Science is Awesome! Brain Research & Neuroplasticity

I’ve been a little hard on doctors lately, so I wanted to do a post about some doctor stories that have me bouncing-in-my-chair excited.

I just started reading a book called “The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science” by Norman Doidge. I’ll do a full post/review of this book when I’m finished reading it, but I just have to tell you what I’ve learned so far! (Rolfer Brooke recommended it to me, so I got it for the kindle immediately.)

There’s a concept called “neuroplasticity,” named for “neuron” (receptor cells, receivers of signals of all kinds) and “plastic” as in malleable, changing, flexible. The basic idea is this: if something is damaged in the brain or in a body part that is essential for communicating with the brain–e.g. damaged retina = loss of sight–then you can use various exercises and tools to teach the brain a new path to the same result. It finds away around that damaged part. The damage is still there. You don’t fix it, you find a new path. And for those of us who have felt un-fixable, this is some pretty great news!

The first doctor/researcher Doidge features can help the brain of a person who has been blind from birth create actual visual images. They use a camera strapped to a pair of glasses and an electrode strip on the tongue. Camera tells electrodes to fire, tongue tingled (like “champagne bubble fizz”), brain gets signals from tongue and creates a visual image. It works. For real. He got the idea of using the skin to send “visual” signals to the brain when he realized that a blind person using a cane turns the vibrations in the hand into a map of the room in the brain. How cool is that?! As a certain seven-year old likes to say, that is double-scoop awesome.

Why am I so excited? Well, for a long time, there was an attitude about disorders like my anxiety and depression that sort of went like this: “Your genes caused your brain to deal badly with serotonin and other chemicals. Sorry, but that’s how it’s going to be forever. We do have these pills you can take, though.” Now, my amazing therapist “L” is talking to me about how new research is showing that therapy and meds in combination can RETRAIN my brain to stop re-uptaking too much serotonin and let more of the stuff hang out, helping my moods. The neurons also find new pathways g (She may have used different language.) By practicing mindfulness and other anxiety-reducing “cognitive-behavioral” tools, I can train my brain to actually be less anxious. The neurons themselves seem to be learning.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy, or “CBT,” is not technically the kind of therapy I use (interpersonal therapy has been my method of choice). But many of the strategies and tools we’ve developed for me overlap into the CBT area of therapy, which is all about using outward behavior to produce new and different cognitive (in the mind) results.

Who feels hopeful about a medication-free life?! Or at least a medication-free couple of years while I pop out some kids? I do! I do!

Here’s the catch: I have to want it, badly. I have to do things that feel exhausting, terrifying, embarrassing, uncomfortable. I have to take the meds, for now. I have to pay for twice weekly therapy and quarterly, crazy-expensive, far away (NYC) psychiatric appointments. Because, as I may have mentioned, no one can put a price on Dr. C’s support as I try to get off my meds. A psychiatrist whose goal is to get me to the point where I don’t need the meds and therefore all but stop seeing/having to pay him? Yes. I found one.

I have to work with a whole support network, a team, which means I have no shyness left. I can write this stuff for the Internet at large because I talk about it with near strangers so often. But oh, dear readers, I am actually molding and changing my brain. Genetic lemons? Hand me a juicer. I’ll make lemonade until my arms fall off.

Bring. It. On.

One Comment

  1. “Genetic lemons” -I love it! hahaha
    If you think the neuroplasticity stuff is cool, read a bit about epigenetics. There’s a ton of research that blends the age old nature/nurture debate and finds that environment and nutrition actually change genetic code/biology. It’s pretty amazing! I’ll talk to my friend who introduced the field to me & see if I can suggest a book or website.

    August 16, 2011

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