Therapeutic Mechanisms to Change the Brain
The goal of all of brain-related therapies is to alleviate suffering. To have a therapeutic effect on the brain/mind requires interacting with the brain in a way that can change how it functions.
Although brain science is evolving rapidly, it is fair to say, simplifying somewhat, that science has found two basic ways to change brain function. Each one is based on effecting change in one of the fundamental mechanisms the brain operates with: chemical-electrical and the use of patterns. The best therapies have as their basis a matching mechanism for the process being addressed. This means that there are also two major means for therapy, electrochemical and the use of patterns.
Electrochemical processes account for nerve transmission along and between neurons. Chemicals called neurotransmitters are stored in vesicles near the end of a neuron. When a nerve impulse arrives at the end of a neuron and needs to reach the next one, the vesicles release the neurotransmitter into the gap between the neurons, called the synapse. When it reaches the other side, at the beginning surface of the next neuron those neurotransmitters cause an electrical impulse to start down the body of the next nerve. The electrical impulse then travels to the end of that nerve and then chemicals jump the synapse once again. The transmission of the nerve impulses traveling down the body of the nerve is electrical and the jump between the nerves is chemical. These two sides of the same process, electrical and chemical, are how many brain therapies work.
The brain uses neurotransmitters to transmit messages across its hundreds of billions of networks that connect the brain’s nerve cells, or neurons. Neurotransmitters are not all of one quality or action; the most well known of them are serotonin and dopamine. Serotonin is a chemical that lets less information into your central nervous system, dopamine is a chemical that lets more information into your system. Serotonin is a soothing, relaxing chemical, dopamine acts as a reward when anything new comes along, nature’s treat for learning something new. They function like a seesaw, when the level of one go up the levels of the other go down. Different types of psychological illnesses are associated with different levels of these two chemicals; depression is often seen with low levels of serotonin, schizophrenia can be associated with extremely high levels of dopamine. Treatments developed for these illnesses are aimed at changing the levels of these neurotransmitters reducing symptoms.
Other types of pharmaceutical drugs interact in different ways with different neurotransmitters. For example, drugs such as Ritalin and Adderall cause increased levels of dopamine to be available which is associated with attention, focus and a sense of reward. Zoloft, Celexa and Paxil cause more of the neurotransmitter serotonin to remain active. There are a myriad of neurotransmitters that we have not yet identified and many that we have recently identified but are just now beginning to study. Many biological chemicals that function in the peripheral body as hormones act as neurotransmitters in the central nervous system. Receptors for the mood chemical serotonin have been found on the surface of your white blood cells providing the first foundations for understanding the mechanisms connecting the body and the mind.
There are diseases or disorders of the central nervous system, such as epilepsy that have an electrical basis. During a seizure, there is unorganized electrical activity happening in the brain, disorganized nonfunctional wave patterns are seen on eeg readings. Diseases such as Multiple Sclerosis are electrical in nature in that the myelin sheath around the nerve has been attacked by the body’s immune system, stopping the transmission of nerve impulses just as a wire without insulation will not carry a current. Treatments for the brain using the electrical mechanism include deep brain stimulation for depression and Parkinson’s disease, as well as the diagnostic and therapeutic tool of the eeg (electroencephalograph), which is the tool used in this form of neurofeedback at Quantum Neurocare.
The electrochemical mechanisms of the brain provide the biological basis for brain activity. Patterns provide the basis for how that activity is organized. The brain uses patterns to make sense of experience. That experience, in turn, is remembered in the form of a modified pattern. The modified pattern is shaped by feedback which reports the success or failure of that pattern in predicting the desired outcome. This in turn modifies future experience and action.
The very architecture of the brain is a hierarchy of patterns. Brain waves are produced in patterns that can be recognized and ‘read’ by the eeg (more on that in a moment).
Research has shown that the patterns of brain waves change in response to experience, a characteristic known as ‘neuroplasticity’. Not only do the brain waves change, but the actual physical structure of the brain itself changes according to its perceptions. The brain literally remodels itself according to what it experiences. This ability is present not only in childhood but throughout one’s life to a degree unimagined by previous generations of brain researchers. We are learning all this in the last few years due to the ability of new technology that can track activity and structure in the brain as never before.
A range of different therapeutic disciplines use the mechanism of neuroplasticity to change the brain, including cognitive behavioral therapy, meditation and neurofeedback.
These three fundamental mechanisms of brain function do not work in isolation. Changes to one will bring changes to the others. For example, meditation changes both electrical and chemical activities in the brain, Cognitive/Behavioral therapy used in Obsssesive/Compulsive Disorder remodels the part of the brain that instigates obsessive thoughts and compulsive actions.
Using the eeg to read patterns produced by your brain waves is the mechanism of neurofeedback. When patterns of brain waves are produced that bear the signature of disorganization or dysfunction, the eeg recognizes them and pauses the music and the movie. This simple interruption ‘wakes up’ the brain to what is happening by providing feedback as the interruption. The brain does the rest.
By interrupting patterns of brain waves recognized as dysfunctional, accessing a level of awareness that is completely outside our ordinary awareness, our brains reflexive ability to course correct can function.
This technique is not intended to be a substitute for either medication or psychotherapy but works well as an adjunct alongside either one or both. There are no medication interactions with neurofeedback, and psychotherapy is complemented and supported.