Brain Functioning and Neuroscience – The Basics You Asked For

Recently, after having a traumatic brain injury and sparking an internal interest in finding out more about how the brain works, I have been researching neurological processes. I have been studying different scientists and theories about neurological functioning and cognitive abilities. I have been going to conferences to hear specialists in neuroscience lecture about these different subjects. A lot of the subjects are on memory, PTSD, OCD, anxiety, depression and stress. Many people have asked me what I have been learning in the conferences and self-study.

The first key point in learning about the brain was about memory. Life is all memory except for the one present moment that goes so quickly that you hardly remember it. When things in life happen so quickly that you don’t have time to process and realize it, you can never remember that certain things happened. That is why some people don’t remember certain facts and details about certain events. You can only remember what you personally experienced. The brain has multiple memory systems and skill learning habits. The studies that have been done are on individual research studies, subjective and objective on patients as well as brain imaging studies using MRI. There were qualitative quantitative studies done.

The brain uses automatic and controlled processes.

STRESS- Stress is a negative emotional experience by predictable biochemical, physiological, cognitive, and the febrile changes that are directed towards altering stressful event accommodating its effects. There are normal and abnormal responses to stress. These responses are learned, taught, and picked up at various points along the way. There are many things we can do to reduce stress. Some of those are scheduling better and rest periods from work and not overdoing it on the social end. It is all about balance. A huge part of relieving stress and balancing the stress levels in the brain is getting adequate sleep. Avoiding caffeine and alcohol as well as avoiding pharmaceutical sleep aids.

MEMORY- there was a study done on Henry Molaison. Henry had a seizure disorder. He went through surgery to treat the seizures. In the surgery they removed his Hippocampus area of the brain. The surgery was successful in treating the seizures but it left him with a memory deficit. This deficit was studied in detail and later study another patients undergoing the procedure. People with traumatic brain injury’s or any damage to the hippocampus will have problems with memory loss.(If you pointed directly at your ear towards your head that is the area of the hippocampus). With damage to this area you have a complete inability to learn and retain NEW facts and events about the world. The remote memories which are old memories will be intact. Those tracks have already been laid in your brain and you remember the information as memories. You can go back neurologically into your brain cells to retrieve these memories for what you have already learned. After having brain trauma you are unable to consolidate new information and keep it. Nobody will know there is anything wrong with you until they ask you to recall new information. The current conversations that are held or remembered as long as the conversations kept active that day. Once the conversation is ended, the person will not be able to remember what was talked about. New introductions, processes, locations and anything else will not be retained. People in these scenarios have to learn to make Post-it notes and put reminders in their phone to remember peoples names and locations and job skills.

The question most asked about this is how does somebody with this memory deficit remember to put up Post-It notes and set reminders. The interesting part about this amnesia and brain injuries in the hippocampus is that it leaves intact the ability to acquire and express skilled performance. Routines are key. The technical term is that with hippocampus injuries the declarative or explicit memory is lost. The non declarative or implicit memory is intact. This means simple classical conditioning, skills and habits, non-associative learning, and priming. This is due to a division of labor in the brain. There are different systems that provide evidence for multiple memory systems. This is evident during MRI brain scan’s during questioning patients to recall past events and short-term events. They look at what area lights up during this recollection or non-recollection.

An example of this is mirror reversed reading. If you put three words written backwards over and over and read them you would eventually learn how to read them faster. People with intact systems on both ends will memorize them and remember them. The brain injured patient will eventually be able to learn to do them faster, but will never remember practicing to learn them.

When you drink too much and don’t remember how you got where you are after blacking out – this is an example of this type of memory. The person will know that they missed the time period. But they don’t know what happened or why. The fact that you understand you missed a time period is what happens with brain injury patients. They are aware that there is a deficit, but they don’t know what it is. The brain can continue to learn through experience. It won’t know that it is learning but through experience it builds routine and remembers the expertise. This is how people can maintain a job afterwards. Is long as it is a job they had prior to the accident. You don’t have to be consciously awake to remember skills habits and behaviors.

THE AMYGDALA- This is the area of the brain that I find most interesting. This is the area that stores the emotional memories. It is at the end of the hippocampal region in the brain. The hippocampus remembers what happened exactly, while the amygdala recalls the emotions surrounding what happened. Therefore, people may not remember specific events that took place, but they will have emotions associated with events they can’t remember. This is also known as sensory memory. This explains why adults will have different quirks when they are touched by a stranger or they hear yelling or have weird phobias. They don’t know why they are scared of something or why they jumped when they are touched but it reverts back to when they were a child and had traumatic instances that they can’t physically remember but they remember the emotional response surrounding it. Many cases in child sexual abuse when a child hears a familiar voice of somebody who has hurt them when they were younger, they get scared. Nobody understands why and the child won’t be able to verbalize why because they don’t know. Their bodies and sensory memory remembers that this was a voice present during a traumatic event.

The amygdala is learned through experience and it tells you to avoid something. It is a fear system. It causes you to take pause. Your signals that you should avoid something. I don’t always know where this fear came from, but it gives me fear reactions. So you do not need your hippocampus to learn fear. You can teach and condition fear. When you see a facial expression, whether it is angry, happy or sad your amygdala picks up on that reaction and forms and an emotion based on the face you saw. That is what puts up the red flags. It has learned in the past that there was something negative associated. The AMYGDALA is hyperactive in PTSD patients. That is where hypervigilance and the exaggerated startle response comes from.

MEMORIES ARE MALLEABLE – When they say that you can convince yourself into believing anything it is true. Memories, in the simple nature of how they are stored, recalled and encoded are able to be reconstructed. Our memories are not always accurate. They are reconstructions of our past. It’s like a kaleidoscope, all the pieces are there of what happened, but you have to go back and be able to put all the pieces together every time you bring back a memory. So every time you put the memory back you place them differently in the brain. Therefore every time you recall them some details will be different. Many studies have proven this fact. This is how cognitive behavioral therapy works. You ask people with post traumatic stress disorder or other traumatic psych issues to recall events. Once they verbalize them you manipulate the facts surrounding the event so when they move forward from the conversation it is stored differently than the way it was originally brought up. Therefore the stress response related with this memory is less and each time it’s talked about and manipulated.

This is why leading questions are not the way to handle patients or subjects in the courtroom. Eyewitness and courtroom testimony has been brought into question because of this study from Loftus and Palmer in 1974. Studies have shown that leading questions will give you different answers then non- leading questions. This is because they remember the base of what you asked and they form their response based on certain words asked.

OBSESSIVE COMPULSIVE DISORDER- Patients with this have recurrent thoughts or images that are inappropriate and distressing. In order to be diagnosed with OCD it has to be excessive or unreasonable. It has to cause marked distress and be time-consuming to the point that it interferes with life. It is caused by the Caudate area in the brain. There is a failure to filter in the system. It causes anxiety and avoidance in the patient. There is a new treatment for OCD where they put an electrical stimulation system into your brain and it focuses on the caudate. When this area is stimulated the patient does not experience OCD symptoms as bad. In all the studies there was a 20% reduction of the OCD symptoms. This may not seem significant but when the compulsions are to hurt people then it is justified.

ADDICTION- Addiction is related to cue- reactivity. Dopamine is the key chemical here. Dopamine reward circuits are associated with the drive, push to respond, and wanting. A dopamine release means whatever it is you just did repeat it. This is the same driver for athletes- People who get runners highs. This is an incredibly powerful motivational system. The nucleus accumbens is the dopamine reward center in the brain. Dopamine is the craving response. That is why if you see a picture during a neurological study you will have an increase in heart rate you will start sweating you will have subjective cravings and mesolimbic dopamine activity. When patients in the study were shown pictures of cocaine, alcohol, sex, and nicotine, these were all activated. If you see something you know you want dopamine is what activates and you were motivated to do it. That is what makes addicts so difficult to help. When they have a buddy who does it with them it motivates them to do it even more. When you remove an addict from the situation there are less cues that initiate that response. Even a picture, a smell or mention of it will activate that dopaminergic response. That is why it is crucial with severe addiction to remove the person from the entire environment and start them over elsewhere. Pornography is also a dopaminergic response to a cue-reaction When they see the picture they respond. This could have maladaptive consequences. It is an addiction. It is crucial to convince people to want to self regulate the systems. There is something to be said about getting people to want to end their addiction. If that is not there then nothing you do will change that. It truly has to come from within.

SLEEP- Sleep is important for memory consolidation. Astrocytes after the neurons going to the brain. When you sleep they get bigger and they do what they need to do to clean up. If you don’t sleep for a long period of time your internal organs start shutting down. This is because the chemicals are not getting cleaned up after they are supposed to. The science of it is – Any action inside the body causes a metabolic response. Free radicals and trace chemicals are leftover of the body processes signals, thoughts, actions. GET MORE SLEEP= BE HEALTHIER.

These are just basics from what I learned…. I found it all very interesting especially with having a traumatic brain injury myself.

Kelly, B. Ph.D- Dartmouth College neuroscience was a main neuroscientist I have been researching through. Keep in mind that if you talk to a dozen different scientists they will give you a dozen different theories. That is why it is important to research empirical evidence that studies have found. This way you are getting accurate information.

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