Tag Archives: Adult Brain

The Stars Like Grains Of Sand

There’s a very good chance, if the doctor to whom I’ve been talking for the last little while, that autism and autism spectrum disorders like learning disabilities and Asperger’s Syndrome aren’t caused only by genetic factors.

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Picture courtesy of autism.lovetoknow.com

Dr. Robert Melillo, founder of the  Brain Balance Achievement Centers, an internationally recognized expert on Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and author of the recent book,  Autism: The Scientific Truth About Preventing, Diagnosing, and Treating Autism Spectrum Disorders–and What Parents Can Do Now, stressed that people with an ASD must have a genetic predisposition. That is, the genes that can cause ASDs are there in the person’s body, but it’s a whole host of environmental factors that actually triggers the disease process.

One very important environmental trigger, he said, is stress in parents. Not just job-stress, but a more pervasive stressed caused by constant activation of the body’s sympathetic nervous system, or the flight or fight response. This stress, he said, not only causes inflammation in the parents’ bodies, which certainly isn’t good, but it also can change how their genes work without changing the actual genetic code.

When our bran and body are active and we’re healthy, our brain inhibits our fight or flight system in our body, what’s called the sympathetic nervous system,” he said. “If our body is working correctly, the stress levels go down. It lets us sleep better and eat better and we keep our stress response very low.”

The problem with that stress response, Melillo said, is that it can produce hormones which interacts with already extant genes, which then can cause a diminished cognitive response.

“If the adult has increased stress hormones, which can mask the effect of the gene for brain activiey, it doesn’t affect you much since the adult brain is already mostly already formed,” he said. “But if you pass that along in a turned-off position to your child, it will have a major impact.”

That, Melillo said, is from where the increase in ASD diagnoses is coming, a stressed-out population constantly teetering on the verge of flight or fight.

Sounds pretty horrible, actually. Still, all that bit is really some pretty good news. Which is that, if one of the major causes of ASD manifestation is parental stress and other environmental factors making an impact on the parents, there is every possibility that ASDs can be, if not cured, then severely ameliorated, Melillo said.

“One of the reasons I wrote the book is that most people are completely unaware that you can prevent it,” he said, speaking about his first book on the subject, Disconnected Kids: The Groundbreaking Brain Balance Program for Children with Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, and Other Neurological Disorders.

So there are things parents can do to reduce the risk of having an ASD child, as well as, according to Dr. Melillo, reduce the impact of an ASD on a child already on the spectrum. Still, I wondered, are there certain types of people who might be more inclined than others to having a child on the spectrum?

As it turns out, yes, there are. And I’ll be back on Tuesday with out last post on Dr. Melillo and autism to tell you dudes about it.

 

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Freaky Friday: Teenage Brains

by Richard

We’re going to close out science week with a look at teenage brains, thanks to the fine folks over at National Geographic magazine. No, sorry, dude, I have no idea why National Geographic is talking about brains instead of mountains and suchlike.

Or naked tribeswomen. What? That was a big part of the allure of the magazine lo these many years ago.

One guess I’ve got on why the dudes at the magazine are focusing on brains is that the fellows at the National Geographic tv channel are running a big special on brains starting this Sunday (Oct. 9 for the date impaired). Nah. Cross promotion probably has nothing to do with it.

Anyway, back to the article. While it’s beautiful to look at, coming as it does from photographic champ National Geographic, the ground it covers isn’t all that new. Basically, the magazine is looking at stuff we’ve talked about on this site before.

Teenage brains aren’t done, they’re more like works in progress. Thanks to advances in medical imaging techniques, we’re able to look inside those scarily moody teenage brains and watch the thinking bits at work. We can then compare them to adult brains and see how the teenage brain is in the process of winnowing out connections that don’t work, or don’t work well enough, and establishing connections between neurons that more simply help it do the work it needs to do.

This is an ongoing process, one that doesn’t finally complete until well into the teen dude and dudette’s early 20’s. Not only that, the article says, but teens also are more prone to taking risks that adult dudes would shy away from. Basically that’s all up to dopamine, one of the brain’s key neurotransmitters that has to do with pleasure and risk-seeking behavior.

When (brain) development proceeds normally, we get better at balancing impulse, desire, goals, self-interest, rules, ethics, and even altruism, generating behavior that is more complex and, sometimes at least, more sensible. But at times, and especially at first, the brain does this work clumsily. It’s hard to get all those new cogs to mesh.

Which is why teenagers often do things that, to them, seem perfectly sensible, but to outside observers (read, parents) seems like screamingly, hair-raisingly dangerous and stupid.

Even as brain function develops, it doesn’t do so on a smooth path. There’s tons of stops and starts, screeches into reverse, and all sorts of jaggedy movement. Just so you understand why your teenage dude was a pleasure to be with at breakfast, but by lunch it was all you could do not to strap him to his chair with duct tape and call the exorcist.

Teenage brains: Cthulhu ain’t got nothing on them.

Go. Read. May it bring you comfort that you’re not alone and that there really is a reason for it.

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Freaky Friday: Imps In My Mind

There’s a nice looking girl across the bar. You saunter up, elbow onto the bar and lean in close to give her your best line. That’s when you see the enormous mole on the left side of her nose. You try not to stare. It’s no big deal, right? The rest of her is pretty good, right? You decide to give it a try anyway. Just don’t mention the mole.

“Hi,” you say. “My name’s Carl. What’s your mole? Name! I meant name! What’s your name?”

But it’s too late. She gives you one glance full of withering contempt and stalks off into the darkness at the far end of the bar.

What the heck just happened? You told yourself to avoid talking about the mole, yet you did it anyway. Take comfort. You’re not alone. According to a scientific paper published last week in the journal Science, it’s a common phenomenon.

“There are all kinds of pitfalls in social life, everywhere we look; not just errors but worst possible errors come to mind, and they come to mind easily,” said the paper’s author, Daniel M. Wegner, a psychologist at Harvard. “And having the worst thing come to mind, in some circumstances, might increase the likelihood that it will happen.”

At a fundamental level, functioning socially means mastering one’s impulses. The adult brain expends at least as much energy on inhibition as on action, some studies suggest, and mental health relies on abiding strategies to ignore or suppress deeply disturbing thoughts — of one’s own inevitable death, for example. These strategies are general, subconscious or semiconscious psychological programs that usually run on automatic pilot.

Perverse impulses seem to arise when people focus intensely on avoiding specific errors or taboos. The theory is straightforward: to avoid blurting out that a colleague is a raging hypocrite, the brain must first imagine just that; the very presence of that catastrophic insult, in turn, increases the odds that the brain will spit it out.

Oddly, even little kids have figured this out. A friend of Speed Racer’s once told me that whenever people in a room stop talking, someone will be thinking about Abraham Lincoln. I said that sounded pretty unlikely. Then she responded: “Well, now it’s going to happen because you’ll be thinking of Abraham Lincoln.” And you know what? She was right.

Being told, even by yourself, not to think about something increases the odds that you’ll think about it. It’s something heavy drinkers and smokers who are trying to quit know all too well. The effort to squelch a longing for a smoke or a drink can bring to mind all the reasons to break the habit; at the same time, the desire seemingly gets stronger.

So that’s something to think about the next time we tell our little dudes not to think about that delicious, sugar-coated gut bomb of a cereal that’s in the aisle of the grocery store you’ve just finished walking. Maybe we can tell them about Abraham Lincoln?

Oh yeah, I also need to say happy birthday to probably the greatest father-in-law ever, Nick Cimmento. Hi birthday is today, one day after Zippy the Monkey Boy’s birthday and we love it. We get to have a two-day celebration and that’s fun. Nick is a warm, wonderful man who knows more about cooking than I’ll ever be able to learn. He’s also one of the kindest men I’ve ever met. I won the in-law sweepstakes when I got Nick as a father-in-law. I hope he’s around for a long, long time.

— Richard

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