Posts Tagged ‘autism’

The Brain Basis of Emotional Style

March 18, 2020

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in an important book by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. with Sharon Begley, “The Emotional Life of Your Brain.” The remainder of the title is How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel and LIve—And How You Can Change Them.
Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) has revealed that the more white matter (axons that connect one neuron to another) lying between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, the more resilient that person is. Signals from the prefrontal cortex to the amygdala, and from the amygdala to the prefrontal cortex determine how quickly the brain will recover from upsetting evidence. But we know that the brain is fully able to increase connections between regions. In later posts it will be explained what you can do for these particular prefrontal-to-amygdala connections. It is eminently possible to raise one’s baseline activity in the left prefrontal cortex. How to do so will be explained in subsequent posts. Along the two extremes of the Resilience continuum people who are slow to recover, and are having great difficult bouncing back from adversity, have fewer signals traveling from the prefrontal cortex to the amygdala. Those who are fast to recover from adversity and are extremely resilient show strong activation of the left prefrontal cortex in response to setbacks and have strong connections between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. By damping down the amygdala, the prefrontal cortex is able to quiet signals associated with negative emotions, enabling the brain to plan and active effectively without being distracted by negative emotion, in another words a high degree of resilience.

Timothy was a high-functioning autistic boy. His extremes of being puzzled and having low social intuition reflected clear differences in brain activity and connectivity. Although he was very intelligent and able to understand language and speak, his speech was quite monotonous and lacked the modulations called intonation contours—the stresses and changes in pitch, tone, and pacing that convey emotion. For example, when volume and pitch both increase, you can be pretty sure that your interlocutor is angry. When pace slows, volume decreases, and pitch flattens, the speaker is likely sad. Timothy’s voice sounded like a robot’s. From studies of children, adolescents like Timothy, Prof. Davidson concludes that the lack of social intuition and the resulting failure to grasp what is socially appropriate comes with low levels of activation in the fusiform and high levels of activation in the amygdala.

Oxytocin is a molecule that reduces activation in the amygdala. When oxytocin is spritzed into the noses of people, which allows it to go directly to the brain, it reduces activation in the amygdala. This suggests that quieting the amygdala is the mechanism by which oxytocin induces feelings of commitment and attachment, and quieting the amygdala by other means accomplishes the same ends, including laying the groundwork for the Socially Intuitive brain.

The ability to distinguish a familiar from an unfamiliar context comes from the hippocampus. The hippocampus is famous for its role in processing memories: It seems to act as a holding pen for short-term memories, getting some of them ready for transfer to long-term storage. In a recent study of rhesus monkey, it was found that the anterior hippocampus, the portion closest to the amygdala, is also involved in regulating behavioral inhibition in response to different contexts. People suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder often have abnormal hippocampal function. PTSD can be thought of as a disorder of disrupted context. The anxiety and terror that people with PTSD feel is quite appropriate in certain contexts, such as a battleground, but the problem is that they experience these feelings in non traumatic contexts.

Prof Davidson writes, “Differences in the strength of the connections between the hippocampus and other brain regions, particularly the prefrontal cortex, underlie difference in Sensitivity of Context. The hippocampus communicates regularly with the brain’s executive—function areas in the prefrontal cortex. Stronger connections from the hippocampus to these regions increase sensitivity to context, while weaker connections underlie insensitivity to context.

A key region of the brain for self-awareness is the insula, which is located between the temporal and frontal lobes. It contains what is called a viscerotopc map of the body. This means the visceral organs—heart, liver, colon, sexual organs, lungs, stomach, kidneys—are each mapped to a specific spot within the insula The insula serves as the brain’s monitoring station for everything below the neck and within the body. The insula also sends signals to the organs, instructing the heart to beat more quickly or for the lungs to inhale more rapidly. In addition to the insula, the somatosensory cortex is also involved in perceiving internal sensations. Higher insula activation is associated with greater awareness not only of physical sensations but also of emotions.

To summarize, individuals with high level-awareness of Self-Awareness have great activation in the insula, while those with low levels of Self-Awareness have decreased activation.

The Outlook Brain and the Attentive Brain will be discussed in subsequent posts.

Listening to Your Heartbeat Helps You Read Other People’s Minds

May 16, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of an article by Helen Thomson in the News & Technology section of the 6 May 2017 issue of the New Scientist.  She writes that “people who are more aware of their heartbeat are better at perceiving the emotions of others—a finding that might help some people with autism.”

According to the Theory of Constructive Emotions, to generate emotions we first need to interpret our body’s internal state—a process called interoception.  So we feel fear only once we recognize an increase in our heart rate or feel our palms get sweaty.

Researchers have suggested that interoception is important for understanding what other people are thinking and even guessing what they think a their person might be thinking.  The notion is that if we have trouble distinguishing our own emotions, we might also find it hard to interpret he emotions and mental states of others.

To investigate, Geoff Bird and his team asked 72 volunteers to sound their heartbeats using their fingers to take their pulse.  This is a measure of interoception.  The volunteers then watched videos of social interactions.  After viewing each video they were asked multiple choice questions testing their ability to infer the characters’ mental states.

When the volunteers were asked feelings about the emotions of the characters, the volunteers who were better at counting their own heartbeat performed better on such questions.  They were more empathetic (Cortex, dos.org/b6m2).  However, there was no link between interoceptive ability and accuracy on questions that didn’t involve any emotions.

Bird says that interoceptive difficulties probably play a role in some features of schizophrenia and autism.  There is some evidence that looking in a mirror can improve interception.  Bird says that it has not yet been shown whether interception training also improves empathy, but it’s an experiment that he’d like to try.

MEMORY WIZARDS

January 28, 2017

“MEMORY WIZARDS”  is the title of a chapter in “THE MEMORY ILLUSION” by psychologist Julia Shaw, Ph.D.  The subtitle is HSAMs, braincams, and islands of genius.  The teaching point of the chapter is “Why no one has infallible memory.”

The idea of a braincam was that memory was like a video recorder keeping track of everything we do.  This idea was promulgated by American neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield in his 1952 publication, “Memory Mechanisms.”  Penfield’s work as a neurosurgeon required him to probe different portions of the brain, so that he could identify the correct areas to perform surgery.  During this probing, his patients who were awake, the brain does not feel pain itself, patients would report vivid memories of particular instances in their lives.  Not surprisingly, this led to the notion of a braincam effectively recording each of our lives.  However, in spite of the vividness of the recall, there was no way to confirm the accuracy of these recalls and to distinguish them from visions generated from the stimulation.  After much additional work was done regarding memory, the notion of a braincam was discarded, and memory was found to be highly error prone.  Moreover, the confidence expressed in a memory did not correlate well with the accuracy of the memory.

HSAM stands for highly successful autobiographical memory.  There have been several prior HM posts on HSAM.  Perhaps one of the most interesting HM posts is titled “The Importance of Memory.”  The actress Marilu Henner, who was one of the stars on the TV Program “Taxi” is also a HSAMer.  She has written a book “Total Memory Makeover,” which has been summarized in the HM post “Who Has a Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory and What Can She Tell Us.”  HSAMers can provide detailed accounts of their lives by date.  That is, if you asked what happened to them on 29 August 1999, they could tell you in an amazing amount of detail.  Still, they cannot tell you everything, and what they do provide can sometimes, but not frequently, contain an error.  In other respects, their memories are similar to the rest of us.  If given a list of words to remember, their performance will correspond to the rest of us.   And they make similar errors as we do with respect to false memories.  Dr. Shaw says that she does not see any particular advantage that HSAMers have.  Apparently, she has not read Marilu Henner’s book, because Henner says that her ability has helped her as an actress.  She feels that her ability has provided insights into the why and wherefores of others.

Photographic memory is another topic on which most people have misconceptions.  The technical term for photographic memory is eidetic memory.  Here’s how it is tested.  An unfamiliar picture is shown to participants on an easel for 30 seconds.  This might not seem like much time, but researchers often this limited viewing time because most people neither continue encoding detail nor care to after 30 seconds  looking at the same picture.  After the image has been removed the person is instructed to describe everything they can about the picture.   People with eidetic  memory report that they can still see the picture, that they can scan and examine their personal memory of the image as if it were still in front of them.  Eidetic images differ from regular visual memories which can arguably last forever.  Eidetic images  can last only a couple of minutes.  The images usually fade away piece by piece  rather than as a whole, and the eidetiker  has no control over which components remain in memory.  However, even eidetikers  can misremember entire objects and forget pieces of scenes.  So their exceptional memories for a particular image can still have some flaws.

Moreover, it appears that this kind of memory only exists in children.  In one of the few reviews of the literature on this topic dated  back to 1975, researchers Cynthia Gray and Kent Gummeran estimated that 5% of children have eidetic  memory and 0% of adults do.

Then there are the idiot savants such as depicted in the Oscar winning movie Rain Man.  Here the exceptional memories are linked to some abnormality such as autism.  So these memories are purchased at an outrageous cost.  The simple point is that forgetting is needed.  It is obviously needed in cases of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, where traumatic memories either need to be forgotten or accommodated.

The teaching point of the chapter is more than  “Why no one has infallible memory.”  It is “no one wants an infallible memory.”  Infallible memories lead to too many memories, memories that interfere with the important information that needs to be remembered.

The Healthymemory blog is a strong advocate of meditation and mindfulness.   Meditation helps us gain control of our valuable, but limited, resource of attention.  We need to be able to focus our attention to use it to best advantage.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Your Heart is In Your Brain

April 27, 2016

The brain and the heart are two organs that are typically thought of as opposites.  The brain is for logical thinking, and the heart is for feeling.  Although the heart is certainly important for the brain as it supplies oxygen and other important nutrients, it has nothing to do with feeling, emotion, or empathy.   This fact that your heart is in your brain became abundantly clear in the books “Switched On:  A Memoir of Brain Changes and Emotional Awakening,” by John Elder Robison.

The author lived with autism.  He could not read the emotions of other humans, nor could he understand sarcasm.  He could not understand many personal insults.  His shortcomings in interpersonal skills contributed to his dropping out of school.  But these shortcomings were in some sense compensated for with other extraordinary talents.  He had extraordinary ability with electronics.  He had perfect pitch and could tune a guitar with both perfection and ease.  These talents led to his working with rock groups in creating and setting up their sound systems and video effects.  He worked for the group Kiss and was one of the leaders in this area.

HIs specific type of autism, there is an autism spectrum, was Asperger’s syndrome.  He wrote a book about his condition, “Look at Me in the Eye,”  which was quite successful and led to his giving many talks at organizations interested in autism.  Nevertheless, he was aware of his deficiency and very much wanted to be able to cure or compensate for it.

So at the age of 50 he volunteered to participate in research using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).  This involved placing an apparatus that generated magnetic fields that were targeted for certain areas of the brain.  This procedure had had some success in treating depression.  However, this was a research project designed primarily to learn about the brain rather than as a cure or remedy for autism.  John was doubly excited about this procedure as it involved electronics, which he loved, and because he wanted to see if it would have any effect on his autism.

As it turned out, it did.  In the past when he listened to music he understood the electronics producing the music, but the music had no emotional effects on him.  For the first time he actually cried from the lyrics of a piece.  Now he was able to have emotional feelings.  He was also about to read the expressions of others and to make inferences about how they were feeling and what their true intentions were.  In most cases he found this to be beneficial.  He owned a car repair shop, and was now able to have a better understanding of how customers felt.

In the past, he would miss most insults and any sarcasm from other people.  However, now he did not miss these comments.  And in reviewing past relationships, he realized that certain people had been routinely putting him down and insulting him without his noticing it.  He ended up ending most of these relationships.

So all the effects were not beneficial.  Sometimes ignorance can be bliss.  His wife had a serious problem dealing with depression.  In the past, although he was aware that his wife was depressed, he did not suffer any emotional effects.  After TMS he did suffer the emotional effects of his wife.  He felt her pain.  Unfortunately the end result was a divorce.

In addition to  John’s  talks on autism, he participates actively non only in research, but also in review panels deciding which proposal should be funded.  This is remarkable when you consider that John did not finish even rudimentary schooling.  Yet he is a good choice for reviewing these proposals and for helping decide the future of research.    After all, he is an author, and an author who writes quite well.  This book should be of wide interest not only for people interested in autism and TMS, but for the general reading public.

The research points to a bright future in brain science.  As for where TMS therapy stands today, as of early 2016 TMS is an FDA-accepted  therapy for depression at hundreds of hospitals in clinics across the United States.  It is also available in Canada, Europe, Australia, and parts of Asia.

TMS is not yet an FDA-approved therapy for autism or ADHD, but it is believed that this will come in the next decade.

The Latest Discoveries in Neuroplasticity

April 26, 2015

These can be found in the book, The Brain’s Way of Healing:  Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity by Norman Dodge, M.D.  This is the sequel to his earlier book, The Brain That Changes Itself. I am especially impressed as when I was a graduate student, there was no such thing as neuroplasticity.  Once damage was done to the nervous system, it could neither be treated nor repaired.  The nervous system was fixed and not amenable to change.  So The Brain That Changes Itself was eye opening and overwhelming.  The Brain’s Way of Healing does not disappoint.

Doidge is a Canadian psychiatrist who has received research funding from both the National Institute of Mental Health in the United States and the National Health Research and Development Program of Health Canada.  And obviously he is an accomplished writer who knows this topic intimately.  You can visit his webpage http://www.normandoidge.com.

He relates case histories, explains the underlying  science, and documents this research with references and notes in the back of the book.

The first chapter discusses a physician who specialized in the treating pain discovering how Chronic Pain can be unlearned.   He discovered this in learning how to cope with his personal chronic pain and then formulated a course of treatment using this method.

The next chapter presented the case history of a Parkinson’s sufferer who learned how to walk off his Parkinsonian symptoms.  This showed how physical exercise helps fend off degenerative disorders and can defer dementia.

The third chapter discusses the stages of neuroplastic healing explaining how and why it works.

Chapter four explains how the brain can be rewired with light by using light to reawaken dormant neural circuits.

Chapter 5 introduces us to Moshe FeldenKrais, a physicist who had a Black Belt in Judo and who developed a means of healing serious brain problems through mental awareness of movement.

Chapter 6 explains how a blind mind learned to see using the method of Feldenkraus, Buddhist and other Neuroplastic Methods.

The seventh Chapter discusses a strange device called the PoNS that stands for Portable Neuromodulation Simulator because when it stimulates the brain, it modifies and corrects how the neurons are firing.  It stimulates modulation to reverse symptoms.  It has been successful in treating traumatic Brain Injury, Parkinson’s, Stroke, and Multiple Sclerosis.

The eighth chapter discusses how sound can be used and the special connection between music and the brain.  It has been successful in treating dyslexia, autism, attention deficit, and sensory process disorder.s

There are three appendices.  The first presents a general approach to Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and brain problems.  The second appendix discusses matrix repatterning for  TBI that has been developed by Canadian clinical Dr. George Bush.  Appendix 3 discusses neurofeedback for Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), Anxiety, and TBI.

After reading all this, it is understandable that you might conclude that this is bunk, it is simply too outlandish.  Please accept my assurances that this is not the case, and that this is genuine research at the forefront of knowledge.  I hope the Veterans Hospitals are applying this research to veterans suffering from trauma.  And I would like to encourage sufferers of these maladies to read about these treatments.  However, I am reluctant to do so, because there is little information on where information can be found to pursue these treatments.  Perhaps if it were, the limited resources available would be overwhelmed.  It will take time for this research to trickle down with resultant treatment centers employing and furthering the research.