Saturday, 26 May 2012

Sensations change brain connections even in the ageing brain

ScienceDaily (May 24, 2012) — Despite a long-held scientific belief that much of the wiring of the brain is fixed by the time of adolescence, a new study shows that changes in sensory experience can cause massive rewiring of the brain, even as one ages. In addition, the study found that this rewiring involves fibers that supply the primary input to the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain that is responsible for sensory perception, motor control and cognition. These findings promise to open new avenues of research on brain remodeling and aging. Published in the May 24, 2012 issue of Neuron, the study was conducted by researchers at the Max Planck Florida Institute (MPFI) and at Columbia University in New York. "This study overturns decades-old beliefs that most of the brain is hard-wired before a critical period that ends when one is a young adult," said MPFI neuroscientist Marcel Oberlaender, PhD, first author on the paper. "By changing the nature of sensory experience, we were able to demonstrate that the brain can rewire, even at an advanced age. This may suggest that if one stops learning and experiencing new things as one ages, a substantial amount of connections within the brain may be lost." The researchers conducted their study by examining the brains of older rats, focusing on an area of the brain known as the thalamus, which processes and delivers information obtained from sensory organs to the cerebral cortex. Connections between the thalamus and the cortex have been thought to stop changing by early adulthood, but this was not found to be the case in the rodents studied. Being nocturnal animals, rats mainly rely on their whiskers as active sensory organs to explore and navigate their environment. For this reason, the whisker system is an ideal model for studying whether the brain can be remodeled by changing sensory experience. By simply trimming the whiskers, and preventing the rats from receiving this important and frequent form of sensory input, the scientists sought to determine whether extensive rewiring of the connections between the thalamus and cortex would occur. On examination, they found that the animals with trimmed whiskers had altered axons, nerve fibers along which information is conveyed from one neuron (nerve cell) to many others; those whose whiskers were not trimmed had no axonal changes. Their findings were particularly striking as the rats were considered relatively old -- meaning that this rewiring can still take place at an age not previously thought possible. Also notable was that the rewiring happened rapidly -- in as little as a few days. "We've shown that the structure of the rodent brain is in constant flux, and that this rewiring is shaped by sensory experience and interaction with the environment," said Dr. Oberlaender. "These changes seem to be life-long and may pertain to other sensory systems and species, including people. Our findings open the possibility of new avenues of research on development of the aging brain using quantitative anatomical studies combined with noninvasive imaging technologies suitable for humans, such as functional MRI (fMRI)." Max Planck Florida Institute (2012, May 24). Persistent sensory experience is good for aging brain. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 26, 2012, from­ /releases/2012/05/120524123209.htm

Friday, 25 May 2012

Can Depression be treated without medication?

Over the next few weeks I will explore the possible approaches to the treatment of depression without prescription but before we get into that I want to look at what depression is.

Clinical depression is a medical syndrome, it is the association of a cluster of symptoms which happen together too often for this to be a chance occurrence; it is common and it is serious and it is entirely treatable. The most important symptoms are biological: Loss of sleep (particularly early morning wakening) - occasionally lethargy and excessive sleep.  The mood on wakening is often changed - you make wake with a start (suddenly alert) and then the hours before breakfast are filled with negative thougts, morbid preoccupations and dread - or  you may wake with the experience of not having been rested by sleep.  Loss of appetite (especially if associated with weight loss) - or more rarely; increased appetite with weight gain.  Change of bowel habit (constipation or, in the over anxious, intestinal hurry) Loss of libido (a decease in sexual desire) - some women may have menstrual changes or even a cessation of normal cycle There may even be a symptom known as psychomotor retardation in which everything a person does or says is slowed down - in milder cases this can manifest as a subjective experience of an increased effort in order to achieve anything "getting out of bed is like climbing a mountain." The body typically is afflicted by aches and pains - musculoskeletal in origin. There is a typical headache which is described as having a tight band around the head (like wearing a hat which is too tight) The psychological symptoms include feeling helpless, hopeless and pointless - and it may get so bad that you feel worthless or even so bad that suicide becomes a constant preoccupation.

 If this describes you - go and see your doctor - this is an illness, it is a serious illness and it is completely treatable.

Dr Robin E Lawrence MRCP MRCPsych

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Healthy marriage interventions: A boom or a bust?

Healthy marriage interventions: A boom or a bust?

Training our Brains to see Ourselves in a More Attractive Light

— Researchers at the Department of Developmental and Educational Psychology have designed a programme called Mírate bien (Take a good look at yourself). It is a tool designed to enable us to learn to love our bodies and faces; and to improve our physical self-concept. Initiatives of this kind are routinely applied at educational establishments and high schools, but in this case there is a difference. The students participating in the programme are not asked to do any kind of physical activity. It is the cognitive side that has to be trained here: to restructure our perceptions so that we have a more realistic awareness about our image. Inge Axpe is one of the researchers who has worked on the design of this programme, and has submitted a thesis in which she provides details about this and about the pilot programme carried out using it at the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU). It is entitled Diseño y evaluación de un programa para la mejora del autoconcepto físico (Design and evaluation of a programme designed to improve physical self-concept). She has also had papers published on it, for example, in the journal Revista de Psicodidáctica. First of all, 21 judges -- eleven lay judges and ten experts -- undertook to evaluate and validate the programme, which was later applied to 813 students. 495 of them were the active part of this experience and the rest were the control population. In these cases students in Primary or Secondary Education tend to be worked with, but this initiative is different in this respect, too, since it was students at the University School of Teacher Training in Leioa (Bizkaia, Basque Country) who were studied. After all, it is they who will be the teachers of the children and teenagers of the future. Axpe believes that they need to be given practical classes before anything else to help them to improve their own physical self-concept. "That way they get to know all the variables relating to this matter and become aware of how important the variables are for young people, and how, as future teachers, they will, in turn, be able to help the youngsters work on them." Getting to the root of the problem Axpe mentions eating disorders as an example to explain what the cognitive perspective consists of. For example, a young person with bulimia may be attractive and do sport, yet have a very low physical self-concept. The programmes that tend to be applied in schools encourage physical activity and a balanced diet, which is of no use whatsoever in this case: it is no use at all telling this young person that he or she has bulimia and that it is not healthy. It is an internal problem, and to get to the root of it, the inadequacy of the approach has to be focused on, not the eating disorder itself. But how does one go about this? "It is no easy task, because these thoughts are deeply ingrained, but there are activities that allow them to be presented: one needs to get over to the young people the idea that we tend to interpret information in a very specific way. For example, we are affected by the things we are told externally, but the impact depends on our interpretation. Young people need to know that we have these tendencies, and that if we do not try to change them, we won't be able to change anything else." Procedure So the programme is divided into various stages: physical activities, healthy habits, external influences, etc. The working procedure is similar in each of them. First of all, it is about trying to awaken the interest of the students through the reading of some texts, and questions are put to them to encourage them to reflect. After that, for example in the physical activity phase, they need to say whether they do sports; in other words, to determine their situation within this stage. After that, the programme displays a list of unsuitable behaviours that seek to build the awareness of the young person through simple examples. As Axpe explains, a good example of inadequate thought is the tendency to generalise the defects: "That is the case of someone who thinks that his or her nose is too big, and when generalising this in an exaggerated way, says he or she is ugly. We offer them alternatives: we tell the young person that we should try and change that, and that he or she may not be happy with his or her nose, but he or she does have some lovely eyes." In short, this programme aims to bring about a cognitive restructuring and facilitate modifications in one's self-concept. According to this pilot experience, the students participating in the programme display signs of improvement in their physical self-concept. Statistically speaking, these early results are not enough to assert this, but there are differences that are worthy of note. As Axpe points out, the programme has shown its potential as a tool for building awareness about the implications of an inadequate physical self-concept, the variants that affect it and the possibility of changing it. She thinks that including tools of this kind is an essential component in the training of these university students, who are studying to become teachers. And she believes that this programme can also be applied to children and teenagers, as long as it is adapted: "It would need adaptations for all the ages. That is in fact our aim: to shape it, adapt the materials, and evaluate them as they are implemented."