarks) it was found that the area of their brain which processes spatial information had grown.

Whilst these two examples do not involve the treatment of psychiatric conditions, it is believed the same principles can be applied to future therapies. Research is currently at an incipient stage.

NEGATIVE NEUROPLASTICITY :

One of the reasons that depression is so insidious is that it leads to negative neuroplasticity. In very simple terms, this means :

a) when we are depressed, we think and act in negative ways which (b) stimulates regions of the brain involved in negative thinking and acting causing (c) these regions to grow. This leads to (d) further negative thinking and behaving – thus, a vicious cycle develops.

POSITIVE NEUROPLASTICITY :

Research is currently investigating if positive neuroplasticity can be created in depressed people to stop and reverse the above process. Again, in very simplified terms, this might involve :

a) encouraging and training patients to think and behave in more positive ways which (b) stimulates regions in the brain involved with positive thinking and positive behaviour causing (c) these regions to grow. This should lead to (d) further positive thinking and behaviour – thus, instead of a vicious cycle, a virtuous cycle is created and will hopefully keep going due to its own momentum.

THE AMYGDALA :

As this momentum builds, it is theorized that the regions of the brain that contributed to our depression will lose their power as  their neural interconnections wither away and atrophy due to lack of use. In connection to this idea, the region of the brain called the amygdala has been focused upon by researchers.

The amygdala (click here to read my article on this) is often over-developed and over-sensitive in those who have suffered childhood trauma due to the effects early adverse experience has had on its development. It is high activity in the amygdala that makes people feel anxious, distressed and fearful. A key aim of future therapies may therefore be to reduce connections in this brain region.

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

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