Posts Tagged ‘Neurobiology’

Supporting Neuroplasticity

March 18, 2014

Neuroplasticity is our capacity to change, regardless of how old we are. Daniel J. Siegel’s superb book, Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology: An Integrative Handbook of the Mind offers the following aspects of our life that can support neuroplasticity.

“. Aerobic exercise – when medically possible, voluntary exercise can support continued brain growth.

Good sleep – we consolidate our learning from the day when we get a good period of sleep with plenty of REM states for dreaming.

Good nutrition – the “soil” of the brain’s structure requires good food and water, including safe sources of omega-3’s in order to function properly and allow the “seed” of good attentional focus to work well.

Relationships – our connections with others support a vibrant and plastic brain.

Novelty – when we get out of a rut and expose the brain to new stimuli, when we are playful and spontaneous, we keep the brain growing and young.

The close paying of attention—when we avoid multitasking and distractions and care about what we are focusing on, we can actually stimulate the release of chemicals locally and widely support neuroplasticity.

Time-in. When we focus on our inner sensations, images, feelings, and thoughts, reflecting inwardly, we encourage the growth of regulatory, integrative neural circuits.

And, possibly, humor—some preliminary studies suggest that when we laugh we promote health growth of the brain.”1

My personal endorsement of the benefits of humor is less tentative and much stronger. Laughing entails breathing in healthy amounts of air along with what is frequently a healthy social interaction. Humor also involves the switch of contexts that implies the use of unanticipated circuits in the brain. See the healthymemory blog post, “Paraprosdokians and a Healthy Memory.”

1Siegel, D.J. (2012). Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology: An Integrative Handbook of the Mind. New York: WW. Norton & Company, pp. 8-8 to 8-9.

What is Neuroplasticity and How Does It Work?

March 15, 2014

Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to change its structure in response to experience.”1

What follows is a brief synopsis as to how this change is accomplished. We have an average of ten thousand connections linking an average neuron to other neurons. Given that there a hundred billion neurons, there are hundreds of trillions of synaptic linkages. Moreover there are trillions of glial cells supporting the effort. One type of glial cell is the oligodendrocyte. When we develop skills after many hours of practice the oligodendrocytes produce myelin. Mylein is a fatty sheath that coils around the neuron’s axon that sends signals to other neurons. When myelin is present, the speed of the action potential down the axon is 100 times faster. Myelin also decreases the time for recovery before the next firing, the refractory period. This refractory period is 30 times shorter. So the enhanced functoning of a myleinated circuit is 3,000 (30 times 100) faster than a non-myleinated circuit. This provides the basis for the phenomena performances we sometimes see.

Synaptogenesis is the process by which synapses are created or strengthened. Myleinogenesis the process by which these circuits become much faster. In addition to these two ways in which the brain changes as the result of experience there is neurogenesis. Neurogenesis occurs throughout the entire life span and involves the differentiation of neuro stem cells into fully mature neurons in the brain. This process may take from two to three months in contrast to the more rapid synaptogenesis that occurs within minutes to hours and becomes consolidated over days or weeks. Studies have identified this more slowly occurring neurogenesis in the hippocampal region, but it is expected that this will be found in other areas in the future. Of course, the hippocampus is important for its central role in memory. Research has also shown that physical exercise benefits hippocampal growth (see the healthymemory blog post, “To Improve Your Memory, Build Your Hippocakmpus.”)

Epigenesis is the process by which experience alters the regulation of gene expression by way of changing the various molecules (histones and methyl) on the chromosome. Understand that genes themselves are not changed. Rather the way that information is read out from the genes is changed. This is how experience and genetics interact.

SNAG is the acronym to explain how these processes result in neuroplasticity. SNAG stands for stimulating neural activation and growth. Add to this the expression that neurons that fire together , wire together. That’s how we learn, but this is also the basis for remembering. Neurons that have not fired together for a long time, can result in that memory circuit being difficult to find. The memory is likely still available, but not currently accessible. That’s why healthy memory recommends revisiting old memory circuits. When you can’t remember something, sometimes it is good not to look it up, but to keep trying to remember. Even if this attempt fails, your nonconscious mind is apt to keep looking for it, and it might suddently pop into memory hours or even days later.

Remember to use your mind to control, exercise, and grow neural circuits. This is the fundamental means of keeping a memory healthy.

1Siegel, D. J. (2012). Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology. New York: Norton & Company. This blog post is based primarily on this reference.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2014. 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.

The Triangle of Well-Being

March 8, 2014

The Triangle of Well-Being is a chapter in Daniel J. Siegel’s superb book, Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology: An Integrative Handbook of the Mind. This triangle of well-being is a three pointed figure that is a metaphor for the idea that mind, brain, and relationships are each part of a whole. The notion is that this triangle is a metaphoric map that signifies one reality with three interdependent facets. The triangle represents the process by which energy and information flow. This process changes over time. Relationships are the sharing of this flow. The brain refers to the extended nervous system distributed throughout the body that serves as the embodied mechanism of that flow. The mind is an emergent process that arises from the system of energy information flow within and among people. A critical aspect of the mind is the emergent process of self-regulation that regulates that from which it arises.

So the mind can regulate and change the brain, which is the process of neuroplasticity. The energy information flow within us, our thinking and behavioral process, along with our communication with our fellow human beings can produce resultant changes in the brain for better or worse. The worse part is when maladaptive emotions, thoughts, and behaviors occur. The better part is when we acquire new knowledge, modulate our emotions, and foster beneficial and enjoyable relationships.

Siegel is a psychiatrist who is the Co-Director of the UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Research Center. He uses this conceptual treatment both in his treatment of psychiatric patients and in the development of healthy mindfulness. His pocket guide goes into great detail regarding the parts of the brain and how they are modified in the process.

Permit me to elaborate on this triangle using the lingo of the healthymemory blog. Interpersonal relationships are part of transactive memory, but transactive memory includes technology as well as live interactions among individuals. Books and other technical media allow us to establish relationships with humans who have long departed. Admittedly, these relationships are uni-directional, but they are nevertheless valuable. We can also establish relationships through technology with living individuals throughout the world, and these relationships are definitely bi-directional.  Relationships among groups are omnidirectional. Such relationships can be valuable, but they need to be distinguished from relationships in social media, such as Facbook, where “friending” can be largely superficial.

Interpersonal Neurobiology

March 4, 2014

The Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology: An Integrative Handbook of the Mind by Daniel J. Siegel is a valuable and fairly unique book. I find the text especially relevant as it fits well with the philosophy of the healthymemory blog. Dr. Siegel posits a Triangle of Well-Being, more of which will be written in the subsequent post. It consists of three components: a mind, a brain, and relationships. The mind is an emergent phenomena that emerges from the sophistication of the brain and is represented in our conscious mind. The brain includes not only the physical brain, but also the entire nervous system. Relationships refer to our relations and interactions with fellow human beings. In the lingo of the healthy memory blog, this concept of relationships is captured in the category of transactive memory. Transactive memory refers to the memories of our fellow human beings and to the memories resident in technology. But be aware that these memories available in technology are the result of memories of fellow human beings. Thanks to technology, we are privy to the thoughts of the ancient Greeks, as well as all the great philosophers and scholars throughout the course of recorded time. This also includes the memories of people from diverse cultures speaking diverse languages. The key concept here is that we can and should use our minds to control and develop our brains to best advantage. This is not always easy as the brain often appears to have a mind of its own. But mindfulness techniques are there to help us control and develop our thinking, as well as control our emotions. Using the mind in this way allows us to exploit the neuroplasticity of the nervous system throughout our lives. Similarly, our minds can interact with our relationships to foster those relationships so that they achieve maximum benefits.

The Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology does not have chapters. Rather it has numbered entry points with titles, but there is no requirement to follow the numbers. The guide is written so that you can enter at any numbered topic you find to be of immediate interest and start reading. Each entry point has several terms that are nodes in a larger interconnected network. There are 168 nodes in this nodal network. The nodes and other important general terms are italicized for ease of reference throughout the text. They can be found with brief definitions in an annotated index. The nodes serve as a bridge to read different entries so that you can interweave the conceptual framework as you move in and out of the different entries to satisfy your own personal interest.