Category Archives: Brain

Why Trauma Survivors May Find It Hard To Learn From Past Behaviour.

Many of us who have experienced severe and protracted childhood trauma, particularly if we have gone on to be diagnosed with conditions such as complex PTSD or BPD as a result, are frequently liable to ‘act out‘  unbearable inner pain (being unable to express it in healthy ways or even to understand its origin) in ways we later regret and feel ashamed of; indeed, such feelings of shame can be intense and devastating. [Related to this concept is the theory that anger, a frequent component of ‘acting out’, may sometimes operate to soothe emotional pain.]

However, despite such regret and shame, many, too, find themselves trapped in a perpetual cycle of repeating such self-defeating, ‘acting out’ behaviours, often at a very high cost to themselves and those who trigger their trauma-related feelings (e.g. feelings of rejection). In this way, the traumatized individual seems powerless to learn from experience and past mistakes, as if driven by unconscious psychological forces beyond their control (which, without effective therapy, may indeed be the case).

THE ROLE OF FAULTY MEMORY PROCESSING :

Such apparent helplessness to learn from experience is, however, much easier to understand when we consider how the severely traumatized individual’s memory processing abilities may have been negatively affected by his/her traumatic past.

To be more specific, trauma can impair brain and memory function in a variety of different ways, including adversely affecting the functionality of a part of the brain known as the hippocampus (indeed, research has shown that those who experience severe, long-lasting trauma in childhood can develop SHRUNKEN HIPPOCAMPI due to the chronic over-stimulation of the body’s stress hormones which have, in excess concentrations, a toxic effect upon the brain and other bodily organs)

Such impairment of brain and memory function, in turn, leads to DIFFICULTIES IN TRANSFERRING MEMORIES FROM SHORT-TERM STORAGE TO LONG-TERM STORAGE and, furthermore, interferes with the brain’s ability to process and make rational sense of information. Episodic memories (memories of past personal experiences that occurred at a particular time and place) may not be properly processed which prevents a corresponding semantic memory (a form of long-term memory essential for the use and understanding of concepts and language) from being formed, making it hard for the individual to use knowledge (which, in normal circumstances, would have been gleaned from the episodic memory and have made it available to be subjected to rational analysis)) to inform and beneficially adjust future behaviour.

DISSOCIATION:

Studies also show that memory function is impaired due to the tendency of traumatized individuals, especially those suffering from complex PTSD and BDP, to dissociate when ‘acting out’ as a result of a trauma-related feeling triggered.

Both of the above (i.e.impaired memory processing ability due to organic damage and dissociation) impact on learning ability which, in turn, then, help to explain why traumatized individuals find it hard to learn from experience, particularly in the context of interpersonal conflict that mirrors early-life traumatic experiences and results in dissociated, ‘acting-out’ type behaviour). Furthermore, such individuals may also suffer from depression which is itself known to impair learning, memory and cognitive processing abilities.

Impaired memory, learning and cognitive processing ability, of course, can also interfere with other crucial areas of life, such as academic and occupational performance.

THERAPY:

Therapies that reduce stress and increase emotional resilience can help people who have been affected in this way and there exists some evidence that antidepressants can increase hippocampal volume (N.B. Always consult an appropriately qualified expert before deciding whether or not to take antidepressants).

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

3 Types Of Childhood Stress : Positive, Tolerable And Toxic

Stress can be defined as ‘a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances’ and is, of course, an inevitable part of life. Whilst we often complain about stress due to the fact that too much of it can have damaging or even catastrophic effects upon our wellbeing, the right amount of stress is necessary and normal and this is true both in adulthood and childhood.

As children, exposure to a certain amount of stress is necessary and facilitates healthy development. The physiological effects of stress include an increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, increased production of stress hormones (e.g. cortisol) and inctreased rate of breathing to more effectively deliver oxygen to the muscles to prepare us for ‘fight or flight.’

As long as the stress we experience as children is not too great and, crucially, we are provided with sufficient support from our significant relationships with others (primarily in the form of emotional support from our primary caregiver) we are able to cope with it (and, in physiological terms, our bodily functions such as heart rate etc. are able to return to normal and do not incur damage to our nervous systems).

However, if the stress to which we are exposed is too overwhelming, and we are not provided with sufficient support, the cumulative effects of stress and the accompanying physiological impact on our bodies can have seriously damaging effects, including upon the physical development of the brain, potentially resulting in life-long emotional, behavioral, cognitive and social consequences.

THREE TYPES OF STRESS : POSITIVE, TOLERABLE AND TOXIC :

One way of thinking about stress, due to the very differing effects it can have upon us, is to view it as fitting into one of three possible categories which are listed below :

  • POSITIVE STRESS
  • TOLERABLE STRESS
  • TOXIC STRESS

Let’s look at each of these three categories of stress in turn :

POSITIVE STRESS AND ITS EFFECTS :

The physiological effect of positive stress is a short lasting accelaration of pulse rate and slight increase in levels of stress hormones such as cortisol. Experiencing positive stress is an indispensible part of normal and healthy child development and an examples of situations which might give rise to such stress are a well-managed first day at school or a rudimentary dental check-up.

TOLERABLE STRESS AND ITS EFFECTS :

This type of stress induces a higher and longer lasting level of physiological arousal and the event giving rise to this reaction may go on for some time. Examples include grief resulting from the loss of a loved one or a natural disaster. However, in relation to such stress, it is necessary that the child has good emotional support and that the increased level of physiological response is not too long lasting / chronic if enduring damage to the brain and other bodily organs is to be avoided.

TOXIC STRESS AND ITS EFFECTS :

The child may be subjected to toxic stress when s / he experiences ongoing / frequent / chronic abuse, extreme poverty, living with a severely mentally ill parent, living in a household in which s / he is exposed to domestic violence or living with a parent / step-parent ho is an alcoholic ; additionally, the child who experiences toxic stress is often deprived of adequate, emotional support from a significant adult. Such circumstances entailing such prolonged exposure to stress can cause chronic physiological arousal which, in turn, can adversely affect brain development in terms of both structure and function and harm other bodily organs with serious adverse implications for adult life (i.e. increasing risk of several physical and mental illnesses relationship difficulties and various other problems).

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

Childhood Trauma, The Hippocampus, Depression And Neurogenesis.

Childhood Trauma Can Harm Brain And Increase Risk Of Depression. However, The Good News Is The Brain Can Recover. This Article Explains How.

When we are at our most depressed, we may look at (as others perceive it) a beautiful sunset and derive no more pleasure from it than we would from looking at a rubbish dump or ugly building site. In short, nothing can lift our spirits and we feel unvaryingly, utterly desolate. It is as if the part of our brain that once experienced pleasure is now dead and unresponsive, never to be revived.

In fact, the latest research suggests that, indeed, a part of the brain, known as the hippocampus (a structure involved with long-term memory, the formation of new memories, and associating emotions with such memories), is impaired in function and reduced in volume in those suffering from severe, recurrent depression.

The good news, however, is that research also suggests that this brain region’s functioning is NOT irrevecocably impaired due to a specific type of brain neuroplasticity (the ability the brain has to repair and rewire itself) known as NEUROGENESIS (the brain’s ability to generate new neurons).

THE RESEARCH :

The research to which I refer has discovered that, in individuals who are severely depressed and suffer recurrent depressive episodes, the hippocampus has become significantly reduced in size. (We know, too, from numerous other articles that I have published on this site, that those who have suffered severe and chronic childhood trauma and, as a result, have gone on to develop conditions such as borderline personality disorder or complex posttraumatic stress disorder are also liable to have incurred developmental damage to this particular brain region ; and, indeed, sufferers of these conditions frequently also receive a co-morbid diagnosis of clinical depression).

The study involved 8,927 participants of whom 1,728 had received a diagnosis of major depression. This allowed the researchers to compare the brains of the depressed individuals with the brains of the healthy individuals using data that had been obtained using a brain scanning technique technique known as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Of the depressed individuals, 65 per cent had recurrent depression and it was this subset of the depressed individuals who were found to have shrunken hippocampi (those participants who were experiencing their FIRST depressive episode had hippocampi which were of normal size).

IMPLICATIONS OF THE ABOVE FINDINGS :

As the researchers pointed out, these findings suggest that it is the depression which causes the damage to the hippocampus, rather than the other way around and this discovery helps to emphasize how important it is to commence treatment for depression at the earliest possible opportunity, especially in teenagers and young adults whose brains may be more susceptible to physical damage due to their greater plasticity when compared to the brains of adults, in order to prevent such organic damage to the brain from occurring.

Indeed, the researchers. underlining this point, drew attention to the fact that the longer depression goes on, and the more depressive episodes an individual suffers, the greater the reduction in size of that individual’s hippocampus is likely to be.

EFFECT OF DAMAGE DONE TO THE HIPPOCAMPUS :

There now exists an increasing body of evidence that one of the functions of the brain’s HIPPOCAMPUS may be the recognition of novelty and it has been theorized that, because, as we saw above, it may be damaged in depressed individuals, particularly those individuals who have suffered long-standing, recurrent depressive episodes, these people may lose the ability to respond to novelty and this loss then contributes significantly to their depressive state. For instance, it helps explain why they may not respond with pleasure to a beautiful sunset (see opening paragraph) and why they are prone to seeing whatever they do as ‘being the same’, by which is meant everything produces the same feelings of flatness, emptiness, meaninglessness ; in short, a state of anhedonia.

THE GOOD NEWS : EVIDENCE THAT THE DAMAGE INCURRED BY THE HIPPOCAMPUS IS REVERSIBLE :

The good news, however, as has already been alluded to above, is that numerous studies have demonstrated that such damage to the brain is, in fact, reversible ; this is due to a quality that the brain possesses known as neuroplasticity (which I have written extensively about in many other articles that I have already published on this site – e.g. see my article about three ways in which the brain is able to repair itself in relation to the damage it has sustained as a result of childhood trauma).

Indeed, one of the leading researchers involved in the study, Hickie, described how the hippocampus was one of the brain regions within which it is known that cells can rapidly generate new connections between themselves (this process is known as neurogenesis, see above) to replace the connections that were lost during the periods of untreated depression.

WHAT KINDS OF TREATMENT DO THE RESEARCHERS INVOLVED IN THE STUDY SUGGEST?

Hickie further states that there is some evidence that medication (antidepressants) protect, to some degree, the hippocampus from shrinking but also stressed the importance of meaningful social interventions as a form of treatment, pointing out that if, when depressed, we simply sit alone in a room and isolate ourselves, failing to interact socially with others, then this lack of social interaction, in itself, is likely to reduce the size of the hippocampus – a good social support system, then, is an extremely important factor to be considered when deciding how best to treat depression.

Furthermore, Hickie states that there is also evidence that treatment using fish oils can be ‘neuroprotective.’

In the case of young people, Hickie suggests that psychotherapy may often be the first-line treatment offered, rather than medication. (N.B. Always consult an appropriately qualified professional when considering medical treatments).

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Related Research : Hippocampal Volume Reduction In Major Depression.

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

BPD, The Love-Hate Relationship And Neuroscience

love=hate

We have seen from several other articles that I have published on this site that one of the hallmarks of borderline personality disorder is the tendency of sufferers of this devastating psychiatric condition to flip suddenly from idealizing / feeling love towards individuals and demonizing / feeling hate towards them (which, of course, is a major reason why BPD sufferers also tend to have severe difficulties with their interpersonal relationships). This tendency is sometimes referred to as ‘SPLITTING.’

Intriguingly, a study (Zeki et al.) carried out at University College, London, may help to elucidate this tendency to suddenly ‘switch’ betwen loving and hating the same person from a neurological perspective (i.e. in terms of brain’s physical organization and biological functioning).

THE STUDY :

The study invoved 17 individuals who had their brain scanned under two conditions :

CONDITION 1 : Brain scans were taken whilst the individuals were looking at photos of people they loved.

CONDITION 2 : Brain scans were taken of the same individuals in Condition 1 whilst they were looking at photos of people the claimed to hate.

NERVOUS CIRCUITS IN THE BRAIN :

Researchers found that some of the brain’s nervous / neural circuits involved in generating feelings of hate are ALSO INVOLVED IN GENERATING FEELINGS OF LOVE.

More specifically :

The region of the brain known as the putaman seems to be activated both when an individual is experiencing feelings of love and when s/he is experiencing feelings of hate including disgust, contempt and aggression.

The region of the brain known as the insula also seems to be activated both when an individual is experiencing feelings of love and when s/he is experiencing feelings of hate,

THE CEREBRAL CORTEX :

Furthermore, research findings suggest that regions of the cerebral cortex are deactivated both when an individual is experiencing feelings of love (the regions deactivated when we are experiencing feelings of love are involved in reasoning and judgment) and also when s/he is experiencing feelings of hate.

However, it should also be noted that fewer regions in this part of the brain are deactivated when the person is experiencing feelings of hate.

This finding may help to explain the neurological underpinnings of the origin of the expression that ‘love is blind’ (i.e. when feeling intense love, all reasoning and judgment tends to go out of the window and we are, to put it colloquially, liable to be led irrationally by the heart rather than rationally by the mind).

Furthermore, the fact that fewer regions of this brain region seem to be deactivated when people experience feeling of hate may be a kind of safely mechanism to prevent them from, for example, resorting to excessive, unnecessary and perhaps, ultimately, self-defeating violence in response to these feelings.

Indeed, the author of the study suggests that the cerebral cortex is less deacivated when people feel hate than it is when people feel love because when they feel hate they need to be able to reason effectively so that they can be sufficiently calculating when it comes to exacting revenge! Such calculation, more relevant to our ancient ancestors, may involve judging if a physical fight could potentially be won and what it would be necessary to do in any such fight to win it – alternatively, it might be necessary to judge whether a violent attack on an opponent will backfire as said opponent is of vastly superior physical strength.

One can, perhaps, tentatively infer from this that evolutionary processes have determined that we are less rational in response to feelings of love than we are in response to feelings of hate.

In any event, it seems the fine line between love and hate, and the propensity, especially in the case of BPD sufferers, to flip suddenly between the two has a neurological basis.

RESOURCE :

Increase Your Emotional Intelligence | Self Hypnosis Downloads.

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

Possible Adverse Effects Of Maternal Stress On The Unborn Baby’s Brain Development.

childhood-trauma

A study carried out by Sarkar et al. at Imperial College, University of London and published in the scientific joutnal Clinical Endocrinology suggests that, if a mother is highly stressed during pregnancy, her consequent excessive production of stress hormones may adversely affect the brain development of her unborn child from about seventeen weeks after conception onwards.

THE STUDY :

The study involved 267 women and the researchers measured their levels of the stress hormone known as CORTISOL (which can have damaging effects over the long-term) by taking samples of their blood (levels of cortisol increase in the blood in accordance with increasing levels of stress and anxiety experienced by the individual).

The mothers also had samples of amniotic fluid (a protective fluid that surrounds the fetus and also facilitates the exchange of water, nutrients and biochemical products between the mother and the unborn child) taken.

It was found that mothers with high levels of cotisol in their blood also had higher than normal levels of the same hormone in their amniotic fluid (to which, as alluded to above, the unborn child is exposed).

Furthermore, it was found that the longer the mother had been pregnant, the stronger was the positive correlation between the levels of cortisol in her blood and the level of cortisol in the amniotic fluid.

This, in turn, suggests that the longer the mother has been pregnant (i.e. as the gestational age of the unborn child increases) the more he or she (i.e. the unborn baby) is likely to be adversely affected by excessive cortisol levels.

It should be noted, however, that further research is needed to clarify how high the mother’s cotisol levels need to be to present the unborn child with a significant risk of potential harm.

WHAT IS THE POTENTIAL HARM THAT MAY BE DONE TO THE DEVELOPING CHILD BY HIGH CORTISOL LEVELS?

Such potential harm may include a lowering of the developing child’s potential I.Q. by about 10 points (Glover), an increased likelihood of developing attentional deficits and a greater susceptibility to experience anxiety in later life (although, again, further research is needed in order to investigate these possibilies more fully).

CONCLUSION :

From the above findings, it is possible to conclude that high levels of maternal stress may start to adversely affect the unborn child’s development from as early as a gestational age of 17 weeks and that this danger increases as the unborn child’s gestational age increases. It is therefore very important that the mother-to-be is ptovided with good emotional support during pregnancy, including sensitive treatment by employees.

You may also be interested to read my related articles :

Enjoy a Positive Pregnancy | Self Hypnosis Downloads

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

A Week’s Neurofeedback Equivalent To Years Of Zen Meditation

We have seen from many other articles that I have published on this site that those who have suffered significant and protracted childhood trauma are more likely than average to suffer mental health problems in later life, including anxiety (click here to read my previously published article: Childhood Trauma And Its Link To Adult Anxiety).

We have also seen that one method that many find useful to reduce feelings of anxiety is meditation (for example, see my previously published article: The Brain, Neuroscience And Meditation).

ZEN MEDITATION, ALPHA WAVES AND NEUROFEEDBACK :

 

Above: Individual undergoing a neurofeedback / EEG biofeedback session using a computer program and brain sensors.

According to Buzsaki, Professor of Neuroscience at Rutgers University, Zen meditation needs to be undertaken for years until the person practising it is able to slow the frequency of the brain’s alpha waves and to spread the alpha oscillations more forward to the front of the brain ; slowing these brain waves have many beneficial effects including :

  • reducing fear
  • reducing ‘mind chatter’
  • increasing feelings of calm
  • reduce anxiety
  • reduce feelings of panic

However, Buzaki states that (as alluded to above) whilst it takes years of Zen meditation to optimally alter alpha wave brain activity, the same results can be obtained after a mere week’s training with neurofeedback.    

WHAT IS NEUROFEEDBACK?

Neurofeedback is sometimes also referred to as EEG biofeedback and is a form of technology that helps the individual to learn how to beneficially alter his / her brain waves and it works by operant conditioning.

It is based on the idea that dysregulation of the brain forms the basis of many emotional, cognitive and behavioral problems and, as such, this brain dysregulation needs to be corrected.

N.B. Neurofeedback should only be carried out under the supervision of an appropriately qualified and experienced person.

 

RELATED ARTICLE:

Childhood Trauma Leading To  An Over-dominant Brain Stem.

 

eBook :

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Above eBook : How Childhood Trauma Can Physically Damage The Developing Brain (And How These Effects Can Be Reversed). Click HERE  for further details.

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

 

PTSD And Physically Evaluating The Brain

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and complex posttraumatic stress disorder (complex PTSD) can both be considered forms of brain INJURY even though the cause of the injury is extreme psychological trauma rather than a physical trauma such as a blow to the head with a hammer or car accident.

However, when psychiatrists treat PTSD with drugs, they do so, in the vast majority of cases, without looking at the organ they are treating (i.e. the brain), unlike, say, a cardiologist, who would not consider treating the heart without, first, physically evaluating it.

In relation to this, the psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Amen stresses the importance that, before prescribing psychoactive drugs in patients suffering from PTSD (and other disorders), it is vital that the patient’s brain is physically evaluated in order to help ascertain in what ways it may be behaving sub-optimally ; he argues that such physical evaluations of the brain would reduce the amount of guess work psychiatrists (who do not examine the brain) must currently employ when prescribing medications intended to beneficially alter brain function and thus ameliorate the patient’s particular symptoms.

The method Amen recommends for physically evaluating what is going on in the brains of patients seeking therapeutic intervention for their particular condition is called SPECT (Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography) imaging.

What Information Does SPECT Imaging Provide About The Brain?

SPECT imaging measures blood flow in the brain and, because this blood flow reflects brain activity, it provides three important preces of information about the brain’s functionality ; these are :

  1. Areas of the brain that are functioning well.
  2. Areas of the brain that are overactive.
  3. Areas of the brain that are underactive.

Armed with this information, Amen argues, the psychiatrist who makes use of SPECT imaging is in a much stronger position to tailor his / her treatment to the specific needs of the individual based upon the results of this imaging technique, whereas the psychiatrist who does not physically evaluate the brain in such a manner is forced to merely speculate what is happening in the patient’s brain, thus making his / her decisions about which psychoactive drugs need to be administered less informed and, potentially, therefore, less effective.

eBook :

childhood-trauma-brain

Above eBook now available for instant download from Amazon. Click here for further information.

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