Research on brain plasticity

There has been some recent research that seems to point toward the fact that the brain is much more pliable than what we used to think. This is part of a field known as Neuroplasticity. Just to check, I decided to run a quick search on Google of the word “neuroplasticity”. According to Google, I got “about 838,000 results”, and it only took “0.20 seconds”. This can be a little overwhelming, if you want to learn about what neuroplasticity can do for you. There are a few blogs where the term neuroplasticity can be found, but someone who has written a lot is  beyond meds . Many of the posts related to neuroplasticity can be traced back to a book written by Norman Doidge: The brain that changes itself. In his book , Dr. Doidge had stories about different individuals who have been able to overcome challenges by rewiring their brain”. Some of the individuals and stories were related to some major issues, like having a stroke and having to relearn how to walk or talk. But there were a couple of chapters dedicated to emotional imbalances. One that tries to explain sexual disturbances and one related to mental illness. If you have a chance to read this, it is highly entertaining, and is highly exciting to learn about everything that in theory can be achieved by just rewiring our brains. However, be warned that it may be too easy to assume that everything can be achieved if we just try to rewire ourselves. Life is never that easy.
In a more recent story, at science daily we found a description of recent research with a more direct relationship between brain plasticity and mental illness coming out of the University of Oregon. The original research tries to link the relationship between changes in emotional wellbeing (such as reduction in stress, anxiety and depression) and changes in neuroplasticity. What the research seems to show is that if we meditate, (as opposed to just learn to relax) using a technique called Integrative Body Mind Training, and if we train in these technique long enough, our brain eventually learns how to keep this state of mind and changes its structure so it can respond to stressors in a more adequate way. For example, in the same article it is explained how students who learned those techniques, “showed lower levels of anxiety, depression, anger and fatigue than students in a control group” before a math test. The changes were associated with a specific part of the brain (the anterior cingulate cortex, which is connected with the amygdala and other midbrain structures usually associated with emotions). To make matters more interesting, it is explained that the anterior cingulate cortex is associated with several mental illness and emotional disturbances like attention deficit disorder, dementia, depression and schizophrenia.
Does this mean that we need to stop doing whatever we are doing and just start learning Integrative Body Mind Training? Probably not; I am sure we can use it in addition to whatever other medications/therapies/strategies are currently being used to recover from mental illness, but I do not think that anyone at this point will endorse shifting to this therapy while forgetting other options. There are many reasons why shifting is not a good idea. First of all, different individuals seem to respond in different ways to some therapies. I am sure many of us have experienced with medications or other types of home remedies in our daily encounters with fevers, cold or other illnesses, just to find out that what works fine for some individuals, do not necessarily work for us. Further, the research is still considered preliminary, and much more testing needs to be done to be considered as an alternative to other types of therapies. Why more testing? It could be possible that the individuals who were in the study were somehow predisposed to show better outcomes, because they knew that they were in a study. This is similar to the type of precautions that are taken when pharmaceutical companies are testing medications, and they found out that a sugar pill has the same effect that this very expensive medication that has taken years of research. Furthermore, if you have a chance to read Dr. Doidge’s book you’ll notice that his stories are based on individuals and not groups of people. If we want to be able to generalize to more than single individuals, we need to replicate the studies in multiple settings and across different types of people, to determine that the effects are not restricted to a specific type of people, or even worse, to some very unique characteristic that can only be found on a few individuals.
Although more testing needs to be done, this does not undermine the importance, excitement and potential that some of these findings bring to the field of mental health. Clearly, there is so much that we still need to learn about the brain and its connection to behavior, that it can be a little bit intimidating and perhaps overwhelming, especially when you feel that you need to know that now for your own personal reasons. On the other hand, it can be exciting to think about how much more we can learn about the relationship between our genetic makeup, the brain and the environment and how all three shape our behavior.
There are other types of meditation such as "sitting meditation" also called "mindfulness meditation" or "vipassana"/insight meditation that have long been utilized to address both emotional issues and health issues. We will discuss these practices in a future blog as they relate to both mental and physical health.