A few weeks ago I went to hear Janine D’Anniballe, PhD present on the neurobiology of trauma. As you know, there is a continual stream of new news about our brain and how it functions. One colleague remarked that at this rate psychiatrists will be out of business, replaced by neurologists and dare I say “mindfulness workers”? Indeed, it’s no longer “what if”. The data is in — we’ve got the evidence.
So whether you’re clinical area of interest is trauma, addiction, obesity, pain, personality disorders or child development, we are now consumed with where we light up or go dark in the deepest recesses of the our brain, the chemical compounds released in our sympathic nervous system with names like oxytocin (sound somewhat familiar?) and how it all impacts our emotions, cognition, behaviors, and ultimately, our prognosis.
Fueled by technology, growth and development in every sector today is exponential, but in brain science it’s dazzling. There is so much more we know now beyond the initial big discoveries — that the brain itself develops into our twenties, the key role dopamine plays in regulating alertness and motivation, and that low serotonin levels are correlated with depression.
So following this extensive and extremely energetic presentation, I found myself pondering a few things:
- That the tiny amygdala (size and shape of an almond) which is part of the primitive limbic system stores our memories of fearful experiences, regulates heart rate and blood pressure, and activates our fight, flight or freeze response, is happily connected to our frontal cortex whose job it is to inhibit our stress responses, but sadly shrinks (literally) in the face of PTSD;
- That pro-longed stress set us up for exposure to adrenal steroids among other things, resulting in cognitive impairment and auto immune disorders, ala the indisputable mind/body connection.
- And that whether this damage is permanent is still being debated.
But on to the good news:
- That oxytocin and other brain chemicals are linked to bonding and relationships making for strong attachments;
- That strong attachments actually rewire the frontal cortex to the limbic system to mediate our emotional response;
- That ‘making decisions’ develops the frontal cortex, thus involving our clients in their case planning is growing their brains;
- That while controversial, a comprehensive pediatric review suggests that in severe cases, the benefits of anti-depressant use outweighs the risks;
- That ‘neurobics’ exercises your brain, by doing something as simple as using more than one of your senses at a time in an everyday task. Try getting dressed with your eyes closed – a small price to pay for the different color socks;
- That touch lowers cortisol and increases limbic bonding – and that includes animals (wag-wag). And it was suggested that as a clinician, you’d provide a lot more therapeutic benefit to your client by arranging for a massage vs. sitting and talking, despite your skill and good intent.
- And then there is all the rest. Practicing mindfulness thickens the cortex and restores synapses; yoga improves heart-rate variability and manages stress; exercise rebalances melatonin, releases endorphins, promotes tryptophan – making you a generally nicer person to be around; in sleep dopamine and serotonin rise; and eat well because the brain reads a drop in blood sugar as “danger” and produces adrenaline, which can exacerbate mood swings, feelings of panic and anger.
So now that we’re seeing all of this activity in the brain and putting it together with behavior, training is on the rise, as are some mobile apps for home use. Health insurance? The final frontier?
I’d like to know, is there something in the new brain science that is rocking your world? If so, please share it here.
~ Melanie Goodman