Sunday, March 14, 2010

Neural Plasticity

As I discuss in detail in my upcoming book, one way that some "biological" psychiatrists twist the truth in order to justify their belief that certain behavioral problems are due to brain disorders has to do with the neuroscientists' new toy, the Functional MRI (fMRI). fMRI machines, because they measure magnetic fields, can map both brain structure and brain function because the iron in blood that passes through the brain creates a magnetic field.

What researchers do is to use fMRI to compare certain brain structures and brain activity, particularly in the primitive part of the brain called the limbic system, in some diagnostic group with matched controls or "normals." For instance, an important brain structure called the left amygdala is smaller, on average, in patients who exhibit the signs of borderline personality disorder (BPD) than in "normals."

Of course, they are comparing averages, so the left amydala in some BPD patients is larger than those of the average "normal." Notice also that the scientists only occasionally compare different diagnostic with each other. Differences in amygdalar size and activity are found in any number of different diagnostic groups in psychiatry.

The more annoying source of misleading conclusions is that when a difference is found between a diagnostic group and "normals," that difference is automatically labeled an abnormality. If a patient has an abnormality, then of course they must have a brain disease. Actually, these scientists do not know if what they have found is an abnormality or not. What makes the use of the term abnormality totally misleading is that the brain, particularly in terms of limbic system structures, is plastic. This means that, in the normal brain, these structures can change in size to reflect activities that become important to a given individual. The changes can be very quick and substantial.

For example, in the February 2010 issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry (Volume 67 [2] pp. 133-143), Pajonk, Wobrock, Gruber et. al. found that after just three months of a vigorous exercize program, the size of a brain structure called the hippocampus increased an average of 16% in normals! It is also true that the part of the brain that controls finger movements is, on average, much larger in concert violinists than in non-musicians. The conclusions that the so-called biological psychiatrists would be, I guess, that both being a concert violinist and engaging in vigorous exercize are diseases!

Well-known personality disorder researcher and schema therapist Arnoud Arntz has told me that he has some unpublished preliminary evidence that the amygdala changes seen in BPD are reversible with three years of Schema Psychotherapy (a therapy method developed by Jeffrey Young). Thus, these so called "abnormalities" may in fact be conditioned responses from living in a chaotic and invalidating family environment. Not only may they be quite normal, they may be adaptations to the enviroment.

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