When you hold in mind a sentence you have just read or a phone number you’re about to dial, you’re engaging a critical brain system known as working memory. For the past several decades, neuroscientists have believed that as information is held in working memory, brain cells associated with that information fire continuously. However, a new study from MIT has upended that theory, instead finding that as information is held in working memory, neurons fire in sporadic, coordinated bursts. These cyclical bursts could help the brain to hold multiple items in working memory at the same time, according to the
TBI can certainly make life interesting… in the sense of that old Chinese curse “may you live in interesting times”. One of the “interesting” things about TBI, is how it can screw with your sensory perceptions, as well as you interpretation of those sensations.
Anybody with TBI can probably tell you how life takes on an unreal quality when you’re hurt. Things slow down. Or speed up. Things that never bothered you before suddenly become unbearable. Things that you used to not care about, suddenly take on all the importance in the world.
And life can seem pretty unreal.
Our lives are turned upside-down in a number of ways.
- We may not sense our environment the way we used to. First off, our attention can get wonky — TBI often makes you more distractable, which means you’re not paying consistent attention to the world around you. And your short-term working memory (the short-range stuff that makes it possible for you to talk to people and remember what they said earlier in the discussion, or that lets you start a task and complete it) can be messed up, too.That means you don’t pick up all the clues you could, or you drop the ones you get — and never know it. I had a hell of a time with holding conversations for many, many years, because I didn’t realize I was losing track of what people were saying — and I never took corrective action until after I found out. (I’m much better, now, by the way.) Distractability can also affect your perception of the world around you, keeping you from sensing. It’s not uncommon for me to walk into furniture and never see important details and also not hear what I should, thanks to distractability. So, the world around us is literally changed at the very first point we contact it.
- The information that does get through to us can get distorted along the way. Within the body, between the synapses, there’s this thing called the “synaptic cleft” — a space between the synapses that electrochemical impulses need to “jump” to transmit information. Per Wikipedia, it’s
An electrochemical wave called an action potential travels along the axon of a neuron. When the action potential reaches the presynaptic terminal, it provokes the release of a small quantity of neurotransmitter molecules, which bind to chemical receptor molecules located in the membrane of another neuron, the postsynaptic neuron, on the opposite side of the synaptic cleft.
There are 100–500 trillion synapses in the human brain alone — and considering that there are also neurons elsewhere in the body (the gut, for example), that’s a lot of tiny little spaces that signals have to get across. On top of all those
billionstrillions of connections that need to be made properly for info to get across, TBI can mess with your biochemistry, your neurochemistry, either increasing or decreasing neurotransmitter action, so that very sensitive, very fine connection that needs to get made… just so… stands a pretty good chance of getting at least a little mucked up.
- And then we come to our brain. The very thing that got hurt. Our brains may not process what comes across in exactly the same way they used to, and our experience of the information that gets through may be distorted. The stories of light and noise sensitivity are myriad, along with accounts of sensitivity to touch, the inability to tolerate certain scents and sensations after a brain injury. With me, even years later, some days can feel like my whole body is going haywire. And I can’t deal. When I’m tired, when my brain is taxed, when I’ve run out of steam… yah, all of the above… and more.
- Our interpretation of those experiences may be messed up, so we interpret what’s happening completely wrong. I’m especially prone to this. And the armies of TBI/concussion survivors who are impacted by this, are legion. In my own personal case, my mood and emotions are strongly impacted by how I feel physically. When I am in chronic pain, I tend to get depressed and feel like there’s no way out. When I am exhausted and feel physically ill with fatigue, I can slip into a state of mind that doesn’t care if I wake up in the morning. When I am just feeling physically worn out from the stress of dealing with the day-to-day, and I have to work extra hard to interact with people, I tend to interpret that as not being good with people, being anti-social, and generally being socially useless. It has nothing to do with the facts of the matter. I’m just feeling that way, and I’m letting that feeling hijack my judgment.
So, TBI hits you on a number of levels that can progressively screw with your entire perception of yourself and the world around you. It’s a whole-system head-trip, and the end result can make us feel / think / act like we’re crazy.
Which may seem like bad news… but it doesn’t have to be.
See, the thing is… even without TBI, our bodies can play tricks on us that eventually affect our minds. We ALL have those days, when we’re distracted and not paying attention to the world around us… which causes us to miss important pieces of information. We do it all the time. We’re paying attention to our phone screen and miss the last sentence someone said to us. We’re fiddling with the car radio and miss our turn off the freeway.
And all the other conditions apply to everyone, as well:
- Everyone’s neurotransmitters need to jump the gap, every time our senses communicate what we do manage to detect, and neurotransmitters can vary without needing an injury to complicate them.
- Everyone’s brains need to decode what comes across, and the human brain is notoriously inconsistent — especially when it comes to fatigue, poor diet, illness, and other factors that screw up our cognition.
- And of course, we’re all subject to flights of fancy and delusions, where we misinterpret what we think has “come across the wires”. People are extremely good at reading meanings into situations — regardless of whether those suspicions are valid. Most people are walking around with a made-up version of what’s happening around them, and most of us are wrong in many subtle ways. Basically, we’re so good at forming our own meanings and inventing stories that make sense of an often senseless world, that countless people are cognitively isolated and living in their own private Idahos, even while thinking everyone else is living in that same state with them.
The benefit of TBI, is that it accentuates all these conditions and can make them so exaggerated, that even we can tell we’re full of sh*t. Which is a helpful place to start from. Think about all the people walking around who think they’ve got it all figured out — and are making life a living hell for themselves and others. Now, TBI can absolutely blind you to the wrong spots in your thinking and process, so that can be a problem, but for those of us who understand that our brains have been impacted and our minds have been warped by this thing called traumatic brain injury, we’re actually a bit ahead of the game.
If you want to live well, you need to understand your own limitations and factor them in — and not take yourself so damn’ seriously. Being ultra-familiar with your own feet of clay is a good place to start from, for having no clue of how clueless you are can make you downright dangerous — to yourself and others.
Knowing what’s busted is the first step to fixing things, and far from being a liability, it’s ironically a very strong place to start from.
After that, anything is possible.
Study Funded by The ALS Association Finds That Neurons Can Be Reprogrammed to Take on New Identities
WASHINGTON, Jan. 29, 2013 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ — In work supported by The ALS Association and funded through The Milton Safenowitz Post-Doctoral Fellowship Program, researchers have for the first time reprogrammed a neuron from one type into another and have done so in a living organism. The finding will help scientists better understand how to control neuronal development and may one day aid in treating diseases in which neurons die, such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The study was published in the journal Nature Cell Biology.
ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. Eventually, people with ALS lose the ability to initiate and control muscle movement, which often leads to total paralysis and death within two to five years of diagnosis. There is no cure and no life-prolonging treatments for the disease.
“This discovery tells us again that the brain is a somehow flexible system and gives us more evidence that reprogramming neurons to take on new identities and, perhaps, that new functions are possible,” said Lucie Bruijn, Ph.D., Chief Scientist for The Association. “For those working to treat neurodegenerative diseases, that is reassuring.”
Brain plasticity has to do with the ability of the brain to alter its structure and functions in response to external changes and stimuli and affects your cognition. Some of these can involve molecular changes such as new neural pathways or disconnected neural pathways. And others can entail other parts of the brain taking over functions which it might otherwise not perform. There are three main forms of brain plasticity which will be described below.
3.Functional Compensatory Plasticity
While I was having my breakfast this morning, it occurred to me that this morning ritual of mine has been one of the things that has really fueled my recovery. See, each morning — almost without fail (unless I have an early appointment or I oversleep) — I get up and make myself some breakfast. I usually do a little bit of exercise first, but no matter whether I ride the exercise bike for 15 minutes or I do pushups and squats or I do a bit of yoga, I always have my breakfast. I fix it deliberately, paying attention to what I’m doing, then I sit down and eat it, paying close attention to the whole process.
I don’t just pour myself a bowl of cereal and gobble it down, reading the paper as I eat. I really take the time for myself to really enjoy it while I’m doing it. There have been times when I have wanted to rush through, but I didn’t let myself. It’s important that I pay attention. If I rush, I tend so spill things and make a mess, and the last thing I need is to make a mess while I’m trying to start the day right.
This is important for a number of reasons.
First, I am investing time in taking care of myself.
Second, I am slowing myself down on a regular basis, first thing in the morning, which sets the tone for the rest of the day.
Third, I am paying very close attention. Even when I don’t want to, I practically force myself to. And I’m always glad when I do.
At just the time when I feel like flaking out, I force myself to bear down, and it helps me. Not only does it get me out of my head and get me thinking about something other than my own self-pity and self-defeating thoughts, but it also helps me build more brain connections. From what I’ve read, attending very closely to things builds synaptic connections — neurons that fire together, wire together — which means that my paying close attention to my breakfast builds up more connections in my brain.
Sometimes I notice different things — the way the egg and toast combine visually, or the way the butter and jelly on my toast tastes. Sometimes I mess up the whole process of getting breakfast together, and the toast is burnt, the egg is under-cooked, and the coffee is either too hot or too cold. And I have to regroup and focus in again.
But no matter what I notice, first thing in the morning, the important thing is, I DO notice. And that practice keeps me going throughout the day. In fact, I would say that even more than being a good way to satisfy my physical hunger, a mindful breakfast is a good way to satisfy my psychic hunger — my need to be involved in my own life and participate in the things that matter to me.
Paying attention at the start of the day sets a tone I can follow the rest of the day. And the more I attend to what I’m working on, the more synapses get connected, the more neurons that wire together, and the easier it is for me to live my life.
The great thing about this is, it’s very simple to do. It’s not always easy, but it’s simple. And I have to say, one of the key ingredients of being able to do this in the first place, has been lowering my anxiety levels so that I can slow down enough to pay attention to what’s going on. Once upon a time, the very idea of taking 20 minutes each morning to feed myself was about the farthest thing from my mind and my interest. But now that I’ve been at it, I can see how it’s helped me. And it’s something that just about anybody can do.
Even if you’re not into eating breakfast, anyone can start the day mindfully, paying very close attention to what’s going on in front of them. Something as simple as washing your hands can be a source of fascination. Or watching the birds at the bird feeder. Or the cars passing in the street. Or the clouds in the sky. But we never get a chance to see it all, if we don’t make the effort of slowing down and paying attention.
The good thing about it is, bearing down and making the effort to pay very close attention — no matter how small the detail — is never a waste of time — it’s an investment in our cognitive futures.
I’ve found a new TBI survivor blog, The Best Brain Possible.
This post excerpt grabbed my attention from The ultimate do it yourself project
A thought can actually change neurons. Interactions in the world or relationships with people and things shape the firing in the brain hence the synaptic connections. Neurons that fire together wire together. There is your power to change your brain and change your life. It is like having a secret weapon or a super power. What you actually do in your life and how you think about what happens in your world shapes your brain and your reality. This power is within us and it has been there the whole time. It is up to us to put it to good use. To actually do the do it yourself project and not put it on the shelf for some later date.
What you actually do in your life and how you think about what happens in your world shapes your brain and your reality…
With that in mind, I’m going to do my daily analysis and really think about how I can re-shape my brain, and my reality.