This interview was conducted by Shaheen E Lakhan, MD, PhD, MEd, MS.
Barbara Arrowsmith-Young life’s work has been a quest to develop programs that use the principles of neuroplasticity to strengthen underlying cognitive functions in the brain that impact learning. Today she can assess, and has programs to strengthen, 19 cognitive areas of potential learning dysfunction. In her book, The Woman Who Changed Her Brain: Stories of Transformation from the Frontier of Brain Science, she chronicle’s the brain’s ability to change. Through the practical application of the principles of neuroplasticity — simply put the brain’s ability to change as the result of mental exercise — we can change the brain’s capacity to learn and to function and this can happen throughout the lifespan.
Combining her own dramatic personal story with case histories from her three decades as a researcher and educator, Arrowsmith-Young unravels the mystery of how the brain mediates our functioning in the world.
SL: How did you come to realize you had severe learning disabilities?
BAY: In grade 1, at six years of age, I remember listening in quiet horror as my teacher informed my mother that I had a mental block and that I would never learn like the other children in my class. As children do, I understood this truth quite literally, believing that a chunk of wood was lodged in my brain. The teacher was almost right. The word block missed the mark, but blockage was pretty close. For the first twenty-seven years of my life, I lived in a dense fog.
I reversed numbers and letters, struggled with reading and writing, and could make no sense of the relationship between the big and little hands of an analogue clock. Asked to perform the simple addition of a small two-digit column of numbers, I would randomly choose numbers from the left or right side. The logic of basic math, the concept of telling time, the ability to truly comprehend what I was hearing or reading: all eluded me. On the playground, I couldn’t follow conversations or the rules of simple games. I could hear the words, but people might as well have been speaking a foreign language — as I was later to learn the part of my brain that interpreted meaning was not working properly, my translator was broken.
I was labeled “slow” and “difficult.” My first grade teacher, convinced I was being deliberately stubborn, administered the strap.
Some parts of my brain responded like a finely tuned musical instrument; others were not to be relied upon. There was no language then to describe my condition. The phrase learning disabled would not be coined until 1962 by a Chicago psychologist named Samuel Kirk and not come into common usage until the late 1970s. Fifty years ago, when I was a child, you were seen as smart or slow or somewhere in-between. The belief then was the brain you were born with was fixed and hardwired and so I was told I had best learn to adjust to my limitations.
I became a workaholic in grade one, studying before I left for school in the morning, over the lunch hour, and as soon as I got home from school, just to stay afloat in an incomprehensible world. I could not understand cause and effect, so felt buffeted by random events, unable to see the ‘why’ of things. As I advanced from grade to grade, the going got harder and I had to double and redouble my efforts.
Not only was I cut off from understanding the world of language, I had other brain deficits that meant I could not excel in sports. I would misjudge where my body was in space so constantly ran into things, bruised my body, chipped teeth and took stitches — my whole left side felt alien to me, almost as if I had suffered a stroke at birth. I had difficulty registering sensation on the left side of my body, was “accident-prone,” and a long series of mishaps had left a roadmap of scars on my body and my psyche.
I felt there was no arena in which I could be successful, there were no solutions on the horizon, there were periods of despair, and suicide was contemplated as a way to end the pain of the struggle.
SL: How did you manage to cope with your neurological deficits and eventually complete graduate-level studies?
BAY: Along with my crippling learning deficits, I was gifted in some areas. I had a verbatim auditory memory and a visual photographic memory. I came to rely on memory to absorb what was required to pass exams, literally memorizing my notes and textbooks and matching the exam question with what I hoped was the correct answer from my store of memorized information. I also was strong in what is now referred to as ‘executive functions’ — the myriad of processes that the prefrontal cortex, both in the left and right hemisphere, are responsible for. This was the engine that kept driving me to seek a solution to my problem and eventually lead me to put together the two lines of research I happened upon when in graduate school which provided the solution to my problem and became the basis of my life’s work.
SL: How did you connect neuroplasticity studies in animal models and humans to your own life?
BAY: In 1977, when I was twenty-five years old I happened upon a book The Man With a Shattered World: The History of a Brain Wound written by a Russian neuropsychologist, Alexander Luria, and began reading the account of Zazetsky, a Russian soldier who had suffered a brain wound. As I read his words, “I’m in a kind of fog all the time… All that flashes through my mind are images, hazy visions that suddenly appear and disappear.” This brain-damaged soldier was describing himself but he was also describing me. I was dumbstruck, I am living this man’s life I thought.
Neither of us could tell time. Trauma inflicted on a particular part of Zazetsky’s brain resulted in his losing the ability to tell time. But where a bullet had inflicted the damage on this soldier’s brain, I entered the world with my brain as part of my genetic baggage.
I now had an explanation for my years of struggle. Here was evidence that my learning disabilities were physical, with each one rooted in a specific part of my brain. This realization marked the turning point in my life. Despair turned into determination to hunt for a solution to this ‘brain’ problem.
The problem, for both Zazetsky and me, lay in the left hemisphere at the intersection of three brain regions — the temporal (linked to sound and spoken language), the occipital (linked to sight), and the parietal (linked to kinesthetic sensations). Both Zazetsky and I saw perfectly well and heard perfectly well; making sense of what we saw and heard was the issue.
During this time, I came across the research of American psychologist, Mark Rosenzweig, at the University of California at Berkeley. He demonstrated that the brain (of rats) can physically change in response to stimulation, what we now refer to as ‘neuroplasticity’. If a rat could change his brain as a result of very specific stimulation, I had to believe that a human could do the same. I married the work of Rosenzweig and Luria in order to create an exercise to change my brain.
I had no idea whether this might work, but I had nothing to lose but time. And this, I had already lost. Luria explained that people with lesions in this cortical region (the juncture in the brain of the parietal-occipital-temporal lobes) had difficulty telling time on an analogue clock. I wondered, therefore, if a clock-reading exercise might stimulate this part of my brain.
I created flash cards, not so different from the ones my mother had used with me in Grade 1 to teach me number facts. Since I could not accurately tell time, I had to use a watch and turn the hands to the correct time (with a friend’s help), and then draw the clock face. I would do the exercises every day for up to twelve hours a day, and as I got better at the task I made the flash cards more complex. The goal was to make my brain work exceedingly hard at interpreting relationships and over time what I found was that I could begin to interpret relationships in what I read and what I heard — and this had been impossible for me before doing this work.
SL: How did you apply your knowledge of neuroplasticity into the Arrowsmith School and Program?
BAY: When I saw the results of doing this mental exercise – being able to understand text as I read it, grasp conversations as they unfolded in real time, see points of logic in mathematics, follow reasoned arguments, all things that with the best effort in the world, I had never been able to do before, I knew something fundamentally had changed in my brain to allow me to grasp and process relationships. I knew there was beneficial value in putting together Luria’s work of identifying the function of different brain areas and Rosenzweig’s work of stimulating function, and went on to create exercises to work the function of other areas that had caused me problems – my penchant for getting lost (even in buildings) to my lack of coordination and clumsiness that led to lots of physical injuries. As I worked my way through these mental exercises, I saw changes specific to function of these areas – I could read maps, create maps inside my head, navigate through space without getting lost and I could move through narrow spaces without bumping into things, I could use the left side of my body in an efficient and coordinated manner, no more accidents.
This then became my quest, to apply what I had learned from my own experience, to use this research to create additional exercises to stimulate and strengthen more and more cognitive functions, with some of these creations being discarded, until I developed programs for a broad range of problems (19 to date) covering auditory memory, memory for symbols, memory for objects and faces, motor planning in writing, sense of number/quantification, non-verbal interpretation, reasoning, thinking/strategizing/ problem solving, kinesthetic perception of the body in space, spatial reasoning and mechanical reasoning.
In 1978 I began applying these programs to children struggling with learning disorders in an after school program and in 1980 I founded a private school to further develop, refine and deliver programs to children, adolescents and adults. The program continues to be refined based on the performance of the thousands of individuals who have been involved in the work.
The philosophy that the learner is not fixed, but can be modified through the application of the principles of neuroplasticity sets the Arrowsmith Program apart from the majority of other programs for students with learning difficulties. The Arrowsmith Program is capacity based in that it changes the cognitive capacity of the student to learn, rather than compensatory which tries to work around the problem. Strengthening these weaker capacities increases the overall functioning of these specific cognitive areas, allowing them to be used more effectively for learning.
This excellent article was written by Alix Spiegel.
Around 10 years ago, Malcolm MacLeod got interested in forgetting.
For most people, the tendency to forget is something we spend our time cursing. Where are my keys? What am I looking for in the refrigerator again? What is that woman’s name?
But MacLeod, who works as a memory researcher at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, took a radically different view of forgetting. He wanted to know if it might be possible for people to do it better, to improve their ability to forget, specifically, their ability to intentionally forget their own personal memories.
That time in fourth grade when you walked down the hall with your skirt tucked into the back of your underwear, if you sat down and practiced forgetting, could you erase it?
Certainly there were people who competed in memory competitions who practiced techniques for remembering and were wildly successful. At the 2012 USA Memory Championship in March, the returning champion, Nelson Dellis, had memorized 303 random numbers, 162 unknown names and faces, and 24 lines of poetry in a matter of hours. If you did those kind of techniques, only in a strange reverse, could you expand a person’s ability to forget in the same way that memory competitors expanded their ability to remember?
MacLeod and his co-researcher, Saima Noreen, were extremely doubtful. “Autobiographical memory is so vivid, so rich, that it’s going to be incredibly difficult to keep from mind those sorts of events that you’ve personally experienced,” MacLeod says.
Still, they were curious. They figured that learning to forget could potentially help people with depression or maybe even post-traumatic stress disorder. And so they decided to give forgetting a try and went about setting up some experiments.
Blocking Memories With Practice
MacLeod and Noreen weren’t the first to experiment with intentional forgetting. There’s a history of psychological research into forgetting, though it’s much less developed than other areas of memory research. In 2001 a cognitive scientist named Michael Anderson published a study where he taught his research subjects pairs of unrelated words (apple, desk) and then, through a procedure he developed called the “think/no think” technique, taught them to forget the pairs that they’d previously known stone cold.
And so MacLeod and Noreen took this technique as a starting point and invited a series of people into their lab.
The experiments started with MacLeod and Noreen showing their subjects a series of different words — “barbecue,” “theater,” “occasion,” “rapid,” for example — and then telling them to generate one specific personal memory in response to each word.
There were 24 words in all, and after the subjects had described their memories, they were all sent home and told to come back a week later.
The following week, when they returned, they were given a transcript of each of the memories they’d shared, along with the specific word that had generated it. They reviewed the words and memories until they knew exactly which word went with which memory, and then were put in front of a computer and told that they would see each of those words flash on the computer screen in front of them.
If the word appeared in green, they were to repeat the memory associated with that word out loud, but if the word appeared in red, it was very important for them not to think about the memory associated with that word.
MacLeod and Noreen showed the subjects 16 of the 24 words over and over and over. Each time a subject either repeated the memory or blocked it. Some people apparently pictured a blank; others distracted themselves with other thoughts.
‘A Significant Forgetting Effect’
At the end of this process, the subjects were tested to see if there was a change in what they recalled. And there was — in the memories that had been repeatedly blocked.
“There was a significant forgetting effect, about a 12 percent drop in the level of details recalled,” MacLeod says. “That’s a large effect.”
What’s interesting, though, is which part of the memories were forgotten.
To understand, consider the following transcript that was given to me by Noreen, which is based on one of the actual memories in the study. It involves a girl getting a new pair of very short pants from her mother.
The cause of the event was me wearing a new pair of trousers that my mom had bought for me for secondary school when I first started. The consequence of the event was that at lunch time when I went to the bathroom an older girl started making fun of me for having short trousers. It was the first time I felt uncomfortable with what I was wearing. It made me feel very self conscious and I hated that.
That was the original memory, but after blocking this memory again and again, certain details began to fall away. It’s not that she forgot what happened, Noreen says, instead, she began to lose the personal meaning associated with that memory.
“The fact that she said, ‘It was the first time I felt uncomfortable with what I was wearing,’ and also she forgot that she said that it made her feel very self-conscious and she hated that,” Noreen says.
Essentially the blocking caused her to lose the fact that it was emotionally painful, which, Noreen says, is what they consistently found. In general, people didn’t forget the facts; they forgot how those facts made them feel — the meaning of the facts.
This, Noreen says, is probably because what a memory means is usually derived after the event takes place. And though when you tell someone your memory it seems like it’s part of the memory itself, personal meaning often changes.
“Obviously, if something negative happened but you’re in a happy place now, then you might interpret that negative event as being not positive but … potentially leading to where you are now, so you can see positive in that event,” Noreen says. “You’re always deriving different meanings from the same event.”
And because that part of our memory shifts, it’s less secure and easier to forget. At least that’s their theory. But they don’t yet know how long this forgetting effect will last, if it might evaporate over time. They’ve done a year follow-up but haven’t crunched the numbers on it yet and will publish after they know what the follow-up has found.
The biggest question, of course, is whether this work will ever have practical applications. Will we one day know so much about forgetting that we’ll actually be able to train ourselves to forget? Noreen and MacCloud say it’s way too early to tell. But they can both see ways that particular skill could be helpful. “I think everyone’s probably tried to forget something,” Noreen says.
Whether it has practical applications or not, both MacLeod and Noreen believe that our capacity to forget is as important, and certainly as interesting, as our ability to remember.
Written By Claire Bates
PUBLISHED:11:46 GMT, 3 September 2012| UPDATED: 11:46 GMT, 3 September 2012
Doctors have long recognized a link between alcoholism and anxiety disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
Now researchers have found that heavy alcohol use actually rewires brain circuitry, making it harder for binge drinkers to recover psychologically following a traumatic experience.
‘There’s a whole spectrum to how people react to a traumatic event,’ said study author Dr Thomas Kash, of the University of North Carolina.
‘It’s the recovery that we’re looking at – the ability to say ‘this is not dangerous anymore.’
People may be tempted to start drinking to block out a painful time in life, but experts have found this can cause problems long term
‘Basically, our research shows that chronic exposure to alcohol can cause a deficit with regard to how our cognitive brain centres control our emotional brain centres.’
The study, which has been published online by the journal Nature Neuroscience, was conducted by scientists at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) and UNC’s Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies.
Over the course of a month, the researchers gave one group of mice doses of alcohol equivalent to double the legal driving limit in humans. A second group of mice was given no alcohol. The team then used mild electric shocks to train all the mice to fear the sound of a brief tone.
When the tone was repeatedly played without the accompanying electric shock, the mice with no alcohol exposure gradually stopped fearing it. The mice with chronic alcohol exposure, on the other hand, froze in place each time the tone was played, even long after the electric shocks had stopped.
Dr Thomas Kash studies why alcoholics relapse
The pattern is similar to what is seen in patients with PTSD, who have trouble overcoming fear even when they are no longer in a dangerous situation.
Co-author Dr Andrew Holmes from NIAAA, said: ‘A history of heavy alcohol abuse could impair a critical mechanism for recovering from a trauma, and in doing so put people at greater risk for PTSD.’
The researchers traced the negative effect of drinking to differences in the neural circuitry of the alcohol-exposed mice. Comparing the brains of the mice, researchers noticed nerve cells in the prefrontal cortex of the alcohol-exposed mice actually had a different shape than those of the other mice. In addition, the activity of a key receptor, NMDA, was suppressed in the mice given heavy doses of alcohol.
Dr Holmes said the findings are valuable because they pinpoint exactly where alcohol causes damage that leads to problems overcoming fear.
‘We’re not only seeing that alcohol has detrimental effects on a clinically important emotional process, but we’re able to offer some insight into how alcohol might do so by disrupting the functioning of some very specific brain circuits,’ he said.
Understanding the relationship between alcohol and anxiety at the molecular level could offer new possibilities for developing drugs to help patients with anxiety disorders who also have a history of heavy alcohol use.
‘This study is exciting because it gives us a specific molecule to look at in a specific brain region, thus opening the door to discovering new methods to treat these disorders,’ said Dr Kash
This fascinating article was first published in the Age.
THE stress of combat can change the way soldiers’ brains are wired, resulting in a reduced cognitive function, such as the ability to focus on tasks.
Published in the journal PNAS this week, the results showed that exposure to ”combat stress” – including armed combat, enemy fire, combat patrols and improvised explosive device blasts – affected the structural integrity of the midbrain and its ability to interact with the pre-frontal cortex.
Julie Krans, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of New South Wales, said the study findings illustrated that exposure to highly stressful situations wasn’t just expressed via post-traumatic stress disorder.
”[The soldiers] may not be suffering a clinical disorder but they are still impairing their daily life,” she said.
Dr Krans said more attention should be given to the effect of combat stress on cognitive functions such as attention, memory, problem-solving and decision-making.
The research studied a group of NATO soldiers before they were deployed to Afghanistan and compared the results with tests taken six weeks after the troops returned from a four-month stint.
The researchers, from Dutch institutions including the University of Amsterdam and the Ministry of Defence, used a range of measures including functional MRI to compare brain changes tied to ”executive functions”, which rely on attention and working memory for planning and decision-making.
The 33 soldiers who participated were selected from the NATO International Security Assistance Force peacekeeping operation. The researchers used 26 soldiers, who had never been deployed to a combat zone, as a control group.
The results showed reduced activity in the midbrain six weeks after exposure to combat stress.
Upon follow-up 18 months later, changes to the connections between the midbrain and the pre-frontal cortex remained, suggesting combat stress may have long-lasting effects on cognitive brain circuitry.
Sandy McFarlane, director of the Centre for Traumatic Stress Studies at Adelaide University, said the study demonstrated the need for regular time away from combat zones to allow soldiers’ brains to ”re-set”. Professor McFarlane said the findings were consistent with similar studies, including an American one that found working memory was adversely affected by exposure to combat.
”[That study showed] this slowly corrects itself with time, except in those who go on to get post-traumatic stress disorder.”
This article was first published by The Age, 4 September 2012.
I know what you’re thinking, we’re all pretty much addicted to water, but we don’t feel like drinking it every moment of every day, and we certainly don’t consume over six gallons of it, daily. But Sasha Kennedy does, and that definitely makes her a water addict.
Drinking plenty of water is generally regarded as healthy advice, but they say too much of a good think can sometimes be bad for you, and 26-year-old Sasha Kennedy, from Essex, England, is certainly overdoing it. The young mother of two says she drinks about 25 liters of water a day, and can hardly go one hour without water, even at night. Because of her strange addiction, Sasha is forced to carry bottles of water with her, everywhere she goes, and has to use the bathroom up to 40 times a day.
Kennedy’s unquenchable thirst began when she was around two years old. She kept asking her parents for more water, which made them take her to a doctor. After examining her, physicians determined there was nothing wrong, but by age six, her mother had to leave a pint of water by Sasha’s bedside, during the night. She began taking bottles of water with her at school, and while all the other kids were playing during breaks, she would spend most of her time close to the water fountain. By the time she turned 13, she was already drinking around 15 liters of water per day, and the nighttime jug was replaced with a 5-liter plastic container.
At 16, Sasha left school and started working in a shoe stop stockroom, where her colleagues decided to move the water cooler next to her desk, after noticing how much water she drank. In her early 20s she reached 20 liters of water a day, but her addiction peaked when she started working from home, for a telecoms company, in 2007. She now consumes between 18 and 25 liters of water every day, which probably makes her the most hydrated person on the planet.
“If I feel my mouth start to get dry I have to get my next fix of water – it’s all I can focus on. People never really think anyone can drink that much until they get to know me – then they just cannot believe their eyes,” Sasha told the Daily Mail. “I feel thirsty pretty much all the time and always have to be sipping water – it’s an addictive habit.” The water addict says the most sleep she has ever had was about an hour and 15 minutes, before getting up to either have a drink or go to the bathroom.
With the average adult drinking around 200ml of water a day, you can say Sasha Kennedy’s case is pretty rare. Although she feels ok physically, experts say this overhydration can lead to all kinds of problems, and can even be fatal, in rare cases. Our body’s cells start swelling up with the excess water, and while most of them can cope with the swelling, those in the brain get pushed against the skull.
This article was first printed at Oddity Central