Neurological Rock Stars 5 – Richard J Davidson Getting to the Heart of Neuroplasticity

Essentially this is the story of Compassion, Monks and an FMRI Scanner.

The heart is seen as primary in relation to emotional regulation in Chinese Medicine. One of the obstacles faced by western science is understanding why this might be. I have written posts before on ‘Towards a spirit of Peace’ (1) which references a text on ‘Shen disorder’, and so I will not go into the more poetic and integrated body mind model from Chinese medicine here. Instead I will write about the work that is putting the ‘heart mind’ into a context that can be referenced and understood by western science and medicine.

Richard J Davidson is professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison as well as Founder and Chair of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center. (2)

I recently saw him talk about his work in ‘Transform your mind, Change your Brain – Google talk’ on youtube.(3)

In it he states “Epigenetics – referrers to the fact that genes are regulated by the environments in which they reside”

“The idea that our genetic structure provide an unalterable blueprint that effects our behaviour in an unalterable way is an antiquated, wrong- headed, Newtonian conception of genetics, it’s not the way things work.”

He emphasises that “the brain is the organ, which is built to change in response to experience more than any other organ in our body.”

Essentially what he is talking about is how behavioural and mental changes can produce more specific neurological changes than biological intervention, for example medication.

One of the books that changed my perspective on the brain was ‘The Plastic Mind – by Sharon Begley’(4).

This book talked about the results of studies involving the Dalai Lama and monks who were being studied under an MRI scanner by Richard J Davidson at the University of Wisconsin. During the scans they were meditating on compassion. The results showed what many Buddhist meditation practitioners already knew, Mediation changes your mind, crucially it showed that it was making neurological changes to the brain and proved neuroplasticity in meditation.

Richard J Davidson works at the cutting edge of Neuroplasticity. He also is also an expert in Affective Neuroscience (study of emotions).

During his talk he describes how when he and his team went to a monastery to explain to the monks what the process for recording data was, his team attached electrodes to the head of Fransisco Varela (5) who would perform the meditation. The response from the monks was that they started laughing. At first he thought it was because the electrodes looked silly on the head of Fransisco, but it emerged that it was because the electrodes were not placed around the heart. He said it took some years to get back to this.

During compassion meditation the Insula is one of the most active areas of the brain.

The Insula (anterior insula) houses a viscera topic map of the body (19min into google talk), visceral organs are mapped in the insula. This part of the brain has descending pathways to these organs and can modulate activity in those organs (there are also pathways to other parts of the brain). The Insula can modulate activity in the visceral organs. Meditation can also affect the amygdala and the TPJ or Temporal Parietal Junction which is associated with empathy.

Research like this into meditation is useful, for example, in understanding regulation of the vagus nerve because ‘many sensory signals conveyed by the vagus nerve terminate here’ – in the insula(6). In relation to the heart this will have big implications because of the relationship between the vagus nerve and heart.(7)

One of the problems with the idea of neuroplasticity is that it isn’t a mainstream idea yet.

Research like this begins to shed light onto the heart mind body brain relationship and forms a bridge in understanding the important relationship between meditation, emotional regulation and the heart and other organs of the body.

This research has far reaching implications not just for medicine but for education as well.(8)

1) https://epilepsymeandneurology.wordpress.com/2012/11/08/epilepsy-in-chinese-medicine-towards-a-spirit-of-peace/

2) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Davidson

3) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7tRdDqXgsJ0 google talks

4)http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Plastic-Mind-Sharon-Begley/dp/1845296745

5)http://enc.tfode.com/Francisco_Varela

6)http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=32Ucobqp97EC&pg=PA68&lpg=PA68&dq=insula+and+vagus+nerve&source=bl&ots=gwH0yCLiwy&sig=1S9n1L98UZ7DEfMSQjbfcmE7axI&hl=en&sa=X&ei=yV5PUaCCJYWuPOnggNgL&ved=0CEcQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=insula%20and%20vagus%20nerve&f=false

7) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21367742

8)http://www.edutopia.org/richard-davidson-sel-brain-video

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really interesting advanced cognitive neuroscience and application of gaming, mobile technology etc. Really cutting edge brain training!

Psyche's Circuitry

I just attended the second annual Entertainment Software and Cognitive Neurotherapeutics Society (ESCoNS) conference. Say that five times fast.  This conference brought together people in the gaming world with cognitive neuroscientists. I went because I’m developing (and testing) an app that I believe can help people reduce stress, worry, and anxiety in their lives. In addition to more deeply exploring how to make mental health truly fun, I felt that I was seeing the future of mental health unfolding before my eyes.

Gamifying mental health

Here are four ideas I think will change how the field of mental health will look in a decade (or less):

1. Mental health care WILL BE gamified. The mobile revolution and app zeitgeist have changed how we get things done. We want an app for everything because we want our life mobile and streamlined, and the minute we think we want to do something, we want…

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Epilepsy and Exercise Study and Epilepsy at the Olympics – ‘Exercise is good for the brain and the heart, and everything else’ Dr. Elinor Ben-Menachem from Göteborg University.

This week I was listening to the ETP (1) blog cast and was really inspired by the post on the work of DR Elinor Ben-Menachem on her project on exercise and epilepsy as discussed with Dr Joseph Sirven.(2)

Topics discussed:

Raising seizure threshold by exercising more.  Low cardiovascular fitness related to 79% higher risk of developing epilepsy after age 18.

Exploring the importance of exercise before the age of 18 in the importance of prevention of health problems in later life, including epilepsy. The possibility that exercise may be an inexpensive way of managing seizures is also mentioned.

Her message is that exercise is ‘good for the brain and the heart, and everything else’.

Full transcript (3)

Also of interest Dr Ben-Menachem’s Hot Topics Symposium Modulators of Epilepsy:  The Influence of Lifestyle and Environmental Factors (4)

This research presentation is interesting because it covers neuroplasticity, the hippocampus, the role of exercise in preventing central nervous system diseases, cardiovascular fitness and the future risk of epilepsy. Hormones are also discussed. The Hypothalamic Pituitary Testes and Ovarian axis is covered, together with progesterone treatment trial.

The hypothesis is: cardiovascular fitness could modulate brain plasticity by increasing amounts of circulating growth factors or beta endorphins or some other neuroactive molecule.

Dr Ben-Menachem discusses the Olympic silver medallist cyclist Marion Clignet (5) who was not allowed to race for America at the Olympics so she cycled for France instead. Marion has written a book called ‘Tenacious’ with a fellow sportsman yachtsman Benjamin Hovey who also has epilepsy see here (6) (7)

Further athletes with epilepsy at the Olympics can be found at (8) The Epilepsy Institute of North Carolina blog. Worthy of note in this blog post:

‘Dai Greene played football (soccer for us since he’s British) when he was a teenager.  He had to quit playing soccer in his late teens due to a growing spurt that causes knee pain.  It is called Osgood Schlatter Disease.  He now runs the 400m hurdler for Welsh and Great Britain.   Dai had his first seizure at seventeen.  He doesn’t take any medication; instead he doesn’t drink any alcohol and makes sure he gets the right amount of sleep needed.  Several medals have been won and he will be Captain for the Great British Athletics Team.’

This is very promising from the point of view of the possibilities of using alternative means to control seizures and giving people options beyond medication.

Dr Ben-Menachem has also written a book called Case Studies in Epilepsy (Case Studies in Neurology) [Kindle Edition] (9) This book looks very interesting and although it is out of my price range the initial ‘look inside’ was very promising so if you can find it at a library resource it may be very useful.

Dr Ben-Menachem covers barriers that prevent people with epilepsy from exercising such as; over protection, social isolation, low self-esteem, anxiety and depression. She mentions that weight can be a problem.

I would add one other problem area facing people with epilepsy and exercise which is ‘stigma’; either because of society, weather it is because of lack of understanding of epilepsy or ignorance of what epilepsy is and that it is important to exercise no matter what the health problem.

Exercising in groups is recommended.

Some useful strategies for safely exercising with epilepsy are covered in this blog post from Rosewinelover epilepsy action media volunteer;

http://rosewinelover.com/2013/01/04/epilepsy-and-fitness-resolutions-for-2013/

For myself I can say that without exercise my personal seizure management is extremely challenging because I experience so many positive benefits from exercising. (10)

Happy Exercising Everybody!

1)http://www.epilepsy.com/epilepsy/hallway_2013_podcasts?utm_source=Epilepsy+Therapy+Project&utm_campaign=535342f2b3-Epilepsy_News_2_20_13&utm_medium=email

Epilepsy Therapy Project

2) http://www.gu.se/english/about_the_university/staff/?languageId=100001&userId=6850

3) http://professionals.epilepsy.com/pdfs/Exercise%20and%20Epilepsy%20-%20HC%20-%201_9_13.pdf Epilepsy Therapy Project Blogcast Transcript

4) http://www.hope4harper.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/The-Influence-of-Lifestyle-and-Environmental-Factors.pdf

5) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marion_Clignet

6) http://marionclignet.com/

7)http://marionclignet.com/tenacious

8) http://epilepsyinstitute.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/epilepsy-and-olympics.html

9) http://www.amazon.co.uk/Case-Studies-Epilepsy-Neurology-ebook/dp/B00A8GYWBO

Case Studies in Epilepsy (Case Studies in Neurology) [Kindle Edition] Hermann Stefan (Author, Editor), Elinor Ben-Menachem (Author, Editor),Patrick Chauvel (Author, Editor), Renzo Guerrini (Editor)

10) https://epilepsymeandneurology.wordpress.com/2012/12/26/what-do-epilepsy-autism-hormones-sleep-music-meditation-exercise-have-in-common-the-hippocampus-and-neurogenesis/

One Moment At A Time – What Is MBSR And Who Is Jon Kabat-Zinn?

Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and Jon Kabat-Zinn(1) (2)

In search of mindfulness I have been following the progress of mindfulness teaching locally and have been pleasantly surprised recently with the numbers of classes advertised.

A couple of weeks ago I saw one that was titled ‘Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction’ and was intrigued.

Another article in January/February Scientific American Mind 2013 related to mindfulness; it is titled ‘Focus on Your-self to Alleviate Social Pain’. The article discusses the benefits of mindfulness for pain, stress, anxiety and depression, but also how a new study recently that has shown it reduces feelings of loneliness or social isolation. Mindfulness was also shown to reduce inflammation and the risk of heart attacks.

So where did all this research start and why is there so much interest in mindfulness for health?

Taking to you-tube (as you do) I came across this one titled ‘The Healing Power of Mindfulness’.(1)

It has sparked my interest in Jon Kabat-Zinn who talks about his life and how at college he was one of 5 students who went to see a monk lecture on this topic. During the lecture he describes how he had one of those ‘Ah-ha!’ moments as he realised that what he had just been taught to do should be something that everyone gets to learn in kindergarten.

‘Being in the moment’ sounds like something we all could benefit from, but how many of us are actually present without our mobile phone, computer, television or radio?

I am sitting here with the computer and a phone so I am clearly not a shining example of being present within myself just right now.

When do we ever switch off?

Something else I am interested in is the research into ‘neuroplasticity’.  Jon Kabat-Zinn studied molecular biology in 1971 at MIT.

In the film he talks about how studies have now gone on to show that not only is the mind plastic but so are genes, and he describes how the corrosive acid of stress wears down our DNA causing problems within the body. Mindfulness meditation research is showing that this can be stopped and reversed.

He has been teaching and studying the effects of mindfulness since 1979 and is Professor of Medicine Emeritus and founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Although watching you-tube isn’t always a mindfulness practice, I was really relaxed and centered when I had finished watching, and participating at one point(audience participation!), spending time with this innovative out of the box thinker talking about his life’s work with mindfulness.

I hope you feel that you can take the time to watch him as well, and perhaps take away some of his mindful thoughts and experiences on the benefits of being present in the mind and body.

You come from nothing, you go back to nothing, it’s what you do in between that matters. Don’t you want to always be present?

(For people in the area there are some good classes advertised at the Treehouse if you are looking for a teacher http://www.treehousewales.co.uk/ )

1)http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_If4a-gHg_I

2)http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jon_Kabat-Zinn