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Neuroscience and the Brain

Neuroscience and the Brain

An exciting area of research is neuroscience, the study of how the brain functions,
thanks in part to brain-imaging machines developed in the 1970s and 1980s. One
of the most significant findings has been that the brain is far more “plastic” or
malleable,  meaning it can rewire itself, than had ever been imagined. The
implications of these findings are far-reaching. Newsweek, July 9, 2007, had an
an article on brain research that very briefly discusses how experience can even
modify our DNA.  The article cites research done on rats in a lab who developed
very different personalities depending on how they were reared by their moms.
The moms who were attentive and licked and groomed their pups, had pups who
became well-adjusted, curious and calm little rats. The neglectful moms had pups
who grew into timid and anxious rats. While these findings do not surprise anyone,
the interesting finding was that the mom’s behaviors affected the pups’ DNA. It
seems that maternal neglect silences certain genes for receptors in the pups’ brains,
and the reduced number of receptors made the pups more easily anxious. The
attentive maternal care kept the genes on, so the pups’ brains have lots of receptors
and a reduced stress response.

Findings such as these call into question the entire concept that our genetics is
hard-wired and becomes our fate. It brings up the issue of the nature vs. nurture
debate in a new perspective.

How Trauma can be Inherited

According to Rachel Yehuda, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry at Mt. Sinai School of
Medicine,  one can “inherit” trauma through epigenetics – functional changes in genes
due to environmental influences, especially in the womb and in early life. Yehuda
noticed that the children of Holocaust survivors are particularly vulnerable to mood
and anxiety disorders, and post-traumatic stress (PTSD), and these were children of
parents who suffered from PTSD.  Yehuda’s research examined Jews born after 1945
and raised by at least one parent who survived a concentration camp.  Yehuda found
that both the parent and their adult child had reduced levels of the stress hormone
cortisol. Cortisol is depleted when the body’s reserves become exhausted by chronic
stress. This was true even when factors such as parental abuse or neglect were ruled
out.  Yehuda then looked at pregnant women who had been directly exposed to the
World Trade Center attack on 9/11/01. Lower cortisol levels were observed in both
mothers and babies of mothers who developed PTSD in response to 9/11. It seems
that trauma can be etched into our bodies over generations.
You can find this study in the American Journal of Psychiatry,  January, 2007.

Recommend Listening

Relieve Anxiety with Medical Hypnosis by Steven Gurgevich, Ph.D.
This 2-CD set includes an explanation of hypnosis and the subconscious mind, what is
anxiety and what causes it, as well as his own experience with anxiety on the first CD.
The second CD has four hypnosis techniques.
If you have done breathing, relaxation training, and guided imagery in the past, you will
find great similarities with the hypnosis techniques on this CD. If you are curious, it is
certainly worth trying.  I am interested to know what your experience is with it; please
email me.

Parting Words:

From Helen Keller: “Security does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a
whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than
outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”