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New brain research looks at mind-body link

By Michael Ceo


Exciting developments are taking place as a new wave of research highlights the links between the brain and body. Preserving and improving our brain functioning, and its connection to our memory and emotional and physical health, is much more under our control than previously thought.

Dramatic evidence of how this research can benefit us is being shown through colorful pictures called SPECT Scans (Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography), which vividly show parts of the brain lighting up with electrical or biochemical activity. Regions of the brain that are under-functioning or damaged are clearly evident. The scan shows how a living brain works.

What is emerging represents a road map for using nutritional supplements, dietary and lifestyle changes, Yoga breathing, hormone replacement as well as psychiatric medicines to correct biochemical and “hardware” deficiencies that lead to diminished brain function. As brain function is brought back into balance, disorders including ADHD, anxiety, depression, bi-polar disorder and memory loss can be relieved.

Furthermore, there is evidence that many physical diseases, such as arthritis, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis, are now being traced to brain chemical or structural dysfunction. We are learning what makes our brains either age or remain youthful.

I recently spoke with two physicians who are pioneering this research: Daniel Amen and Eric Braverman. Both are heading in similar directions that have promising implications.

In Dr. Braverman’s book, “The Edge Effect,” (available at Amazon.com) he suggests that we all have a “nature” reflected in one of the four neurotransmitters. The brain manufactures these biochemicals from amino acids that we consume in food. The neurotransmitters govern various brain activities and therefore serve as the chemical language of our brains.

We can have a playful serotonin nature, a stable GABA nature, a strong dopamine nature or a creative acetylcholine nature. Since we tend to burn up the particular neurotransmitters that define our nature, these tend to require special care and feeding.

We can also have deficiencies in one or more of these neurotransmitters. Emotional or environmental stresses in our lives as well as unhealthy diets or difficulties in assimilating what we do eat erode the brain’s ability to manufacture these biochemicals. Remarkably, the brain is a major chemical factory that needs raw materials to do its work – otherwise, it breaks down.

For example, if someone has a creative acetylcholine nature, he is social, innovative, perhaps charismatic, perhaps an artist or writer. This degree of energetic activity is dependent on an ongoing supply of acetylcholine that the brain must manufacture to support it.

Because liver function and the protective sheaths around nerve cells also depend on this biochemical, if it is depleted, liver and nerve function is diminished and can degenerate into high cholesterol, multiple sclerosis or cardiovascular disease. BEAM (Brain Electrical Activity Map) evaluations are used before and after treatment to determine its effectiveness.

Dr. Braverman has actually measured the speed at which particular brains work and how diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s show markedly reduced brain speeds. He describes how we can diminish or enhance our brain’s speed.

Dr. Amen especially stresses the importance of avoiding head injuries. He describes the brain as being the consistency of custard or tofu. Even though the skull is quite durable, he claims that head injuries that are often regarded as minimal or inconsequential medically have severe, lasting effects on brain function. He is a strong opponent of sports that involve head contact. His SPECT Scans of damaged brains are downright scary. He outlines his research in his book, “Change Your Brain, Change Your Life.”

A psychotherapy mentor of mine once cautioned me, neither to be the first to embrace the new nor the last to give up the old. This new medical research and treatment approach, while certainly cutting edge, is well documented and may become mainstream in the future. Its implications are far-reaching. What might we look for in the next 10 years?

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, advocated by both physicians, is a fascinating new approach to treating insomnia as well as anxiety and depressive symptoms. This is a procedure that one can follow at home with a fairly inexpensive device.

It is attached to the wrist and scalp, whereby a tiny voltage is used that stimulates the brain to increase neurotransmitter production, correcting imbalances. Dr. Braverman refers to it as the best treatment for insomnia available to date. He invited me to his New York clinic to learn more about his work. I hope to report to you what I will learn in a future column.

When Dr. Amen talks enthusiastically about the next 10 years, he suggests that there will be less reliance on psychiatric medicines but more on the use of amino acids, which are natural foods for the brain to manufacture the neurotransmitters it needs for optimum functioning. For example, amino acids he might prescribe include tyrosine, tryptophan or taurine. Other nutrients he might recommend are lecithin or vitamin B-6. He also employs pharmaceutical-grade herbal products such as St. John’s wort or Valarian in his treatment.

I would envision that training in maximizing our edge in brain performance would become widespread in corporate, educational and government settings. Imagine our nation’s leaders and those in crucial roles learning to improve their edge, especially under stress. Productivity would increase and conflict might decrease as the emotional undertow of a dysfunctional brain is healed.