Posts Tagged ‘Obsessive Compulsive Disorder’

Run Your Life on Autopilot

January 11, 2017

HM works from his iPAD.  This is the print title of an article by Anil Ananthaswamy in the October 1 issue of the New Scientist.  The healthy memory blog has stressed the importance of the unconscious mind and provided suggestions as to how to make use of your unconscious mind.  This and the following blog posts taken from this issue of the New Scientist elaborate on these ideas.

An enormous part of our day-to-day lives, driving, making coffee, or touch typing, happens without conscious thoughts.  Unlike many of the brain’s other unconscious habits, these skills had to be learned before the brain can automate them.  How it does this could potentially provide a method for us to think our way out of bad habits.

Ann Graybiel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and her colleagues  have shown that a region deep inside the brain called the striatum is key to habit formation.  When we undertake an action, the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in planning complex tasks, communicates with the striatum, which sends the necessary signals to enact the movement,  Over time, input from the prefrontal cortex fades, to be replaced by loops linking the striatum to the sensorimotor cortex.  The loops, together with the memory circuits, allow us to carry out the behavior without having to think about it.  Practice makes perfect and no thinking is required.  The obvious upside is that we no longer  need to focus our attention on a frequent task, the spare processing power can be used for other things.  Unfortunately, similar circuitry is involved in turning all kinds of behavior into habits, including thought patterns, and once any kind of behavior becomes a habit, it become less flexible and harder to interrupt.  This is fine for good habits, but when bad habits are ingrained, its equally hard to get rid of it.  You lose the moment of choice when we can decide not to do something.

Fortunately, even with the most ingrained habits, a small area of the prefrontal is kept online, in case we need to take alternative action.  This offers hope to any of us looking to break a bad habit and to those suffering from habit-related problems such as obsessive compulsive disorder and Tourette’s syndrome  — both of which are associated with abnormal activity in the striatum and its connections to other parts of the brain.  These circuits are potential targets for future drug treatments.  However, for now the best way to get a handle on bad habits is to become aware of them.  Then, focus all your attention on them and hope that it’s enough  to help the frontal regions resist the call of the autopilot.  An alternative approach is to teach ourselves a new habit that counters the bad one.

Mental Activity Changes the Brain

June 11, 2016

The sixth chapter of “Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain” reviews how mental activity changes the brain.  The notion that the mind can act downward on the brain is a concept alien to most scientists.  The first esteemed scientist to argue that the mind cn act down on the brain was Nobel Prize—winning neuroscientist Roger Sperry who developed scientifically rigorous themes  of the position that the mind can act on the brain, which he called mentalism or emergent mentalism.  He theorized that there is a “downward control by mental events over the lower neuronal events.”  He suggested that mental states can act directly on cerebral states even effect electrochemical activity in neurons.  Healthy memory blog readers should realize that this is the position of healthy memory.  However, in the 1990s this was a radical concept. one which is still refuted by mainstream scientists in spite of ample evidence that it is correct.

Neuropsychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz is a practicing Buddhist who became intrigued with the therapeutic potential of mindfulness meditation.  Mindfulness, or mindful awareness, is the practice of observing one’s own inner experience in a way that is fully aware  but nonjudgmental.  One stands outside one’s own mind, observing the spontaneous thoughts and feeling that the brain throws up, observing all this as if it were happening to someone else.  Dr. Schwartz was treating patients with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).  OCD sufferers are troubled by obsessions and compulsions that become all-consuming.  In most cases the intrusive thoughts and fixations  feel as if they are arising from a part of he mind that is not the real self.

According to brain imaging studies OCD is characterized by hyperactivity in two regions:  the orbital frontal cortex and the striatum.  The main job of the orbital frontal cortex seems to be to notice when something is amiss.  It is the brain’s error detector, its neurological spell checker.  In OCD patients it fires repeatedly, bombarding the rest of the brain with the crushing feeling that something is wrong.  The second overactive structure, the striatum, receives inputs from other regions, including the orbital frontal cortex  and the amygdalae that are the seat of dread.  Together, the circuit linking the orbital frontal cortex and the striatum has been dubbed “the worry circuit” or “the OCD circuit.

In mindfulness-based cognitive therapy patients learn to think about their thoughts differently.  So when an obsessive thought popped up, the patient would think, “My brain is generating another obsessive thought.  Don’t I  know it is not real but just some garbage thrown up by a faulty circuit.  This is not really an urge to do something, but rather a brain-wiring problem.”

Dr. Schwartz used the brain-imaging technique positron-emission tomography (PET).  He would show patients their PET scans emphasizing that their symptoms arose from a faulty neurological circuit.  One patient responded immediately, “It’s not me, it’s my OCD”.  Other patients responded similarly.  The week after patients started relabeling their symptoms as manifestation of pathological brain process, they reported that the disease was no longer controlling them, and they felt that they could do something about it.

In a formal research study they performed PET scans on eighteen OCD patients before and after two weeks of mindfulness-based therapy.  None of the patients took medications for their OCD, and all had moderate to severe symptoms.  Twelve patients improved significantly.  PET scans in these patients showed that activity in the orbital frontal cortex had fallen dramatically.

Dr. Schwartz concluded, “This was the first study to show that cognitive-behavioral  therapy has the power to systematically change faulty brain chemistry in a well-defined brain circuit.”  He continued that the ensuing brain changes “offered strong evidence that willful, mindful effort can alter the brain function, and that such self-directed brain changes—neuroplasticity are a genuine reality.  The mind can change the brain.”

Mindfulness-based therapy is also more effective treating depression and produces longer lasting effects that do pharmaceutical products.  In 2002, Helen Mayberg discovered that anti-depressants and inert pills—placebos have identical effects on the brains of depressed people.

Toronto scientists used PET imaging to measure activity in the brains of depressed patients.  They had fourteen depressed adults undergo fifteen to twenty sessions of cognitive-behavior (mindfulness) training. Thirteen other patients received parozetime, the generic name for an antidepressant.  Depressed patients responded differently to the two kinds of treatment.  With cognitive-behavior therapy activity in the frontal cortex was turned down, activity in the hippocampus was turned up, which was the opposite pattern of  antidepressants.  Cognitive therapy targets the core, the thinking brain reshaping how your process information and change your thinking pattern, which are key activities to defeating depression.  Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, working from the top down, keeps the depression circuit from being completed.

Yet another study involved having piano students practice playing a simple piece in their heads.  The result was that the region of the cortex that controls piano-playing fingers expanded in the brains of volunteers who merely imagined playing the piece just as it did in the brains of those who actually played it.

Even though neuroscientists do not know exactly how the mind influences the brain, neuoscientis have evidence that it somehow involves paying attention.  All participants in this research focused intently.  The chapter concludes by noting that an enormous amount of information bombards the brain, but unless that information is attended to, there is a high probability that it will be lost.