How the Brain Changes When You Meditate

Not too long ago, most of us thought that the brain we’re born with is static—that after a certain age, the neural circuitry cards we’re dealt are the only ones we can play long-term.

Fast-forward a decade or two, and we’re beginning to see the opposite: the brain is designed to adapt constantly. World-renowned neuroscientist Richie Davidson at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, along with this colleagues, want us to know three things: 1) you can train your brain to change, 2) that the change is measurable, and 3) new ways of thinking can change it for the better.

It’s hard to comprehend how this is possible. Practicing mindfulness is nothing like taking a pill, or another fix that acts quickly, entering our blood stream, crossing the Blood Brain Barrier if needed in order to produce an immediate sensation, or to dull one.

But just as we learn to play the piano through practice, the same goes for cultivating well-being and happiness. Davidson told Mindful last August that the brain keeps changing over its entire lifespan. And he thinks that’s very good news:

We can intentionally shape the direction of plasticity changes in our brain. By focusing on wholesome thoughts, for example, and directing our intentions in those ways, we can potentially influence the plasticity of our brains and shape them in ways that can be beneficial. That leads us to the inevitable conclusion that qualities like warm-heartedness and well-being should best be regarded as skills.

Davidson adds that research on neuroplasticity gives neuroscientists a framework for tracking meditation research. And CIHM is beginning to see that “even short amounts of practice,” like 30 minutes of meditation per day, “can induce measurable changes in the brain” that can be tracked on a brain scanner.

Based on recent research, I’ve chosen to share four ways your brain may change when you practice mindfulness:

Increased Grey Matter/Cortical Thickness in the following key areas:

• Anterior Cingulate Cortex: Increased grey matter changes were noted in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which is a structure located behind the brain’s frontal lobe. It has been associated with such functions as self-regulatory processes, including the ability to monitor attention conflicts, and allow for more cognitive flexibility.

• Prefrontal Cortex: Increased grey matter density was also found in areas of the prefrontal lobe, which are primarily responsible for executive functioning such as planning, problem solving, and emotion regulation.

• Hippocampus: Increased cortical thickness in the hippocampus has also been noted. The hippocampus is the part of the limbic system that governs learning and memory, and is extraordinarily susceptible to stress and stress-related disorders like depression or PTSD.

Decreased Amygdala Size:

Studies have shown that the amygdala, known as our brain’s “fight or flight” center and the seat of our fearful and anxious emotions, decreases in brain cell volume after mindfulness practice.

Diminished or enhanced functionality in certain networks/connections:

Not only does the amygdala shrink post mindfulness practice, but the functional connections between the amygdala and the pre-frontal cortex are weakened. This allows for less reactivity, and also paves the way for connections between areas associated with higher order brain functions to be strengthened (i.e. attention, concentration, etc.).

Reduced activity in the Brain’s “Me” Center:

Mindfulness practice has been implicated in the decreased activation and the stilling of our Default Mode Network (DMN), which is also sometimes referred to as our wandering “Monkey Minds.” The DMN is active when our minds are directionless as it goes from thought to thought, a response that is sometimes likened to rumination and not always adaptive with regards to overall happiness.

The impact that mindfulness exerts on our brain is borne from routine: a slow, steady, and consistent reckoning of our realities, and the ability to take a step back, become more aware, more accepting, less judgmental, and less reactive. Just as playing the piano over and over again over time strengthens and supports brain networks involved with playing music, mindfulness over time can make the brain, and thus, us, more efficient regulators, with a penchant for pausing to respond to our worlds instead of mindlessly reacting.

New Frontier for Deep Brain Stimulation is based on rats?

 

Researchers testing the effects of DBS on the brains of rats hope to begin testing its effects in humans.

Researchers at the Cleveland Clinic are testing whether electrical stimulation of the brain helps improve the effectiveness of physical rehabilitation after a stroke. Strokes leave hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. debilitated each year.

With deep brain stimulation, or DBS, electrodes are surgically implanted into the brain, and a neurostimulator, typically implanted in the chest, stimulates the brain with mild electrical current.

Approved by the Food and Drug Administration to reduce symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, among other conditions, DBS is used primarily to treat or reduce tremors, stiffness and slowness. The technique also has been studied for use in a variety of ailments, including depression and chronic pain.

Andre Machado, director of the Center for Neurological Restoration at the Cleveland Clinic, and his team are experimenting with the treatment in animals, to find the appropriate electric current and stimulation frequency that will help restore function after a stroke. They are applying to the FDA for permission to begin testing the technique in humans although they don’t have an estimated start date for the work.

The hope with human stroke patients is that DBS would be able to help healthy brain regions compensate for the damaged ones and facilitate new connections.

The Cleveland Clinic group found that using electrical stimulation in rats after stroke appears to promote the growth of new neurons in the brain. Dr. Machado presented his findings in June at the world congress of the International Neuromodulation Society, whose members are clinicians, scientists and engineers.

“The expectation is that by applying stimulation, it will augment or boost the effects of physical rehabilitation,” Dr. Machado says. “We have no expectation that it will cure stroke.”

In a stroke, blood supply to the brain is cut off. The damaging effects occur because some areas in the brain shut down or die, and communication is disrupted between other brain regions.

The Cleveland Clinic’s Dr. Machado is testing whether deep brain stimulation helps rats recover brain function after stroke, and he is hoping to test it in human stroke patients.
The Cleveland Clinic’s Dr. Machado is testing whether deep brain stimulation helps rats recover brain function after stroke, and he is hoping to test it in human stroke patients. PHOTO: CENTER FOR MEDICAL ART AND PHOTOGRAPHY AT CLEVELAND CLINIC

Of the nearly 800,000 people in the U.S. each year who survive a stroke, 10% recover almost completely and 25% experience only minor impairment. Half of survivors are debilitated severely and require special care, according to the National Stroke Association. (The other 15% die shortly after the stroke.)

With a type of stroke called ischemic stroke, caused by blockage of an artery to the brain, a drug called tissue plasminogen activator can improve chances of recovery if given within three hours of the stroke. But patients often don’t get the medicine in time. Physical rehabilitation can help improve strength and functioning weeks or months later, but often there isn’t a 100% return to pre-stroke levels, and improvement often plateaus after a few months.

The aim is that treatment with DBS will augment the benefit of physical therapy. DBS, the thinking goes, is unlikely to bring back the dead portions of the human brain but may help facilitate new connections.

In particular, stimulating the brain’s cerebellum, the region controlling voluntary muscle movements, will “re-establish some flow of neurological input” after a stroke, Dr. Machado says.

Efforts to stimulate the brain electrically make sense, says Steven Ojemann, professor of neurosurgery and director of stereotactic and functional neurosurgery at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Aurora, who isn’t involved in the DBS research. The brain is an electrical organ, and movement of ions and current through neurons drives biologic changes that promote growth, connectivity between brain regions and the brain’s ability to learn and change.

Restoring function with electrical stimulation has been pursued for a long time. Researchers have studied cortical stimulation and transcranial direct current stimulation, two less-invasive therapies. Cortical stimulation, where electrodes are placed on the surface of the brain, showed early promise in post-stroke recovery but didn’t demonstrate a benefit in a large clinical trial.

Transcranial direct current stimulation, a noninvasive technique that involves passing current between two electrodes over the head, has shown some benefit as a possible add-on therapy to physical rehabilitation after stroke in studies involving a small number of humans.

Researchers are exploring applications for deep brain stimulation beyond treatment for Parkinson’s disease. Here’s how it works. Graphic: Adele Morgan/The Wall Street Journal

Deep brain stimulation theoretically overcomes some of the limitations of cortical stimulation, Dr. Ojemann says. With cortical stimulation, the periphery of the brain area that has died is stimulated, but that area can be hard to define and difficult to cover with a surface electrode, and cerebral spinal fluid can divert the current. DBS, on the other hand, can potentially stimulate regions more broadly and deeply, which may more effectively influence brain functions.

In general, DBS is safe and well tolerated, experts say. As with any brain surgery, there are risks and potential complications, including stroke, infection and seizures.

Dr. Machado’s team at the Cleveland Clinic began work on the question about seven years ago. In 2009, the team showed that after inducing a stroke in rats, then implanting an electrode and stimulating the cerebellum, brain activity in the stimulated region improved. Their research, funded by the National Institutes of Health, was published in a series of papers beginning in 2010.

In animals that were stimulated, motor functioning improved in the weeks after the stroke compared with animals whose electrodes were implanted but not turned on.

Early on, the researchers had to figure out which frequency of current to use. While a high frequency of 200 Hz (electrical pulses per second) seems to interrupt tremors, a lower frequency of 30 to 50 Hz appears to promote activity, according to Dr. Machado.

Three years ago, his group began evaluating the combination of stimulation plus physical training. In a study published in Neurosurgery in 2013, they found that animals that were stimulated could reach and grasp with their anterior paws better than unstimulated rats.

Recently the Cleveland Clinic researchers found stimulation improved the number of synaptic connections, presumably enhancing communication between neurons in animals. Last month, they presented data showing stimulation appears to promoted neurogenesis; this work isn’t published yet.

Many questions remain to be answered before DBS can become a clinically useful treatment. The biggest: Will its effects hold in humans? Promoting the formation of new neurons is probably harder in humans than in rats. To date, there isn’t direct evidence that electrical stimulation of the cerebellum will promote the formation of new neurons in humans, although that remains a possibility and a hope, says Dr. Machado.

And there is the question of timing: At what point during the recovery process would DBS do the most good? Scientists are trying to determine whether patients would need continuous DBS, or if the improvement will linger if the stimulation is stopped, Dr. Machado says.

Another potential consideration is that stroke survivors aren’t a homogenous group. It’s unclear whether patients with a certain type of stroke, or damage in a particular area of the brain, would be the best candidates, says Konstantin Slavin, a neurosurgery professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who wasn’t involved in the work.

“Right now, brain damage from stroke is considered irreversible,” Dr. Slavin says. The ultimate goal would be to regrow the brain and reestablish connections and original function. But for now, he says, “we can wake up parts of brain that can modify activity to compensate for dead regions.”

Write to Shirley S. Wang at shirley.wang@wsj.com

8 Ways to Get Your Memory Back After Stroke

 

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While drugs won’t help reverse memory loss after a stroke, activities, therapy and rehabilition can. Feeding your brain with mind games and a healthy diet can help with memory after a stroke.

Some degree of memory loss affects about a third of people who survive a stroke, according to the National Stroke Association. But it’s good to know there are things you can do to help get your memory back.

“Memory deficits after a stroke can vary,” says Melissa (Muller) Meyers, OTD, an occupational therapist at MossRehab in Philadelphia. The extent of your memory loss can depend on how old you are, the severity of your stroke, where your stroke occurred, and even the support you have from family and friends.

No medication is known to help reverse memory loss after a stroke, Meyers says. But where drugs won’t help, you can take steps with activities, therapy, and rehabilitation to help recover your memory after stroke.  

How to Regain Your Memory After Stroke

1. Stimulate your brain. “Games that require you to use your brain, whether as simple as checkers or complex as chess, can help you regain your memory,” says Allen Kaisler-Meza, MD, medical director of the Good Samaritan Hospital Independent Rehabilitation Program in San Jose, California.

2. Work with rehab specialists. Speech-language therapy enhances recovery. It helps by stimulating the brain to make neural connections from uninjured parts of the brain to those parts affected by stroke, Dr. Kaisler-Meza says.

Bob Mandell, now 71, who had a hemorrhagic stroke in 1996, credits various types of therapy, including speech therapy, with getting his memory back. Right after his stroke, Mandell of Naples, Florida, couldn’t get three words out and his memory loss was frustrating. But his determination to recover worked in his favor, and he believes others can do the same. “I worked really hard at therapy,” he says. He wrote about his recovery in the book Stroke Victor. “I did what psychologists called engaged therapy. I went all in, and that jarred my memory and my mind.”

3. Post reminders for yourself. Leave notes in key areas, such as a sign in the bathroom reminding you to brush your teeth, says Stephen Page, OTR/L, PhD, an occupational therapist and associate professor at the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences at The Ohio State University College of Medicine in Columbus. Use the alarm on your smartphone or even an old-school clock to remind yourself of appointments and when to take your medications, Page adds. Once you form a routine, it will help you re-establish your memory. Meyers agrees that in her work with patients as a therapist, “creating a routine that is repetitive and consistent can help.”

4. Make up mnemonics. Mnemonics are creative ways to remember things. They often take the form of an acronym, like the popular RICE: rest, ice, compression, and elevation — a shortcut to remember how to treat a sprain. You might make up your own mnemonic for the steps to cook a familiar meal, Page suggests. Rhymes also work, that associate a name with an object, like: “Shirley is the woman with curly hair.”

5. Get organized. Making it easy to see items you need for daily activities will help you remember what you need to do and when to do it, Meyers says. For example, lay out your clothes for the morning before you go to bed at night. Put your toothbrush on the sink where you’re sure to see it.

6. Repeat and rehearse. When you’re given new information, repeat it to yourself several times, the American Stroke Association recommends. Go over the material as many times as you need for it to sink in. Don’t be afraid to repeat back, in your own words, what you’re told to be sure you understand it correctly. If you have to make a presentation or give a speech, break up the material into smaller segments. These will be easier to remember.

7. Stay active. Get out of bed and move as much as possible, Kaisler-Meza says. A six-month exercise training program for patients promoted not only memory but also attention and conflict resolution in a small study of stroke survivors. And aerobic exercise promotes the recovery of brain function after a stroke, according to a study done on animals and published in the International Neurourology Journal.

Mandell, who was paralyzed on his right side after his stroke, believes exercise helped him regain his memory. “I always feel better after exercising,” he says. Exercise helps relieve stress and stress relief is important to brain health, he adds, noting that he tries to exercise almost every day.

RELATED: The Best Diet to Prevent Stroke

8. Feed your brain. A brain-healthy diet includes lots of fresh fruits and vegetables and fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids, according to the American Stroke Association. Eating this way will help your brain recover optimally, Kaisler-Meza says.

A healthy diet and smaller portions helped Mandell lose the 30 pounds of excess weight he was carrying when he had his stroke. He believes that helped his mental recovery. He felt better, and feeling better improved his mental outlook.

We were featured in AphasiaToolBox!

 

Gordon and Jill Viggiano is a couple who were on the fast track in life. Gordon was a successful sales executive, consultant and entrepreneur; Jill spent 19 years working in commercial real estate before retiring to become a full time mom.   All that changed when Gordon turned 51. On his 51st birthday, Gordon suffered a massive stroke with aphasia.

Gordon is now 7 years post-stroke and he is happy to report that he is getting better all the time. He is certainly not fully recovered from his stroke so this isn’t an “I did it and you can too” speech. Says Gordon: I am in the middle of my recovery and so my perspective is from “the trenches.”

In his presentation “My Brain Has A Hole In It,”he discusses this life changing experience and the lessons that have come along with it. his goal is to inspire people and help them see that good things can happen, even when one doesn’t think it is possible.

Despite his aphasia, Gordon is an inspirational and motivational speaker;  You can book Gordon for speaking engagements; visit his website: www.mybrainllc.com

Gordon’s wife, Jill, focused her skills and energy on his recovery and is now assisting him in his day-to-day needs as well as in his speaking career.  Jill’s book – Painful Blessing: A Story of Loss, Recovery, Hope and Faith, is about her spouse and caregiver experience, shedding light on the real life impact of acquired brain injury, and providing hope and encouragement to those facing significant challenges.

Additional articles on Gordon and Jill are available.

If you have questions about how Aphasiatoolbox.com can help you and your aphasia , please contact us or call us at 724-494-2534. 

For a viewing of the complete email, click here.

New Breakthrough in Hemorrhagic Stroke Treatment

 

When someone has a hemorrhagic stroke, blood from a burst blood vessel leaks out into the brain. The leaked blood is harmful to the surrounding brain tissue and needs to be removed. Conventional surgery is highly invasive and can result in losing some healthy brain tissue in order to remove all the leaked blood.

A new device called BrainPath is minimally invasive and allows neurosurgeons to be very precise in cleaning up the spill. To date, the BrainPath technology is in use in 50 U.S. hospitals.

Read about a stroke patient who benefitted from this procedure.  Dr. Shah says that this surgery should be performed within 8 hours of the stroke occurring.

Source: StrokeSmart

You are THE man!

I was racking my brain this morning trying to figure out what to do next.  I couldn’t figure out how to set my WordPress site up with Google.  I was even Googling (is that a word?) for help.

But my brain didn’t want to work. I  was suddenly struck with too many things to handle and my brain just shut down, confused. I decided to go out in my garden and just walk around. If you ever been to my garden, it takes 3 seconds to walk the grounds. So, I decided to just stand in the middle.

Bill came over to drop off plants that my wife will watch where they are gone.  If you have been reading since the beginning, you know that Bill was a MAJOR help with my wife figuring out Quicken.  And Bill was also a wizard with websites.  So I asked him for help.  It took me a while to get out the correct sentences, but he finally understood.  In less than 5 minutes, he got my site working with Google.  Bill was amazing!  He did stuff on my computer that I didn’t even know you could do.

I told Bill I would write about him BEFORE he left.  Bill…you are THE man!