This is the third and final (for now) post on neuroplasticity. Basically: We are not stuck with the brains we are born with. This can be both bad and good news.
First the bad news "
Exposure to repeated stress and trauma may structurally alter the brain in a way that affects our thinking and behavior and how we respond to our environment.
In our previous posts (here and here), we focused on three brain regions, the first two playing crucial roles in mediating our emotions, namely: The hippocampus. which is involved in mood regulation and laying down memories, and the amygdala, which kicks off the fight-or-flight response.
Then there is the prefrontal cortex, our seat of higher thinking that works to keep our emotions in check.
Form is function. A diminished hippocampus and cortex can't compete with an oversized amygdala. Time and time again, we lose the battle to our emotions. We blame ourselves, we blame it on our hardwiring. We resign ourselves to our fate.
Now the good news "
Suppose we could change all that. Suppose, for instance, through our own efforts, we could add some cortical and hippocampal muscle and put our amygdala on a diet. Suppose these structural changes led to major functional improvements in our mental well-being. Recent brain scan studies are suggesting just that.
For years, from our perspective, neuroplasticity has been an abstract concept. It explains why stroke victims may recover some function or why musicians acquire technical proficiency, but we lacked a clear working model for how we could exploit the principle in our own recovery.
That appears to be changing.
Meditation can change the brain "
Last week, we talked about a brain scan study that linked regular meditation practice to thicker cortical regions. A follow-up study revealed that meditation resulted in a larger hippocampus and a smaller amygdala. Earlier studies had revealed a host of long-term beneficial effects from meditating and doing yoga, but now we have evidence of much more than that - our ability to physically optimize our own brains.
Apparently, it's as simple as just sitting down and following our breath in and out. But not so fast. As anyone who has made a New Year's resolution will attest, good habits and practices are notoriously difficult to implement. Not only that, our bipolar brains militate against the very idea of sitting still and focusing.
Yes, we can make a strong case for devoting 15 minutes a day or more to mediation, but, for most of us, we know that's not going to happen. But suppose we could get a technical assist.
Bulking up the cortex ...
Let's start with the proposition that strong cognitive function leads to healthy emotional function. Michael Merzenich of UCSF, who pioneered the study of neuroplasticity, is the brains behind Posit Science, which markets brain exercises to the general public under the name BrainHQ.
This includes such tasks as matching colors and shapes at increasing speeds.
The company promises that working out the brain on a daily basis will improve memory and attention and raise IQ, amongst other things. The company website says this is possible owing to the brain's "inherent plasticity."
Its competitor, Lumosity, makes similar claims. According to a company spokesperson, quoted in The Guardian: "Lumosity is based on the science of neuroplasticity, the idea that the brain can change and reorganize itself given the right kinds of challenges."
Feel free to roll your eyes, but do keep an open mind. Both companies offer free trials, with a limited range of exercises. You have nothing to lose.
Slim amygdala, six-pack hippocampus "
Ariel Garten is CEO of a start-up called InteraXon that markets the wearable device, "Muse." This is basically a headband that picks up brainwaves and sends them via Bluetooth to your tablet or smartphone. Its website claims you can "build a better brain in as little as three minutes a day."
As a therapist, Ms Garten experienced great difficulty convincing her patients to perform various mindfulness exercises at home. Mindfulness is basically the mind watching the mind - similar in many aspects to meditation - but suppose you were able to watch your mind, in effect, on your smartphone. The principle dates back to biofeedback exercises from the seventies, but we're reaching a new level of sophistication.
One of Muse's applications is an exercise that displays on a screen the current "weather" in your brain, complete with actual sky and clouds and wind. According to a demonstration video: "Your goal is to calm and settle the winds in this environment by calming and settling your mind. Over time, you build the brain's ability to calm itself."
By now, you realize that any brain reclamation project having to do with calming the mind has to involve a remodeled hippocampus and amygdala. InteraXon is not making any specific claims concerning these brain regions, not yet anyway.
The gateway to the hippocampus and amygdala, from our perspective, is the cortex. It's all about focus, and it's no accident that the main application for Muse right now is for ADHD.
Only when we blot out the distractions and concentrate our minds on the task at hand can we begin our own particular rebuilding projects. This is where the technology comes in: Yes, we can focus our minds through meditation and yoga and mindfulness, but wouldn't it be a lot easier if we had specific tasks to do, with tangible images to engage us, with real-time feedback, with the ability to track our progress over the long-term?
We have no clear answers, as yet, but if you're looking for a wave of the future, brain workouts and wearable devices are a good place to start.
Wrapping it up "
We are entering a promising new era of neuroplasticity taking center stage as a recovery tool. If you have the inclination to meditate, you now have an even stronger incentive. Or you may want to perform your own experiments with emerging technologies. I heard Dr Merzenich speak at a schizophrenia conference in 2009. I head Ms Garten late last year at an Exponential Medicine conference. Someday, they will be teaching this in the medical schools, and doctors and therapists will have specific protocols. That day is not here just yet, but that shouldn't stop you from building your own future, right here, right now.
John McManamy is the award-winning author of Living Well With Depression and Bipolar Disorder: What Your Doctor Doesn't Tell You That You Need to Know.