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Cognitive Training Alters Chemistry of the Brain

Posted Feb 19 2009 6:08pm

This article discusses what many in the behavioral sciences have long suspected - there is a two-way relationship between the structure and chemistry of the brain, and the behavior/functioning of an individual. Obviously, the structure of the brain has an impact on behavior (and changes to the structure alter behavior - see concussions, traumatic brain injuries, strokes, etc. for the obvious examples). What has been long suspected, by at least some, is that how we behave and interact with the environment can cause changes in the structure and chemical balance of our brains. From the article:

Researchers at the Swedish medical university Karolinska Institutet have shown for the first time that the active training of the working memory brings about visible changes in the number of dopamine receptors in the human brain. The study, which is published in the journal Science, was conducted with the help of PET scanning and provides deeper insight into the complex interplay between cognition and the brain' s biological structure.

While this makes intuitive sense, I think that many people have either resisted the idea, or downplayed the significance of any changes, believing the impact of behavior and environmental interaction on the brain is minimal. At the very least, this was the view of many in terms of the developed brain; I think many more people are flexible with respect to the brain changing while it is still developing, which is why many people seek to stimulate their child’s cognitive growth through exposure to music, puzzles, etc. However, many people discount the adaptability of the brain beyond a certain age. More from the article:

Professor Klingberg and his colleagues have previously shown that the working memory can be improved with a few weeks' intensive training. Through a collaborative project conducted under the Stockholm Brain Institute, the researchers have now taken a step further and monitored the brain using Positron Emission Tomography (PET scans), and have confirmed that intensive brain training leads to a change in the number of dopamine D1 receptors in the cortex.

Their results can be of significance to the development of new treatments for patients with cognitive impairments, such as those related to ADHD, stroke, chronic fatigue syndrome and ageing.

This is where I was heading with this. Much of the resistance I’ve encountered has been in the context of therapy; individuals have presented for treatment, but only with an interest in medication. There is still a stigma attached to mental illness, and often individuals are invested in presenting for treatment of their mental health issues in terms of "a chemical imbalance," which affords some degree of face-saving, as they are placing their mental health issues in the context of a medical disorder. I generally try to educate clients on this, not to change their mind, but to work within their belief system:

"Yes, there are physical/biological/genetic/chemical issues associated with depression (or alcoholism, or chronic pain, or anxiety, etc.). However, while medication may address some aspects of these chemical/physical/biological issues, it may not address all of them. In addition, they may come with side effects, and they may not address your particular presentation. Therapy not only can be helpful from the standpoint of helping one to cope with these issues, and learn how to address the problems that arise from your symptoms more effectively; the process of therapy, and the subsequent change in behavior/cognitions/emotional experiences can also impact the chemical/physical/biological issues you are reporting you have."

This can be a tough sell, but I believe it is accurate. For example, no one doubts the pain associated with certain dental procedures, traumatic injuries, etc. Research has been shown that therapeutic techniques can help individuals reduce their experience of pain from these incidents. If this is the case, then why should these techniques not also work for individuals with chronic pain? Rather than engaging in an argument over whether their pain is "real," the important thing to note is that the pain is real for them, and these techniques have been proven to work in reducing pain from many different injuries/procedures. Showing that changes in one’s behavior, cognitions, and interactions with one’s environment can impact one’s physical structure will help individuals move beyond the problem of viewing their difficulties as "real," or "organic." No one is saying they aren’t, and research like this will hopefully help people understand this so they’ll participate in effective treatment.

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