Brain Molecular Connections in Neurodevelopmental Disorders: The Interventions

With the findings from the latest local and international research cited in our previous post, it is without a doubt that there would be a direct intervention that could bridge and ultimately correct the molecular genetic brain protein aberrations and eliminate neuronal misfiring. Current methods available however continue to border on the traditional drug therapies, behavioral therapies, and recently, an upsurge for use of adjunct and alternative therapies.

Just like any treatment however, we STRONGLY recommend to check with your physician or medical professional before embarking on any therapy or regimen. In spite of efficacy studies on these treatments, results may vary from person to person.

Adjunct therapies for neurodevelopmental disorders range from lifestyle changes to alternative therapies and diet manipulation. According to the Autism Centre in the UK, published information in 2009 suggests that a Magnesium deficiency in the electroyte serum, resulting from a magnesium deficient diet, or a diet high in sugar, salt, and saturated fats, can have an effect on neural efficiency- neuronal homeostasis-, leading to conditions on the Autism Spectrum Disorder. In view of this apparent relationship there is justification to consider supplementing the diet of newly pregnant mothers and those contemplating pregnancy with easily digestible magnesium compounds where deficient. It is in the same relationship that folic acid supplementation is proven to be efficient in reducing neural tube defects.

Other Adjunct Therapies, also called Complimentary and Alternative Therapies by the University of Maryland Medical Center, recommend Diets, Vitamins and Minerals, and even Herbs have been seen to alleviate Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity in children alongside the traditional Drug Therapies.

The Medical Center discusses in detail the different dietary options people with neurodevelopmental disorders may try, including the Feingold diet. The Feingold diet was developed in the 1970s by Benjamin Feingold. He believed that artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives, as well as naturally-occurring salicylates (chemicals similar to aspirin that are found in many fruits and vegetables), were a major cause of hyperactive behavior and learning disabilities in children. Studies examining the diet’s effect have been mixed. Most show no benefit, although there is some evidence that salicylates may play a role in hyperactivity in a small number of children.

Other dietary therapies may concentrate on eating foods that are high in protein and complex carbohydrates, and eliminating sugar and artificial sweeteners from the diet. One study found increased hyperactivity among children after eating foods with artificial food coloring and additives. However, there are no conclusive studies show no relation between sugar and ADHD as there were results that children whose diets were high in sugar or artificial sweeteners behaved no differently than children whose diets were free of these substances. This was true even among children whose parents described them as having a sensitivity to sugar.  However, there are some researchers believe that chronic excessive sugar intake leads to alterations in brain signaling, which would contribute to the symptoms associated with ADHD.

Some of Vitamins and Minerals recommended by The University of Maryland Medical Center:

Magnesium (200 mg per day) — Symptoms of magnesium deficiency include irritability, decreased attention span, and mental confusion. Some experts believe that children with ADHD may be showing the effects of mild magnesium deficiency. In one preliminary study of 75 magnesium-deficient children with ADHD, those who received magnesium supplements showed an improvement in behavior compared to those who did not receive the supplements. Too much magnesium can be dangerous and magnesium can interfere with certain medications, including antibiotics and blood pressure medications.

Vitamin B6 — Adequate levels of vitamin B6 are needed for the body to make and use brain chemicals, including serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, the chemicals affected in children with ADHD. One preliminary study found that B6 pyridoxine was slightly more effective than Ritalin in improving behavior among hyperactive children. However, the study used a high dose of B6, which could cause nerve damage (although none occurred in the study). Other studies have shown that B6 has no effect on behavior.

Zinc (35 mg per day) — Zinc regulates the activity of brain chemicals, fatty acids, and melatonin, all of which are related to behavior. Several studies show that zinc may help improve behavior, slightly.

Essential fatty acids — Fatty acids, such as those found in fish and fish oil (omega-3 fatty acids) and evening primrose oil (omega-6 fatty acids), are “good fats” that play a key role in normal brain function. The results of studies are mixed, but research continues. Omega-3 fatty acids are also good for heart health in adults, but high doses may increase the risk of bleeding.

L-carnitine — L-carnitine is formed from an amino acid and helps cells in the body produce energy. One study found that 54% of a group of boys with ADHD showed improvement in behavior when taking L-carnitine, but more research is needed to confirm any benefit. Because L-carnitine has not been studied for safety in children, talk to your doctor before giving a child L-carnitine. L-carnitine may make symptoms of hypothyroid worse, and may increase the risk of seizures in people who have had seizures before.

Recommending herbs for ADHD may help strengthen and tone the body’s systems. As per the University of Maryland Medical Center Resource Center,  the use of herbs as dried extracts (capsules, powders, teas), glycerites (glycerine extracts), or tinctures (alcohol extracts). Unless otherwise indicated, make teas with 1 tsp. herb per cup of hot water. Steep covered 5 – 10 minutes for leaf or flowers, and 10 – 20 minutes for roots. Drink 2 – 4 cups per day. Tinctures alone may be used or in combination as noted.

Several herbal remedies for ADHD are sold in the United States and Europe. Only a handful of scientific studies have investigated whether these herbs improve symptoms of ADHD. Some of the more popular herbs and teas in the United States are as follows (Please note the interactions that the UMMC have indicated below):

  • Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile). Chamomile may cause an allergic reaction in people sensitive to Ragweed. Chamomile may have estrogen-like effects in the body and therefore should be used with caution in people with hormone-related conditions, such as breast, uterine, or ovarian cancers, or endometriosis. Chamomile can also interact with certain medications.
  • Valerian (Valerian officinalis). Valerian can potentially interact with certain medications. Since valerian can induce drowsiness, it may interact with sedative medications.
  • Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis). Lemon balm may interact with sedative medications.
  • Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata). Passionflower may interact with sedative medications.

Other herbs commonly contained in botanical remedies for ADHD include:

  • Gingko (Gingko biloba) — used to improve memory and mental sharpness. Gingko needs to be used with caution in patients with a history of diabetes, seizures, infertility, and bleeding disorders. Gingko can interact with many different medications, including but not limited to, blood-thinning medications.
  • American ginseng (Panax quinquefolium) and gingko — One study suggests that gingko in combination with ginseng may improve symptoms of ADHD. American ginseng should be used with caution in patients with a history of diabetes, hormone-sensitive conditions, insomnia, or schizophrenia. It can interact with several medications, including but not limited to, blood-thinning medications.

Relaxation techniques and massage can reduce anxiety and activity levels in children and teens. It was determined in one study that teenage boys with ADHD who received 15 minutes of massage for 10 consecutive school days showed significant improvement in behavior and concentration compared to those who were guided in progressive muscle relaxation for the same duration of time.

Also in a study of 43 children with ADHD, those who received an individualized homeopathic remedy showed significant improvement in behavior compared to children who received placebo. The homeopathic remedies found to be most effective included:

  • Stramonium — for children who are fearful, especially at night
  • Cina — for children who are irritable and dislike being touched; whose behavior is physical and aggressive
  • Hyoscyamus niger — for children who have poor impulse control, talk excessively, or act overly exuberant

Brain Molecular Protein Connections in Neurodevelopmental Disorders: The Research

It is not news to us in the field that researchers looking to determine causation of Neurodevelopmental Disorders have zeroed in on Molecular Proteins in the brains. To be specific, these disorders (namely Epilepsy, Intellectual Disability, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) are being hailed as brain-based disorders due to the surging evidence in the last 2 years that indeed, some molecular proteins are atypical in both brain origin and development.

Let’s begin the survey in August 2013 where genetic studies were initiated in large scale. An international study on the genes involved in Epilepsy Disorder had uncovered 25 new mutations on 9 key genes behind a devastating form of epilepsy disorder during childhood. Among those were two genes never before associated with this form of epilepsy. One of these genes previously had been linked to autism and a rare neurological disorder, for which an effective therapy had previously been developed. With the findings of this research, the direction for developing genome-wide diagnostic screens for newborns to identify who is at risk for epilepsy improves potentially development of precise therapies for the condition.

“The limitations of what we currently can do for epilepsy patients are completely overwhelming,” said Daniel Lowenstein, MD, a UCSF neuroscientist and epilepsy expert. Along with Ruben Kuzniecky, MD from New York University, the pair was overseeing the Epilepsy Phenome/Genome Project (EPGP). “More than a third of our patients are not treatable with any medication, so the idea of finding specific drug targets, instead of a drug that just bathes the brain and may cause problems with normal brain function, is very appealing.”

“We knew there was something happening that was unique to these kids, but we had no idea what that was,” said Elliott Sherr, MD, PhD. He a pediatric neurologist at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, and is the principal investigator of the Epi4K Epileptic Encephalopathy (EE) project. He was responsible for the development of this group of the target research patients within EPGP.

The team identified in in their research children with two classic forms of EE – infantile spasms and Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome – in which no other family member was affected. They excluded children who had identifiable causes of epilepsy, such as strokes at birth, which are a known risk for this group of disorders. Of the 4,000 patients whose genomes are being analyzed in the Epi4K, 264 children fit that description. The Epi4K sequencing team, led by David Goldstein, PhD from Duke University ran a genetic scan on the children and their parents.  They compared their scans to thousands of people of similar heritage without epilepsy,  used a cutting-edge new technique called exome sequencing. This method focuses on the exome, which is the 2 percent of our genetic code that represents active, protein-making genes. Those 25,000 genes are considered to be the code for what makes us unique, and is also responsible for disease mutations.

The genetic analysis revealed 439 new mutations in the children, with 181 of the children having at least one. Nine of the genes that hosted those mutations appeared in at least two children with EE and five of those had shown up in previous, smaller EE studies. Of the four other genes included, two may have been coincidental, the researchers found. But two new genes never before associated with EE – known scientifically as GABRB3 and ALG13 – each appeared with less than a one-in-40-billion statistical chance (p = 4.1×10-10) of being connected to EE by coincidence.

The findings implicated GABRB3, for the first time, as a single-gene cause of EE, and offered the strongest evidence to date for the gene’s role in any form of epilepsy, Sherr said. Knowing this about GABRB3, which is also involved with Angelman’s Syndrome, also offers the possibility that children with mutations only in this gene might benefit from the existing therapy for Angelman’s.

Another new gene, ALG13, is key to putting sugars on proteins, which points to a new way of thinking about the causes of and treatment for epilepsy.

‘The take-home is that a lot of these kids have genetic changes that are unique to them,” Sherr said. “Most of these genes have been implicated in these or other epilepsies – others were genes that have never been seen before – but many of the kids have one of these smoking guns.”

From GABRB3 and ALG13 genes in Epilepsy to misfiring neurons in the ADHD brain, the evidence continues to mount on how one size results do not fit all.  In June 2104, Neuroscientists collaborating from the Mayo Clinic in Florida and  rom Aarhus University in Denmark have shed light on why neurons in the brain’s reward system can be miswired, potentially contributing to disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

In their study, scientists looked at dopaminergic neurons, which regulate pleasure, motivation, reward, and cognition, and have been implicated in development of ADHD. Together they unveiled a receptor system that is critical for correct wiring of the dopaminergic brain area during embryonic development. However they also discovered that after brain maturation, a cut in the same receptor, SorCS2, produces a two-chain receptor that induces cell death following damage to the peripheral nervous system.

It is the SorCS2 receptor that functions as a molecular switch between apparently opposing effects in proBDNF. ProBDNF is a neuronal growth factor that helps select cells that are most beneficial to the nervous system, while eliminating those that are less favorable in order to create a finely tuned neuronal network. The reserchers also found that some cells in mice deficient in SorCS2 are unresponsive to proBDNF and have dysfunctional contacts between dopaminergic neurons.

“This miswiring of dopaminergic neurons in mice results in hyperactivity and attention deficits. A number of studies have reported that ADHD patients commonly exhibit miswiring in this brain area, accompanied by altered dopaminergic function. We may now have an explanation as to why ADHD risk genes have been linked to regulation of neuronal growth,” says the study’s senior investigator, Anders Nykjaer, M.D., Ph.D., a neuroscientist at Mayo Clinic in Florida and at Aarhus University in Denmark.

On the other hand, a study published by Cell Press in the October 2014 issue of  The American Journal of Human Genetics shows that Neurodevelopmental Disorders caused by distinct genetic mutations produce similar molecular effects in cells. This suggests a unique perspective in that a one-size-fits-all therapeutic approach could be effective for conditions, ranging from seizures to attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.

“Neurodevelopmental disorders are rare, meaning trying to treat them is not efficient,” says senior study author Carl Ernst of McGill University. “Once we fully define the major common pathways involved, targeting these pathways for treatment becomes a viable option that can affect the largest number of people.”

Ernst and his team used human fetal brain cells to study the molecular effects of reducing the activity of genes that are mutated in two distinct autism-spectrum disorders. Changes in transcription factor 4 (TCF4) cause 18q21 deletion syndrome, which is characterized by intellectual disability and psychiatric problems. Mutations in euchromatic histone methyltransferase 1 (EHMT1) cause similar symptoms in a condition known as 9q34 deletion syndrome.  “Our study suggests that one fundamental cause of disease is that neural stem cells choose to become full brain cells too early. This could affect how they incorporate into cellular networks, for example, leading to the clinical symptoms that we see in kids with these diseases,” Ernst says.

So far, we have learned about breakthroughs in genetic studies in Epilepsy, discoveries of misfiring of neurons in ADHD and in long lasting effects of mutations of certain brain cells leading to Intellectual Disability or psychiatric problems. Now let’s take a closer look at Austism Spectrum Disorder. Would we find some molecular or genetic aberration? Stanford University researchers in December 2014 mapped an entire molecular network of crucial protein interactions that contribute to autism.

While “much work remains to be done,” Dr. Charles Auffray of Université de Lyon who collaborated with the researchers, states this  is “a bold attempt to leverage a number of rich sources of data and knowledge and to complement them with relevant additional measurements to unravel the molecular networks of ASD.”

Though further research is needed to fully understand autism’s origins, this study “contributes to the development of an openly shared methodological framework and tools for data analysis and integration that can be used to explore the complexity underlying many other rare or common diseases,” Auffray said.

In this current study of autism, the scientists did not just look at genes, they also looked at gene expression — the protein interactions — in patients with autism. After they had identified a “protein interaction module,” the researchers sequenced the genomes of 25 patients to confirm its involvement in autism.  They then validated these findings with data from 500 additional patients. In the next step, the team examined gene expression within the module, partly by using the Allen Human Brain Atlas.

It was in this stage that the researchers discovered the brain’s corpus callosum and oligodendrocyte cells  made important contributions to ASD. Developmentally, the oligodendrocyte cells help form myelin, the insulating sheath of brain cells necessary for high velocity nerve conduction. And for patients with autism, for instance, these cells exhibited extensive gene mis‐expression in the corpus callosum, the bundle of nerve fibers connecting left and right brain hemispheres.

The findings from the Stanford University study were not only supported in 2014 by the Heidelberg University but also given more specificity in the mutations not only for those with ASD, but for neurodevelopmental disorders in general.  These German Researchers posited that generally, these disorders are multi-faceted and can lead to intellectual disability, autism spectrum disorder and language impairment. Mutations in the Forkhead box FOXP1 gene have been linked to all these disorders, suggesting that it may play a central role in various cognitive and social processes.

Dysfunction of motor, social, sensory and cognitive aspects play a major role in autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and intellectual disability (ID). A high comorbidity is often observed between these disorders, suggesting that mutations in critical genes can cause a spectrum of neuropsychiatric phenotypes. The Forkhead box transcription factor FOXP1, for example, has been linked to various cognitive disorders. FOXP1-specific deletions, mutations and chromosomal breakpoints interrupting the gene have been reported in patients with Intellectual Disability, Autism Spectrum Disorder, speech and language deficits, and motor development delay.

They were interested to examine the behavioral phenotype of our Foxp1 KO mice, as FOXP1 mutations are associated with various behavioral deficits in humans, including social unattainability, hyperactivity, altered learning and memory, and specific obsessions.Results showed:  Foxp1 KO mice have a reduced ability for short-term recognition memory and memory for spatial contexts, which have been described before in ASD patients and in mouse models of ASD. The effect on spatial memory may be explained by the CA1 hippocampal deficits we observed in Foxp1 KO as the hippocampus is important for spatial memory. The disruption of the striatal region in Foxp1 KO mice may also contribute to the deficits in learning and memory. It has been shown that striatal lesions and infusion of the striatum with a dopaminergic antagonist results in impaired performance in spatial learning tests, while object recognition is impaired by administration of glutamate antagonists to the striatum. Interestingly, the striatum has previously been associated with the pathology of ASD in both mice and humans.

Foxp1 KO mice also displayed a higher occurrence of repetitive behaviours, in accordance with previous findings in mouse models of autism. Repetitive motor behavior is associated with abnormal activation of dopaminergic cortical-basal ganglia circuitry and therefore might partially be explained by the morphological disruption we observed in the striatal region.

They also recorded a striking reduction of social interest  in Foxp1 KO mice. Difficulties communicating and interacting with other people is a key feature of human ASD, and reduced social interaction as well as hyperactivity has been reported in mouse models of ASD before. A strong PPI deficit was observed in Foxp1 KO mice, indicating impaired abilities for sensorimotor integration. Reduced PPI has been previously reported in ASD patients. This effect on PPI in Foxp1 KO mice may be partly explained by the reduction in the striatal region as a cortico-limbic-striatopallidal circuit is involved in the circuit regulating PPI.

Excitatory and inhibitory imbalance is a hallmark brain feature of Autism Spectrum Disorder. Several studies have reported that ASD-related mutations selectively impact glutamatergic or GABAergic synapses without affecting the other, leading to an imbalance of excitatory and inhibitory inputs. WIth their research, they have ultimately shown that the amplitude of miniature excitatory postsynaptic currents but not miniature inhibitory postsynaptic currents is larger in Foxp1 KO CA1 hippocampal neurons. This suggests that  Foxp1 KO neurons receive a disproportionate magnitude of excitatory to inhibitory input. In addition, excitability of CA1 pyramidal cells was reduced in Foxp1 KO mice.

With all this information, it is possible to hypothesize that treatment protocol will also change to a more direct, molecular level based on the genetic misfiring or aberration. In the next post, we will discuss the current therapeutic interventions available for these disorders.

You Need Education, not Motivation

Your hand swings up from your side to grab your phone and shut off the music. It was your favorite song, now you hate it. “What was I thinking? A good song isn’t going to miraculously give me the energy to get up and out of this bed.” It’s 7:00; time to wake up. Actually already later than the time you should be getting up. Yet, you simply just can’t. You set the timer on your phone. 3 minutes. Because maybe in three minutes you’ll have the motivation to rise up and face the day. You roll back over, knowing full well it is wishful thinking. Hey… at least it’s 3 more minutes of delaying the inevitable.
Neuroplasticity, for all its positive attributes, has a dark side in the form of bad habits, monotonous routines, and personal, motivation1professional ruts to name a few.  Maybe it’s motivation to get up in the morning and go to work, or  spend time with friends, or go to the gym. Perhaps you feel stuck in a bad habit like an unhealthy relationship or smoking or drinking more than you should. Often times when these dark forms take over your life, they do so at such a slow, sneaky pace, you fail to notice until a friend makes a comment about your mood, behavior, health, or weight. You immediately jump to your own defense; however, later you take a long hard look into a literal or figurative mirror and a wave of panic and self-realization washes over you: she was right. Your mind flips and begins scanning for solutions to this problem. You select the only answer that could possible explain how you have landed in this inexcusable place: You have NO motivation. Obviously this is the problem.

But, what is motivation? Why is it not always the answer?

Motivation can be defined as “the act or process of giving someone a reason for doing something” Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Therefore, it is easy to assume that people need motivation in order to make a change, since typically people don’t change without a reason. Reasons may include a health scare, vanity, sick or being sick and tired of being sick and tired. Why even with reasons pushing people to change, is change still so difficult? Let’s take a look at what is happening in the brain when people are motivated. A study conducted by Mathias Pessiglione and a team of researchers at INSERM, found that the  ventral striatum was a general motivational system in the depths of the brain. The ventral striatum was activated during both physical and cognitive activities when participants were incentivized or motivated 2000px-Dopamine_pathways.svgwith money. Additionally, the level of activation showed a positive correlation with increased incentives. This essentially means the more motivating the reward, the more the ventral striatum was activated.  However, further studies have shown the involvement of dopamine in motivation is quite complex. Dopamine is released into the nucleus accumbens when people have near-successes as well as when they are successful–this occurrence plays a role in addiction.  Additionally, the nucleus accumbens is activated when people are motivated to avoid unpleasant experiences as well. Now let’s add one more blockade to our motivation to change. Researchers at CalTech and UCLA learned that different areas in the brain are activated when people are thinking about how to do something than when they are thinking about why they are doing something. Additionally, the areas in the brain do no appear to fire simultaneously and actually have shown a negative correlation in activity. In short, you need more than motivation to make a change.

Not having motivation and knowing this, is one step closer to change, however; relying on the factors that supposedly will motivate you to change may lead you nowhere except down the same path. If you focus too much on the how, the brain cannot   move onto the why; if you focus too much on the why, the brain cannot plan the how. Furthermore, the mere talking, thinking or move towards change may be enough change for dopamine release and an activated nucleus accumbens, which in your brain is enough to lead to a sense of satisfaction.

“If someone is going down the wrong road, he doesn’t need motivation to speed him up. What he needs is education to turn him around.” Jim Rohn

How can you use motivation to change?

The answer is unglamorous and gruesome: you can’t. Change takes more than motivation.  It takes work–cumbersome, agonizing work. You will be miserable, hate your life, those around you and pretty much everything related to the change you are trying to make. In addition, you will begin being haunted by reminders of change. All of this a direct result of the very comfortable habit loop you have essentially disrupted. In other words, the dark side of neuroplasticity.

But here’s the lesson: If you push through and put in the work, motivation will come. It will also sustain the new healthy habit you developed because once the change occurs, dopamine as a reward system will kick in when you engage in that new behavior.  Your brain, body and mind will begin craving the new healthy habits because the synaptic connections are now wiring and firing together in addition to the other positive outcomes gained from the change in behavior. Motivation alone won’t  change your behaviors. Instead, educate yourself on how to change and use those motivating factors to help you persevere to see that change through.

Your hand swings up from your side to grab your phone and shut off the music. It was your favorite song, now you hate it. “What was I thinking? A good song isn’t going to miraculously give me the energy to get up and out of this bed.” It’s 6:00; time to wake up. I really don’t want to, but unless I do, I never will. Change is hard, but I know now it won’t always be this difficult to wake up in the morning. I just need to push through one day at a time and the motivation will come.

The Rollercoaster Ride That is Tolerance (Including Frustration)

The act of being able to tolerate, or imbibe tolerance historically has never been easy to carry over. Either it be willingness to accept feelings, habits, or beliefs that are different from your own definition or the the ability to accept, experience, or survive something harmful or unpleasant definition, there are no guarantees of progressive thoughts of tolerance making formulaic and consistent headway (however having laws in place to guide tolerance in society does help).

Dr. WIlliam Glasser, MD posited ten axioms on human behavior called Choice Theory. The axioms are:

  1. The only person whose behavior we can control is our own.
  2. All we can give another person is information.
  3. All long-lasting psychological problems are relationship problems.
  4. The problem relationship is always part of our present life.
  5. What happened in the past has everything to do with what we are today, but we can only satisfy our basic needs right now and plan to continue satisfying them in the future.
  6. We can only satisfy our needs by satisfying the pictures in our Quality World.
  7. All we do is behave.
  8. All behavior is Total Behavior and is made up of four components: acting, thinking, feeling and physiology.
  9. All Total Behavior is chosen, but we only have direct control over the acting and thinking components. We can only control our feeling and physiology indirectly through how we choose to act and think.
  10. All Total Behavior is designated by verbs and named by the part that is the most recognizable.
What the Daily Grind Can Look Like
What the Daily Grind Can Look Like

Based on these, there is then no cookie-cutter, logical explanation to the rise in overall intra and interpersonal disharmony due to intolerance…unless we consider tracing the frustration explosion phenomena to axiom number 3: ALL LONG-LASTING PSYCHOLOGICAL PROBLEMS ARE RELATIONSHIP PROBLEMS. The inability to communicate one’s thoughts and be heard, the ability to differentiate between being assertive and aggressive, and to tie one’s rights over other’s personal space all blurring the lines of the collective unconscious which is present a form of the unconscious (part of the mind Dr.Carl Jung proposed contained memories and impulses of which the individual is not aware) common to mankind and originating in the inherited structure of the brain.

What then if the collective unconscious has been relegated to crevices of mini mental villages and worlds as the highly technological world is creating biological changes in the apportions of appendages (e.g. functions of the thumb due to device usage) and dysregulated exposure to speed and graphics?

Choice Theory also says in axiom 7: All we do is behave. Behavior is situation and environmentally dependent, a thrive and strive response with surviving as the initial aim and contributing as the end goal. If one is not equipped with the tools to compete in the circles that are surrounding him or her, there is the tendency to withdraw, the flight, fight and freeze phenomenon courtesy of the cerebral Acetylcholine (Ach) all to preserve one’s sanity and self. Behavior is an output, both genuine and malicious. If however there is an aberration of brain function, behavior will also mirror the bizarre processes; the anticipation of learned helplessness via anger or hurt habituates the brain into assuming this is the ‘normal’ state of being.

We don’t need to go to extremes however to be in learned helplessness — being in a job that is meaningless, a relationship that is not working, difficulties with parents or with children — all daily, common struggles experienced by us which push and pull stressors in one’s coping mechanisms. And our eventual responses can range from being on the high frustration tolerance (HFT) or low frustration tolerance (LFT), as per Dr. Windy Dryden, a leading Cognitive Behavior Therapist (CBT) in the United Kingdom.

He says that high frustration tolerance beliefs are rational in that they are again primarily flexible and not grossly exaggerated. These beliefs are expressed in their full form, thus: ‘Failing my college exam would be difficult to tolerate, but I could stand it’. The stronger a person’s unmet preference, the more difficult it would be for her to tolerate this situation, but if the person holds an HFT belief it would still be tolerable. That would mean an HFT belief is consistent with reality, and is logical since it again makes sense in the context of the person’s preference. It is like a preference and an anti-awfulizing belief. Overall, it is constructive since it will help the person take effective action if the negative event that is being faced can be changed and it will encourage the person to make a healthy adjustment if the situation cannot be changed. HFT displays often are celebrated in Olympians, in academicians, or in service above and beyond required expectations of job descriptions.

Low frustration tolerance beliefs, on the other hand, are irrational in the sense that they are first and foremost grossly exaggerated. They are couched in such statements as ‘I can’t stand it. ‘I can’t bear it., ‘It’s intolerable. When a person has a low frustration tolerance belief, it means one of two things: (i) the person will disintegrate or (ii) the person will never experience any happiness again. Since these two statements are obviously untrue, an LFT belief is inconsistent with reality.

Even Dogs Do It....
Even Dogs Do It….

It is also illogical since it is a nonsensical conclusion from the person’s implicit rational belief (e.g. ‘Because it would be very bad if I failed my college exam, I couldn’t stand it if I did fail’). Finally, like musts and awfulizing beliefs, it is unconstructive since it will interfere with the person taking effective action if the negative event that the person is facing can be changed and it will stop the person from making a healthy adjustment if the situation cannot be changed. Extreme examples of LFT displays end up in news headlines: aggression by the bullied, the angry, the fundamentalists.

If we brought these concepts of frustration to Education, we would refer to a recent graduate study by April Vian in 2012 from Kaplan University that looked at,  “Teacher Frustration Tolerance and Disruptive Behavior of Special Education Students.” Teachers completed the Munich Personality Test with its measure of general frustration tolerance and a survey designed for this study of frustration tolerance for special education students. Results demonstrated negative correlations between teachers’ general frustration tolerance and numbers of student discipline incidents among both general and special education children. Results also indicated that teachers found specific disabilities to be more frustrating than others and that frustration tolerance of certain disabilities may predict numbers of discipline incidents for these children.

Ultimately, the direction of the correlation was the inverse, with teachers having the greatest frustration tolerance for special education students also evidencing the greatest numbers of discipline incidents among these students. Among several explanations considered by the researcher, it was suggested that the school administrator in the facility where this study occurred was aware of teachers’ with high levels of frustration tolerance for special education students and thus assigned the most difficult students to these teachers. These lead teachers to have the greatest number of associated discipline incidents among special education students.

Knowing how neurotransmitters are affected by bodily and emotional processes, it is then no surprise that levels of frustration can be influenced by these as well. As the focus in brain training is on strengthening the Pre-Frontal Cortex and Executive Functioning Skills, there also needs to be a heightened awareness for the environmental expectations to not demand more than what the developmental brain can muster, including in ourselves. Irrational beliefs usually stem from irrational or negative emotions that have been learned over time, over habitual exposure to situations that an individual deems impossible to control or comprehend, natural or society-caused.

Humor Always Helps
Humor Always Helps

Education, Meet Neuro

Careers in Education span from being a one to one teaching assistant, which may or may not require education beyond high school, to holding a doctorate in education with the hopes of changing policy, running a school or teaching future teachers at prestigious universities. The paths to becoming an educator therefore, are as multi-faceted–ranging from the vocational training as a one to one teaching assistant to trial by fire  in teacher-certification or principal training programs. Arts_Education_KoreaLogoMany who enter the field, hold the ideals of wanting to change the world and to contribute to the education of the future generation; however, many of those same inviduals leave the field after a long and albeit arduous career,  with little to no passion for the profession they entered or beliefs they had about changing the world.

Why the phenomenon? Our colleagues have narrowed it down to the lack of support overall, both in background preparation and in workplace coaching. No one from either area really says flat out to a teacher-to-be, guess what, your classroom is a mini neighborhood, and you are expected to be town policeman, mayor, judge and parent. Maybe it is time to add therapist and neurologist to this list; skills possessed by these individuals may actually benefit an educator’s craft.

Currently, the majority of the programs that prepare our teachers discuss education theory, history and pedagogy. Many programs have teachers spend an entire semester creating a unit plan of about 5 lessons, when in reality many teachers need to create multiple lessons for multiple grades or multiple subjects in any given day. In addition, they teach to learners ranging from gifted and talented to those struggling to learn–classified, diagnosed or otherwise.

If schools of education added a fraction of the courses required to graduate with a degree in a related therapeutic service, psychologist and neurologist, perhaps it would not only change the approach taken to teaching, but also preserve the mentality educators have at the beginning of the field when they finally leave the field. An even greater outcome is teachers would change the world, at least the world for the children who they had the privilege of teaching. This is the potential of neuropedagogy. Neuropedagogy Synthesis

Neuropedagogy blends psychology, neuropsychology, neuroscience, school psychology, educational neuroscience and pedagogy into one, which results in a more complete understanding of the whole child in regards how children learn, how the brain functions and the role emotions play in both. Essentially, neuropedagogy explores the brain, body and mind of a child and takes all into account when teaching in a classroom.  However, the first step in teaching from a neuropedagogical point of view is to understand the anatomical brain, the power of neuroplasticity, and what is happening in brains of struggling learners.

Some schools have begun teacher training programs that explore this very notion, Harvard offers a Master’s Degree in Mind, Brain and Education. Courses include: cognitive neuroscience, statistics, educational neuroscience, atypical neurodevelopment, applying cognitive science to learning among other more typical education courses. The Teacher’s College at The University of Columbia offers a Master of Science degree in Neuroscience and Education and the courses are similar to those offered at Harvard. Finally The School of Education at John Hopkins offers a Mind , Brain and Teaching Certificate. The School of Education at John Hopkins has started an entire neuro-education initiative, which aims to inform teaching practices about the the research from neurosciences and how it can positively impact teaching practices. Most likely more programs are out there and gaining steam; however, these programs are all optional specializations in schools of education, not required. Educators or other professionals enrolling in these programs most likely have an understanding and background in the role neuroscience plays in teaching.

It is not enough. This is a fundamental disconnect, which poses  to lead to irreparable damage not only for the United States’s educational system as a whole, but for the ability of students to learn and learn to their optimal potential. Little understanding exists on the long-term effects of technology on developing minds, especially given the rate at which children are exposed to it in the 21st Century. Some doctors like Dr. Gary Small have begun studying the impacts. He has found less than positive outcomes on the development of essential executive functioning skills, which require a developed pre-frontal cortex and access to that cortex in order to employ them. Excessive exposure to technology threatens that entire process. Yet, teachers are expected to teach and children are expected to learn. How?

Teachers (and children for that matter) need to understand the brain and how that brain develops a mind and how both affect the body because all impact how a child learns, thinks, behaves and reacts. Take the Child’s Belief-Desire Reasoning developed by Dr. Henry Wellman, from The University of Michigan.  This complex thought process occurs instantaneously, and provides a glimpse as to why understanding the brain, body and mind is essential to successful teaching.  Child's Belief-Desire Reasoning

Common Core (for better or worse) changed the standards for our children; yet the change occurred before equipping educators with the ability to meet those changes armed with the required knowledge.  An education program would not be approved if they failed to teach lesson planning, educational theory, and areas of specialization–whether early childhood or advanced calculus. Neither should they be approved if they don’t teach teachers about the anatomy of the brain, how it functions, and how children learn.

The challenge therefore is to stop separating education from the very field it uses most. Education, meet Neuro.

The Mental Ability to Always Hope: Priceless

As there is the promise still of a new beginning,  a do-over in the resetting of the previous year, that uplifting feeling and positivity can collectively be described as Hope. Hope is not necessarily the same for everyone; however, at some point every person in the world has experienced the internal dialogue and introspection and pushed the positive thoughts out into the universe hoping on hope. And maybe a mantra some of us call prayer.

From a brain perspective,  hope  is activated and is influenced from the  neurotransmitter Dopamine.

The two specific receptors we will focus on here are D1 and D2 receptors. These receptors assist in the faciitation of the sense of well-being, which we label as hope. These have been implicated, along with oxytocin receptors, in both the maintenance and formation of social pair bonds, respectively. The density of these receptors in an area of the brain called the nucleus accumbens plays an important role in both mating and social bonds. The D2 type receptor is necessary to initially form the pair bond between two monogamous animals.

Hope then based on this study is not only a singular experience,  or a personal experience.  Rather, it’s a  collective biological, mindful collective unconscious that connects from the youngest child to the oldest human.

A study that supports the social aspect of hope was one on primates conducted by Morgan et. al., 2002, Nature Neuroscience. They had singly housed monkey brains scanned for D2 binding capacity (n = 20). Then,  the primates were allowed out of their individual cages for the first time so all the animals were now together, which meant there was an opportunity to create a social hierarchy.

After a stable hierarchy was formed the researchers re-scanned the primates brains. The high ranking animals D2 binding capacity increased by approximately 20% (the authors believe based on rat studies that singly housed animals have a lower than normal D2 levels at baseline, and therefore suggests that falling lower in the social hierarchy would cause a reduction in D2 levels if the animals start at a ‘normal’ baseline), however D2 levels in the low ranking individuals did not change.

In order too see if the changes in D2 levels had a functional effect in these animals, they  offered the addictive drug cocaine to the animals.

The high ranking animals with high D2 levels were resistant to addiction while the low ranking animals with low D2 levels were more  susceptible to addiction. These results are consistent with a large body of additional research that find low D2 levels is related with higher addiction rate.

Can one then be addicted to the feeling of hope or the idea of it?  Can it be strong enough to actually influence the consciousness of one’s mind?

Not directly seems to be the response from the scientific community. Without an external supplement to the dopamine such as cocaine, maintaining the sense of hope to a point of addiction is controlled by the D1-D2 synaptic dance.  The brains ability of course to regulate and maintain biological boundaries.

Efforts to investigate dopamine’s role in addiction and normal biological processes have been complicated by the fact that the nervous system contains multiple kinds of receptor molecules for dopamine as well as different types of nerve cells that use dopamine.

“Research in humans and other species has shown that increased vulnerability to drug addiction correlates with reduced availability of D2 dopamine receptors in a brain region called the striatum,” explains David M. Lovinger, Ph.D., chief of NIAAA’s Laboratory for Integrative Neuroscience. “Furthermore, healthy non-drug-abusing humans that have low levels of the D2 dopamine receptor report more pleasant experiences when taking drugs of abuse.”

On another front,  Quantum mechanics has determined that if you think it, it is.  The thought of hope and the end product of hope are one and the same.

Quantum physics specifically states in the act of observing an object (events, conditions and circumstances) the cause for the thought to be there and the outcome is based only on how we observe it. An object or thought cannot and does not exist independently of its observer.

The Quantum Field is an “Infinite” field of potential. Anything and everything that has, does or will exist, begins as a wave in this field and is transformed into the physical realm, limited only by what can be conceived as truth by the observer.

Following this line of thinking,  one can only hope for an experience that is being craved or an object that has not yet been retrieved.  All within the realm of the subjective experience of what hope looks like to one person: from positive to hope-imagenegative hopes. Antithetical as this may sound,  there’s a reality out there for negative hopes.

That would be best explained with a philosophy of thought called the Theory of Mind.

This theory has roots in philosophy, particularly in the groundwork for a science of the mind laid down by René Descartes (1596–1650). The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1896– 1980) suggested that before the age of 3 or 4 egocentrism prevents children from understanding that other people’s thoughts and viewpoints may differ from their own. And in 1978 Nicholas Humphrey proposed that introspective consciousness has a specific function as it enables social animals to predict each other’s behavior.

Theory of mind is a theory as it is believed one’s mind is not directly observable. The presumption that others have a mind is because each human can only intuit the existence of his/her own mind through introspection, and no one has direct access to the mind of another. It is typically assumed that others have minds by analogy with one’s own, and this assumption is based on the reciprocal nature of social interaction, as observed in joint attention, the functional use of language, and understanding of others’ emotions and actions. Having a theory of mind allows one to attribute thoughts, desires, and intentions to others, to predict or explain their actions, and to posit their intentions.

Without a mind, one would either have negative or no hopes. Someone with a theory of mind (ToM) impairment would be someone having difficulty with perspective taking. This is also sometimes referred to as mind-blindness. This means that individuals with a ToM impairment would have a hard time seeing things from any other perspective than their own. Individuals who experience a theory of mind deficit have difficulty determining the intentions of others, lack understanding of how their behavior affects others, and have a difficult time with social reciprocity.

In the end,  no matter which of these you adhere to, the ability to hope is a truly human faculty. Hopefully if will be one hopeful year for those of you with priceless hope.

Change Your Brain; Change your Life and Keep Your New Year’s Resolution

Is your new year a blank canvas…

With the end of 2014 looming near, and 2015 appearing like a beautiful blank canvas, or dark vacuous black hole, regardless of perspective, resolutions for the new year always emerge. It may be to brush them off and refuse to make even one or to enter the new year with a list of 10 fully intent on keeping every one. Even with the best of intentions, resolutions are difficult to keep because change is hard. It may help to understand why change is so difficult, then steps can be taken in order to counter the brain’s resistance to change and perhaps the realistic resolutions on that list of 10 can be kept.

or a black hole?

It’s now common knowledge that  brains are plastic and have the ability to change. This change is called neuroplasticity Dr. Doidge explains in his book The Brain that Changes Itself that scientists began seeing “if certain ‘parts’ [of the brain] failed, then other parts could sometimes take over.” However, neuroplasticity not only plays a role when areas in the brain are damaged. It is essentially the basis of all hardwired habits: good and bad. The common phrase reads: neurons that fire together wire together. That wiring together forms the near unconscious behavior that often leads to self admonishment or accolades: the mindless hand movement to eat one more fry, even after feeling full, the compulsory turning off the alarm clock to sleep for 9 more minutes, the turning to go to the gym, even after a 10 hour work day, or the grabbing a bottle of water instead of soda when thirst calls.   Therefore, unwiring or unlearning the bad habits and rewiring the good habits will be the ticket to the annual question: How long before the New Year’s Resolution is broken?  A day? A week? Two weeks?  Use the principles of neuroplasticity, and the Charles Duhigg’s Habit Loop and the response may be 12 months, 2 years, forever.

Charles Dughigg’s Habit Loop

Step 1. Identify a craving; this is essentially the reward.

Step 2. Create or uncover a cue, which will lead to Step 3.

Step 3. Establish or change or a routine so the craving/reward is met.

Charles Duhigg calls this The Habit Loop: Cue, Routine, Reward.  When completed consistently over time, neuroplasticity is the result. The neurons firing together during this three-step process, become wired together and the ‘habit’ becomes automatic. The length of time for a new habit to become just that is dependent upon the source. Decades ago, people misinterpreted Dr. Maltz’s 21 days, which has become the most common number, others say repeat a behavior like working out 10 days in a row and it will become a habit. Charles Duhigg stated that his new habit took a few weeks; however he took many weeks to identify the source, test out new routines and so on. Overall, these numbers are a bit liberal. Phillippa Lally at the University of College London, found that it took anywhere from 18 days to 254 days to form a new habit. The average length of time was 66 days for the behavior to become automatic.  Additionally, it was noted that missing a day or two throughout did not negatively impact the formation of a new behavior. What did affect the time to habituate a behavior was the complexity of the behavior, the behavior of the person and additional environmental circumstances.

Going back to New Year’s Resolutions, begin by identifying the bad habits to kick this year or the good habits to begin. That bad habit or good habit is the routine. In order to change that routine, the reward needs to be identified. For example, smoking is a routine; the reward could be socializing with coworkers during a cigarette break,

New Year’s Resolutions are habits in disguise.

taking a break from the job, relaxing. According to Charles Duhigg, it may take some experimenting in order to identify the reward, pick 2-3 possibilities to try. Next find the cue. When does the habit kick in? Is it a specific time? Event? Person? After the cue is identified replace new routines that address the hypothesized reason for the ‘bad habit.’ Afterward, determine if the reward or craving achieved by the bad habit has been achieved with the good one. If so, keep trying it out for a few weeks; if not, try another new routine until the reward has been met.

Once the new routine is ready; a new habit can be formed and the 66, 18 or 254 days or some number in between can begin. Remember, a few missed days here and there does not equate with failure or having to start over.  The brain is plastic and just as neurons take time to wire together, they take time to unwire. Given this information, Charles Duhigg’s few weeks is in fact possible, just not common.

Keeping your New Year’s Resolutions is changing your brain, which can change your life. Deciding to change and taking that first step is the most challenging. People often pick the first day of the New Year to begin, but it is never too early or too late to change. The brain is after all plastic and will change at anytime when the effort is put in. Hopefully that cliché has a little more clarity and the first step will lead to 65 more.

What brain changes will you make this year?

Happy 2015! Here’s to a New Year and a New You.

The Powerful Necessity of TOUCH

Hugs communicate a lot more than you think
Hugs communicate a lot more than you think

If you live in a metropolitan area, chances are you have had the pleasure of using public transportation to get around. Buses or trains, or both, and the many others who accompany you in the journey to and from destinations. In these modes of transport, rush hour can get harrowing; packed like a can of sardines until it wouldn’t even matter if you had a bar to hold on to to maintain your balance. The sheer volume of people in your personal space is enough to keep you stuck wherever you are sitting or standing.

And if this is most human touch you experience per day, that may not be enough. Reason: our brains are wired to be touched.

University of Miami’s Touch Research Institute in early 2014 had done extensive research in the area of human touch.Their results have revealed that human touch has wide-ranging physical and emotional benefits for people of all age groups. In the Institute’s studies, they discovered touch lessened pain, improved pulmonary function, increased growth in infants, lowered blood glucose and improved immune function. Human touch is extremely important for all ages, but by the time children reach their teen years, they receive only half as much touching as they did when they were infants. Adults touch each other even less.

The researchers in Miami also found that touch with moderate pressure stimulates the vagus nerve which is responsible for slowing the heart rate and lowering blood pressure. This produces a state that is relaxed, less closed off, but more attentive. Even the Institute’s medical staff and students that received massages for 15 minutes a day over the course of a month were more accurate and took less time on math performance tests than their counterparts who did not receive massages, more proof that touch also decreases stress hormone function and boosts immune systems.

It is then no surprise to learn of evidence pointing to the levels of aggression and violence among children is related to lack of touching.

Cross species touch speak volumes
Cross species touch speak volumes

Touch Research Institute conducted two separate studies, one with French children and one with American children to determine the degree of touch they received from their parents in relation to displays of aggression. The researchers found that French children received more touching from parents and their peers and were less aggressive than their American counterparts. American children on the contrary had less physical interaction with their parents and tended to touch themselves more than they touched their peers (e.g. playing with hair).

And in 2009,  DePauw University psychologist Matthew Hertenstein studied the person’s ability to interpret emotional content via other non-verbal means with the sensory cortex.  Hertenstein had volunteers attempt to communicate a list of emotions to a blindfolded stranger solely through touch, of which many participants were apprehensive about the experiment. “This is a touch-phobic society,” he says. “We’re not used to touching strangers, or even our friends, necessarily.”

The result? They did touch, all for the benefit of science after all. The results suggest that for all our Pre-Frontal Cortex caution about touching, we are hard-wired with the capacity to send and receive emotional signals solely by touching, one of our sensory systems. Herenstein was surprised at the results, thinking that the results were going to be at a chance level of 25 percent. Instead, participants were able to clearly identify and communicate eight distinct emotions (anger, fear, disgust, love,gratitude, sympathy, happiness, and sadness)  all with accuracy rates as high as 78 percent.

Even for those who suffer from seizures can benefit from therapeutic touch.  Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) such as combining Acupuncture and Massage Therapy have been found to reduce seizures. Results from studies in China and Germany as per the College of Oriental Medicine have also proven to control abnormal brain activity that causes the seizures.

For the rest of us, average touch is relative. There is debate as to how many hugs one is required to receive per day to stay emotionally and mentally healthy — a range from 8-11 per day. And that is something we can all aim for, in spite of the speed we travel, the inconvenience of daily living, and the noise all around us.

Even they know...many hugs a day keeps one healthy!
Even they know…many hugs a day keeps one healthy!

Let’s have the animals teach us how it’s really done.

The University of Florida recently suggested that animals really wanted human contact after all. Lindsay Mehrkam, a University of Florida doctoral student in psychology with psychology professor Nicole Dorey have published a paper in the journal Zoo Biology that examined different types of enrichment preferences specifically in zoo-housed animals. 

For this study, the pair chose three tortoises at the Santa Fe Teaching Zoo in Gainesville, Florida named Larry, Moe and Curly. They were given four choices of keeper interaction: playing with a large rubber ball or under a water sprinkler, or having their shells scrubbed or necks rubbed. The zookeepers had used all of these amenities at least twice a month for several years at the zoo.

The inanimate object and the human were placed on opposite sides of the enclosure while the tortoises were released from the barn and had five minutes to make a choice. Consistently, they chose their human companion over the object!

Mehrkam said, “Not only did they prefer keeper interaction overall compared to the traditional forms of enrichment, but the individual tortoises had preferences for the kind of interaction they wanted. Larry and Curly like having their necks rubbed. Moe liked the shell scrubbing.”

Last Minute Gifting Ideas (And They’ll Love Their Brain) All Year Long!

If you are still on the prowl for illuminating choices in gifts this holiday season, here are some recommendations for all ages, sizes, and brains:

1. The Techie – You can go online and plug them in to Lumosity, Mind360, Brain360 to train the techhie you’re gifting. You can also engage further with systems (Wii and others) and subscribe to Minecraft or Terraria. Or you can gift them the ability to create Code. The Executive Function Skills targeted by these sites are usually indicated except for the console and subscription based games.

Minecraft Game
Minecraft Game

Mind360 site
Mind360 site

Coding Lessons!
Coding Lessons!

2. The Builder – If what you are looking for is a gift for someone who likes to build in 3D, then these items will make their day. The old fashioned LEGO has been morphed into Creators 3-in-1, Architecture, Movie themes, Pop Culture, and yes, even life sized characters! The Japanese store MUJI has also come out with 3D cardboard puzzles of animals that will come in multiple shapes and sizes. Ravensburger puzzles also have come up with their own version of a 3D puzzle using literal classic puzzle pieces to create monuments and other famous landmarks.

LEGO Architecture Series
LEGO Architecture Series

MUJI 3D Animal Puzzles
MUJI 3D Animal Puzzles

 

Ravensberger 3D Puzzles
Ravensberger 3D Puzzles

3. The Mover and Shaker – For the ones who love to use their limbs and reach out as far as they can reach to rhythm that they can truly appreciate, there are Just Dance songs (available free on YouTube) that are ideal for any age, as well as the Just Dance Wii game. For those who like the slow and steady pace, there are yoga or t’ai chi classes, or the Gaiam version on DVD or youtube as well. Still looking for the ultimate brain alternative that won’t include potential try outs for the X-games? Try the book Hands On: How to Use Brain Gym in the Classroom. In this photo-filled book, authors Isabel and Marcelle, who are teachers in the South African school system, have captured the joy of learning through their use of 25 of the Brain Gym activities and 14 of the Vision Gym movements. Another option to Brain Gym would be the program FUNtervals.

Just Dance on YOUTUBE
Just Dance on YOUTUBE

Hands On: Brain Gym
Hands On: Brain Gym

Yoga on DVD
Yoga on DVD

4. The Critical Thinker – And for the one who can’t stop thinking or philosophizing about the world and their future endeavors,  good old fashioned board games which are timeless in their appeal but modern in their evolution would be the perfect gift. Monopoly, for example, has evolved into the modern world and into electronic banking or thematic characters which younger audiences can relate to. Other options are Sequence or Quirkle, and even Critical Thinking Card Games.

Critical Thinking Card Game
Critical Thinking Card Game

Quirkle
Quirkle

Monopoly electronic Banking
Monopoly electronic Banking

5. The Social Butterfly – These are probably some of the easiest people to find gifts for, as anything that will encourage a conversation or a gathering will enhance this person’s day. Supercell games like Hay Day cross over onto the tecchie world and provide planning opportunities. Other options include hosting your very own Jeopardy game. Two person card to board game hybrids like LIfe Stories and Say Anything also encourage opinions and self-awareness.

Life Stories Board Game
Life Stories Board Game

Supercell’s Hay Day App

Say Anything Party Game

6. The Organizer – The one person who can manage to multi-task and juggle many demands on their plate and still manage to derive pleasure in listing and keeping things in their proper place and in complete order. The favorites that come to mind are the Container Store, Ikea, and even Muji. These provide multiple options across many age ranges to enhance their already natural talent. Additionally, some options require assembly, which would target Executive Function Skills such as sustained attention, task persistence and almost guaranteed emotional control.

Container Store Options
Container Store Options

Ikea Storage
Ikea Storage

Color Coded Storage Options
Color Coded Storage Options

7. The Empathizer – For the one always has the lending hand, sensitive ear and time of day to encourage kindness and hope that things will be alright, the options are endless. Here are our top three however: Aromatherapy sets, Relaxation sets, and Spa Retreats. For Aromatherapy, the better options are the ones which use natural oils that do not leave a burnt smell, such as Tisserand. Relaxation sets push the envelope further into the complete sets of a massager, aromatherapy and scented towels. Spa retreats are the best of them all, some that have within city locations while others are packaged with resorts or trips.

Relaxation Sets
Relaxation Sets

Tisserand brand
Tisserand brand

Ultimate Spa Retreats
Ultimate Spa Retreats

8. The Explorer – This is for the restless person, the one who cannot stay still in one place and seeks a new adventure in every free moment (or even within) a task setting. In the hustle of the holidays, there is an overload of places to be within one locale as the best gifts are being scoured for, however there are those gems that your explorer can definitely appreciate you for (faux or real). Games like All Aboard give globetrotters an idea of what to expect. Also Geography in Arts would make a wonderful outlet from the actual walking around to passing a plethora of colors and a variety of paper. And for those who are interested in the backyard exploration up close, there is always the explorer’s scientific kit.

All Aboard Board Game
All Aboard Board Game

Exploring Worlds Through Crafts
Exploring Worlds Through Crafts

The Backyard Explorer Science Kit
The Backyard Explorer Science Kit

9. The Music Maker – For one who has music in their blood and can’t shake the melody off! The gifts for this person need to be nifty and personalized according to the sound preferences, headsets and complete control of the musical atmosphere. Surround sound systems that will not break the bank are always a great option. If they need an upgrade, wireless headphones that are not made for cinema and movies only, and lastly, there’s always the music lessons for short term that could turn into long term.

...to finding the best headphones...
…to finding the best headphones…

From finding the Best Surround sound...
From finding the Best Surround sound…

...to short term music lessons!
…to short term music lessons!

10. The Visionary Artist – Last but not least, the one with the hyperactive imagination from words to images and needs to put them down on the page. These are the ones who dare to dream and think big, much bigger and more complex than what the material world can currently handle or fathom. Art supplies are a necessary staple but not exciting or extraordinary to the artist. So there’s a step above the staple which is taking the artist to a new location of inspiration for them to hone their craft, be it more art classes or a new location in the city they live in. The highest of them all is (if one has the means and connections), is to spend up close and personal time practicing  with idolized artists in action, even if it is the Disney Pixar studio!

Art classes in a different location...
Art classes in a different location…

Art Supplies: A Staple
Art Supplies: A Staple

Disney Pixar Animation: Ultimate Experience!
Disney Pixar Animation: Ultimate Experience!

Really Siri(us) Consciousness

With the invention of instantaneous answers through the swipe of a finger, a press of a button and a question, “Hey Siri… or “Hey Cortana… Who was the the little kid actor in The Never Ending Story?” or “What is happiness?” The act of thinking seems to take a backseat to the final destination of an answer. During this digital age, delayed gratification or the desire to experience the satisfaction of recollection has essentially been lost. While quickly seeking answers to simple questions may not be the beginning of the end, it seems plausible that electronic ‘personal assistants’ who refer to their owners as BFFs (yet can’t define it) will be answering questions like “What is the meaning of life?” or “What is the difference between right and wrong?” in a non-ironic way.

mind vs phone
What can the human mind do that a smartphone can’t?

Examples of consciousness happen nearly everyday, from the person who holds the door open for a stranger or gives up their seat on a crowded train to the thousands of people who protest for justice. The brain is an organ that can be worked out like a muscle and retrained to fall out of unhealthy habits like going to bed too late and into new ones like waking up early to work out. But what is consciousness?  To date, neuroscientists are still seeking to answer this question with little definitive results. Can it be programmed?

No, not yet anyway. Abstract thought coupled with spontaneous, altruistic action still belong to those with a beating heart and a conscious mind. But perhaps it is time to put down the phone, still the fingers and stop and think or ask a friend, rather then Siri, Google or Cortana, for the best restaurant in the city or the name of the song that played at the end of Princess Bride. Perhaps a few seconds or minutes will be lost waiting for an answer, but  connection–with another conscious–will be gained. Because, even though Siri often says it’s not about her. It’s not because she is being a BFF; it’s because there is no ‘conscious’ her. The conscious are the quiet girl at the coffee shop; the happy go lucky child on the swing, the misunderstood homeless man on the subway train or the real BFF who sometimes needs it to be about her as much as it isn’t. It is time for people to look up, open their mouths and speak. It may even be surprising what consciousness has to say.

Sustaining Holiday-esque Happiness Day After Day

The momentum to the last few days the end of the year can only be described as lightning speed. The quick high from lights and decorations everywhere you turn, reasons to be giving and forgiving (including to one’s self), and the songs overplayed and remixed in ways they shouldn’t be are all reminders that the end of the year is going to be here before you know it.

There are those of us who dread the end of the year for the excess, the commercialism, the lack of potentially peaceful relative gatherings, or worse, the dreaded office holiday party with several colleagues one is challenged tolerating every work day.  On a darker note, there are those who are in the constant state of loneliness throughout the year and this bright, loud, and extra hustled time of year pushes their fragile states even further inward, to a place of no physical return in some cases.

The recognizable flicker of your consciousness is about to commence...
The recognizable flicker of your consciousness is about to commence…

Now, stop. Just pause, and stop. There is silence if you don’t try too hard to listen for it. The world can move quickly and hurriedly around you but you are STILL. Just for 2 seconds, then 4, then 8…count up in two’s till you get to 12 and then, exhale to a smile.

You just gave yourself enough mind time to release whatever minuscule irritation, immaterial worry, or insane task load  that was pushing your brain to the brink of emotional amygdala detachment. Do you need another one? Repeat…stop, just pause and stop. Be still for 2 seconds, then 4, then 8…count up in two’s till you get to 12 and then, exhale to a smile.

Be personal to yourself. Make mental notes to yourself as you lift your own consciousness from the recesses of living. Write yourself an air note of happy holidays and great next years, and have resolutions that resolve in minutes and not months. You’d be surprised how much more realistic these promises to yourself as your own person can be.

Branch the material with the immaterial…how did you get here to the end of the year in the first place? Flashback key moments of the year, happy, sad, angry, moments of triumph and heartbreak — those pathways lead you to the very place you are standing in right now.

Reach in, dive in. You aren’t done yet, many compartments of your consciousness are resurfacing. Just because you haven’t seen them before or are seeing them again for the first time in a long time doesn’t make them non-existent. Set them free, 2 seconds at a time, 4, 6, till you get to 12.

Happy holidays have just planted themselves in your consciousness…you took time for yourself just now. Thank you to you. Now resume life a little bit lighter than when you began.

Is it Negative Behavior or ADHD Sensory Overload? An Educator’s Quick Reference

How many times have students been pigeon-holed into the category of displaying bad or negative behavior when opposing class work or during transitions from a state of play or break back to the classroom and vice versa?

When the body appears like this during an overt meltdown:

What May Look Like This May Actually Not Be...
What May Look Like This May Actually Not Be…

The Brain Actually looks like this:

The Amygdala and Hypothalamus Fired Up in Fight or Flight State
The Amygdala and Hypothalamus Fired Up in Fight or Flight State

The Emotional Brain that is highlighted are two specific parts of the limbic system, the amygdala and the hypothalamus. The amygdala controls the brain’s ability to coordinate many responses to emotional stimuli, including endocrine, autonomic, and behavioral responses. Stress, anxiety, and fear are primary stimuli that produce responses. Mediation by the amygdala allows control among the stimuli.

The hypothalamus plays a significant role in the endocrine system and are effected by the amygdala. It is responsible for maintaining your body’s internal balance, which is known as homeostasis. This includes the  heart rate, blood pressure, fluid and electrolyte balance, appetite, sleep cycles and is the key connector between the endocrine system (glands and hormones) and the nervous system.

Now we are painting this picture of the brain developing at a functionally optimal manner; without aberrations from either genetic means or environmental factors. However, when faced with students who have underlying imaging differences in brain imaging due to the said factors and manifest a type of negative behavior that can easily be mistaken and categorized as a regular tantrum, the subtle elevations in amygdala and hypothalamic responses are now pushed to abnormally erratic levels in these brains.

For example, take the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Brain in comparison to the Normal Brain:

We see clearly that the shape alone of the cerebrum of the ADHD brain is not elongated or similar to a normal brain’s saddle

Imaging of the Normal Brain in Contrast to the ADHD brain
Imaging of the Normal Brain in Contrast to the ADHD brain

type shape. It is oblong and with heavy concentration on temporal and occipital real estate versus the butterfly formation of the normal brain. What is also fascinating is the corpus callosum (where part of the amygdala and hypothalamus are housed) is lighter in the ADHD brain. What that means is that there is no clear path of communication between both hemispheres as compared to that of a normal brain. The blues indicate calm sections of the brains and the greens are considered to be the brain in an even keeled state, balanced and not in fight-flight mode.

Here’s also an image of a person with and without ADHD medication:

Brain Chemical Responses with Adderall Versus Without Adderall
Brain Chemical Responses with Adderall Versus Without Adderall

With Adderall, the brain is utilized in full functional capacity, the chemical connections between neurotransmitters is efficient and there are little if any underutilized processing areas. When Adderall is wearing off, the results are unimaginable: the only sections  of the brain that have any residual function left are the orbitofrontal area of the Pre Frontal Cortex (responsible for sensory integration and some decision making), and spotty areas across the 4 lobes. What is fascinating to mention here is the loss of Adderall effects are from back to front of the cerebrum.

These images provide a very clear picture of the typical versus atypical brain, especially the differences between one with ADHD and one without.   If ony it were that easy as a classroom teacher to distinguish a student with ADHD from a student with  sensory overload.  The list below is not as ‘yellow’ and ‘red’ as the brains above, but hopefully it will provide clarity and a concrete direction for you to take in order to best meet the needs of your students.

First, it crucial to note that boys and girls with ADHD display different symptoms; therefore, they are distinguished below.  Second, students with meltdowns as a result of negative behavior, will most likely present with similar symptoms; therefore, it is an undertaking for teachers to take quantitative data on the targeted behaviors. Forms like the one below:

TRUE ABC Chart For Objective DATA Collection
TRUE ABC Chart For Objective 5 Session DATA Collection (click for printable image)

BOYS

  • Fidgety while sitting
  • Talk nonstop
  • Constant motion, may include touching items in their path
  • Difficulty sitting still
  • extreme impatience
  • Always “bored”
  • Lack verbal filter
    Sensory Overload or Negative Behavior?
  • Interrupt others’

GIRLS

  • Spacey
  • Unfocused
  • Inattentive
  • Trouble with organization
  • Forget directions
  • Forget or incomplete homework
  • Lose or misplace papers, books, personal belongings
  • Much Less Likely
    • hyperactive
    • impulsive

For students with ADHD, these symptoms as well as sensory overload meltdowns will be manifested consistently throughout the day across environments, unless the student is highly engaged in a preferred activity. Students presenting with negative behaviors will have meltdowns at specific yet intermittent periods of the day or throughout the day as will be shown in the ABC Chart above. For example, when the medication is wearing off, one may see a spike in ADHD symptoms in any combination. Once you can answer when, where, how long and make valid hypotheses as to why students are displaying the behaviors below, you should be able to have a pretty strong understanding as to whether your student is having a meltdown because of learned negative behaviors or as a result of having an ADHD brain on sensory overload.

Kindergarten Debate: Hand-Writing or Assistive Technology for Students Growing Up in Common Core

Limbic System Development
Limbic System Development

The typical picture of grade to developmental level progression when it comes to fine motor skills suggest that one starts with a four finger grasp before differentiating into pincer, tripod, and lateral pinch finger grasps. Just as gross hand motor skills are expected to be mastered prior to any initiation of fine motor finesse, fine motor skill hierarchy also has a period of latency and skill building.

Upon entry into socialized and organized peer grouping (pre-school), handedness is not yet determined however the traditional methods of encouragement are put in place to prepare the population for Kindergarten. Multi-sensory methods of cream and paint brushes fill the day of positive experiences to encourage the use of both hands in a structured form of expression.

Then Kindergarten begins: less play, more tabletop activities, more periods, and certainly lot more structured writing. A student in this day and age in Kindergarten is expected to be able to write their first and last names neatly, able to write 2-3 sentence essay on pictures that they drew, and be able to color within the lines by the end of the school year by about 80% accurately.

According to the CDC, 5 year old children should be able to perform the following Cognitive Skills below as appropriate to their developmental level:

Cognitive (learning, thinking, problem-solving)
  • Counts 10 or more things
  • Can draw a person with at least 6 body parts
  • Can print some letters or numbers
  • Copies a triangle and other geometric shapes
  • Knows about things used every day, like money and food

According however to Common Core Standards, Kindergarteners should be able to do the following writing tasks:

Kindergarten Writing  Standards

Text Types and Purposes

  • W.K.1. Use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to compose opinion pieces in which they tell a reader the topic or the name of the book they are writing about and state an opinion or preference about the topic or book (e.g., My favorite book is…).
  • W.K.2. Use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to compose informative/explanatory texts in which they name what they are writing about and supply some information about the topic.
  • W.K.3. Use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to narrate a single event or several loosely linked events, tell about the events in the order in which they occurred, and provide a reaction to what happened.

Production and Distribution of Writing

  • W.K.4. (Begins in grade 3)
  • W.K.5. With guidance and support from adults, respond to questions and suggestions from peers and add details to strengthen writing as needed.
  • W.K.6. With guidance and support from adults, explore a variety of digital tools to produce and publish writing, including in collaboration with peers.

Research to Build and Present Knowledge

  • W.K.7. Participate in shared research and writing projects (e.g., explore a number of books by a favorite author and express opinions about them).
  • W.K.8. With guidance and support from adults, recall information from experiences or gather information from provided sources to answer a question.
  • W.K.9. (Begins in grade 4)

Looking at the comparisons from both sectors, it is clear that the demands expected from a Kindergarten child in the classroom are above the cognitive writing capacity developmentally that a 5 year old can handle.

Or is it? Are these realistic expectation from a 5 year old’s sensorimotor system who’s limbic system is connected mainly to the frontotemporal sections of the prefrontal cortex and the Broca’s speech areas with minimal connection to the interior of the corpus callosum?

The color of connected brain clusters encodes t values. 3D visualization on the most right panels reveals clearly that cingulate gyrus part of cingulum (cgc) connects MPFC and PCC and cingulum hippocampal part (cgh) connects PCC and MTL for both neonate and adult brain
The color of connected brain clusters encodes t values. 3D visualization on the most right panels reveals clearly that cingulate gyrus part of cingulum (cgc) connects MPFC and PCC and cingulum hippocampal part (cgh) connects PCC and MTL for both neonate and adult brain

Based on the study, “Microstructure, length and connection of Limbic tracts in human normal brain development,” published in Frontiers Journal (http://journal.frontiersin.org/Journal/10.3389/fnagi.2014.00228/full), the study follows the deveopment and attached structures of the limbic system developmentally in the brain from birth to 25 years old.  All included children, adolescents and young adults were healthy subjects free of current and past neurological or psychiatric disorders. Right-handed were reported for all children who showed clear handedness. For young children, besides earplugs and earphones, extra foam padding was applied to reduce the sound of the scanner while they were asleep. They found that Memory, emotion, and motivation functions are related to limbic tracts and important for survival. It is vital for limbic tracts to become well myelined earlier than other tracts, especially those projected from frontal and temporal lobes (Baumann and Pham-Dinh, 2001).

They also discovered that although the overall shape of cgc is relatively stable throughout development, extra cgc growth can be observed in its anterior part close to prefrontal cortex (Figure 2). Relative increase of cgc length is probably related to its growth in the prefrontal region. Functions of prefrontal areas are involved in planning, decision making, and moderating social behavior that develop during late childhood and adolescence (e.g., Gogtay et al., 2004). Significant lateralization has been found for all DTI metrics of cgc-L/R and cgh-L/R with age and gender as covariates. his lateralization was associated with higher microstructural integrity on the left side of limbic tracts. Lateralization of DTI metrics of cgc and cgh may be related to unique functions of the left side of human brain such as language (van Veen et al., 2001). Exclusive right-handedness of the recruited subjects may also play a role. These findings are consistent to previous DTI metric measurements of cingulum (Gong et al., 2005;Verhoeven et al., 2010)

In plain English, what the study is saying is that the younger the brain, the lesser the pre-frontal cortex connection there is by the limbic system. It is the limbic system that allows any memory that is attached to a regulatory system (including motor memory) that enhances automaticity of movement such as that of fine motor skills. It also suggests that the system connects more effectively in the parieto-occipital areas, which house the majority of the sensorimotor processing and visual processing.

It then supports the CDC developmental data of what cognitively is expected of a 5 year old: with a still present instinctual need for regulation of pain, temperature, emotions innervated significantly more than that of the prefrontal cortex or the parieto-occipital complex, the coordination potential of a 5 year old’s hands are simply not the best gauge on whether they will be unable to utilize a writing tool or not in the long run. What that also means is that even if the academic demands indicated as a standard for the grade level are used aa a measure for their success, the developmental and imaging data will not agree with the current standards of achievement.

Perhaps then, we need to sit down with neuroscientists when we decide as a nation to adopt and revamp an entire educational curriculum. Educators educate; however, they need to know the brain they are educating. The marriage between education and neuroscience is long overdue.

Visually Processing Emotions

When a person interacts with the immediate external environment, they utilize the seven senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, hearing, vestibular and proprioceptive senses. One is a complement to the rest of the senses, and ultimately, it is through these senses that we are able to function and respond appropriately to our environment.

Pillsbury
Many unique neuronal responses, one Pillsbury Doughboy picture across generations.

Vision is one of the richest senses that happen to cross both gray and white matter, and one that requires all of the brain to give ‘meaning’ and attach this ‘meaning’ to an emotion. It touches all of the cerebrum before it gets completely processed by the Occipital Lobe.

We have a responsibility, especially to the young humans in our lives,  to consciously select the visual stimulation we are viewing and/or exposing others to.  In no way, can we or should we eliminate  exposure to the 24/7 media  that proliferate nearly all aspects of living in the twenty-first century. However, we do have some control over the reading material, games (video vs. educational)  and outings ( movies vs. museums) to name a few. These experiences are processed in all areas of our brains before we have even visually processed the image in our occipital lobe.

When video games became a part of mainstream culture and presented as mostly games focused on violence, social psychology professor Dr. Bushman began investigating the effects of excessive exposure to these video games. He and his colleagues have found that exposure to violent video games increases aggressive behavior as well as

Do you want to feel like this…

desensitize players to violence, which leads to an increase in aggressive behavior. It goes without saying that these experiences, which are highly visual, are leading to negative emotions. Furthermore, the opposite has also been proven: exposure to images that may be classified as serene or non-stressful, reduce stress, which can indirectly lead to positive emotions.

or this?

Creating environments with visually positive imagery can then plausibly decrease cortisol and other stress-related hormones from flooding our brains. This in turn will keep our pre-frontal cortex functioning, since cortisol is known to block access to it, sending us into fight, flight or freeze mode.

Imagine the possibilities of streaming the visual processing skill with positive, stress reducing imagery on the state of consciousness–not only for the individual, but for the those that individual interacts with!

Learning to Test or Testing to Learn?

The focus on reforming education in the twenty-first century has lead to a near obsession with standardization. We have standardized  curriculums, tests, grading, participation, essentially the entire learning process. Yet with this  shift to standardization, we have failed to meet the basic standard of a school, which is a place children come to learn. Pacing calendars, pre-packaged curriculums with differentiated tracks, cookie cutter bubble tests are teaching our children to be ready for a test, one that will rank not only their individual performance against a national standard, but the school’s performance as well. However, this test ultimately seems to prove only one thing, how well a student can take a test.

standardized-test-6

Unfortunately the test heavy focus of education reformation has annihilated a tried and true strategy for learning: testing. Teachers give summative tests at the end of the unit; they provide a study guide a few days before the test, tell students to study and perhaps hold a study session in class. However, according to How We Learn by Benedict Carey, that is not how we learn best if the goal is for information to be retained. We best learn and retain information when we systematically review learned information based on time to test and when we study by testing our knowledge of the information.

Dr. Melody Wisheart and Dr. Harold Pashler found this study interval to be most optimal for retention:

 

Time to Test

This table provides guidelines for either students or teachers to review material in order to increase retention at time of test. Using this information, teachers and students can intentionally plan study sessions to increase student’s retention of the material. Teachers can  revisit material learned at the beginning of the unit at the first interval and continue to add new material to subsequent study sessions until time of the test. By building in time to review material, teachers are teaching students how to study and providing them opportunities to review material in an effective way. This method is to increase retention of information and works best for facts, definitions, dates,mathematical equations etc.

Testing not studying is the answer to learning. Teachers often design pre-tests to determine what students know and what upcoming lessons need to focus on. However, pre-tests serve an even greater objective: they start the learning process of the material being test, evenwilson-train-the-brain-istock if the student guesses on every single question.  Dr. Robert Bjork found that after a simple experiment with his introductory psychology class that students performed 10% better on questions related to pre-test questions when taking the final exam than on questions with no similar equivalent on the pre-test. Students have the possibility of improving test scores by an entire grade with the addition of a pre-test. Furthermore, testing as a study strategy decreases the illusion of fluency, which tends to occur when students read notes or the text book multiple times as a way to study. Dr. Henry Roediger  theorizes that it forces the brain to do something more challenging that visually or auditorally process information; this additional effort increases the strength at which it is stored and later the ability at which is can be retrieved. Essentially, testing acts as a novel opportunity to learn and store the information; therefore, it becomes stored in a new way in the brain, connecting to other related facts thus strengthen storage and recall.

Testing needs to be re-branded in our classrooms. It can occur through a variety of ways (i.e. conversations with peers, family, other teachers, games, projects, and traditional paper/pencil tests), but  the focus needs to be taken off the final score and placed on the value of knowledge gained, whether that reveals the student knows all of the information in the unit, or she needs to spend more time ‘testing’ her knowledge, to she recalled all of what she knew before and more.

If we start testing to learn, the learning to test will naturally follow.

learn

Text Used in this post: How We Learn: the surprising truth about when, where and why it happens. Benedict Carey. Random House, 2014.