Looking Back - Ideas That Came Together for Me

John McManamy Health Guide
  • It’s the end of the year, which means it’s time to reflect on the things that went off in my brain. It turned out there were three of them, namely:

    1. It’s the limbic system, stupid.
    2. Recovery is not an illusion.
    3. One and two are connected.

    To proceed:

    It’s the limbic system, stupid

    In San Francisco, at the 2003 American Psychiatric Association’s annual meeting, I heard Daniel Weinberger MD of the NIMH describe a study he and his colleagues had published the year before. In the study, healthy subjects performed simple mental tasks as their brains were being scanned. When one group of subjects looked at images of scary faces, a certain part of their brains lit up like a Christmas tree.
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    This part of the brain is called the amygdala, which governs fear and arousal. Think of the amygdala, which resides in the primitive limbic region of the brain, as a smoke alarm. For some of us, our smoke alarms work way too efficiently for our own good.

    Here’s where it gets interesting: Those with the hypersensitive amygdalae had a certain gene variation, what they call the short allele to the serotonin transporter gene. As Dr Weinberger explained, this could be the first study to link genes to emotions.

    A year after this study, a group of researchers from Kings College (London) and the University of Wisconsin investigated a New Zealand birth cohort There, they found those with the short allele were far more likely to suffer from stress-induced depression.

    How significant are these findings? In 2003, Science Magazine cited these two studies and related discoveries as the second-biggest scientific breakthrough of the year, right after the origin of the universe.

    In March this year, in Bethesda MD, I heard brain scientists from the NIMH tell us about their various science projects, which essentially have built upon the two studies I described. What came through loud and clear is strong evidence that certain gene variations make some of us emotionally vulnerable. The short allele to the serotonin transporter gene is one, and there are others, and they appear to be complicit in all manner of emotions and behaviors.

    I heard further evidence in Pittsburgh in June at the Seventh International Conference on Bipolar Disorder.

    We are talking about genes interacting with the environment and life experience. As the researchers explained, those of us with hair-trigger limbic systems essentially over-react to whatever life throws our way. We view our world as highly stressful. We are vulnerable as opposed to resilient. When limbic overload occurs, the brain literally goes haywire. We over-react and over-compensate. It may manifest as depression, It may manifest as mania. Perhaps anxiety or aggression or substance use or a personality disorder.

    It appears that we may be talking about the same steam coming out of different vents.

    There’s more. Brain researchers have been busy tracing the wiring to and from the limbic system to the thinking parts of the brain. In a normal brain, the cortical and subcortical regions essentially modulate the limbic system. A system fault can keep this from happening.

  • So can we refer to all mental illness as limbic-cortical modulatory disregulation syndrome? The brain is way more complicated than that. Causes and effects are coming at us from all directions. But when over-reaction meets irrational thinking, Houston we have a problem.
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    Recovery is not an illusion

    I have a confession to make. I enjoy writing about brain science way more than anything else. It’s a kind of crusade with me. But on the road, giving talks, my audience had other ideas. They wanted their lives back. The Q and A part of my talks let me know what they really wanted to hear. Over time, thanks to their input, dots began to connect, ideas began to congeal.

    Everyone is talking about recovery, but how do we incorporate it into our lives? There are no pat answers, but in Phoenix earlier this month I got to see some people on an organizational level who take the idea very seriously. The contrast between what Recovery Innovations was doing vs what the rest were merely talking about could not be sharper.

    We need not be needless bystanders to our illness. I’ve always believed this, but now that message is coming in loud and clear.

    One and Two Connect

    Our vulnerable brains do not doom us to perpetual half-lives. The brain is plastic. It is constantly remolding itself. Even when we have to work within our limitations, we have choices.

    I will be writing a lot more on this in my recovery series on BipolarConnect. For the time being, just know that stress-reduction and mindfulness (the mind watching the mind) can work wonders against limbic overload.


    At the end of 2004, a number of personal insights came together for me that resulted in the publication two years later of my book “Living Well with Depression and Bipolar Disorder.” Thanks to this year’s crop of personal aha! moments, I’m beginning to think I have another book in me.

    Till next year ...
Published On: December 28, 2007