Friday, September 28, 2018

Differences in the Size and Activity levels of Brain Parts: Long-Term Potentiation

One of the ongoing themes of this blog is the nonsensical practice of some researchers in psychiatry of routinely labeling differences in size and activity levels of parts of the brain, as seen on brain scans such as fMRI scans, between various diagnostic groups and control subjects as abnormalities (See the posts and

These researchers seem oblivious to a now well-established process within neurons called long term potentiation (LTP). Briefly, if a synapse – the point between two nerve cells at which a nervous electrical impulse passes from one neuron to the other – is stimulated by individuals’ interactions with the environment that leads to learning, this produces a long-lasting increase in signal transmission between the synapses of those two cells. In other words, the power of the connection starts to increase. Conversely, if such a connection is hardly ever stimulated, its power decreases. This is probably the way memory works. Hearing a fact once in a lecture may not lead to its being remembered for long, whereas if someone keeps studying the fact, the memory of it becomes stronger.

It is important to mention that structural changes in the size and shape of the pre- and post-synapse parts of neurons may mediate permanent or near-permanent changes in synaptic efficacy. Growth may allow for an increase in the size or number of active zones on both sides of the synapse. The “spines” of the cell can increase in volume after LTP induction. While the degree to which structural re-organization of synapses occurs in adult animals is not yet clear, the process seems to involve a neurotransmitter (a chemical substance that is released at the end of a neuron cell by the arrival of a nerve impulse and, by diffusing across the junction, causes the transfer of the impulse to another neuron) called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).

If a particular synapse is almost never stimulated, it can disappear altogether. Conversely, LTP is associated with an enhanced recycling of a part of the structure of the synapse, and this process could eventually result in the formation of a new, immature spine.

In other words, the more a part of the brain used for a particular purpose is used, the more likely it is to increase in size due to this process. When many synapses are involved in an individual's interactions with the environment, size differences in those parts of the brain can therefore easily be conditioned responses rather than abnormalities.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Book Review: Judas by Astrid Holleeder

Imagine what it might be like to grow up in a home in which unpredictable periods of sheer terror and physical abuse were the norm. In this book, the sister of one of the Netherland’s most notorious criminal and crime boss—Willem Holleeder—describes the consequences. In brilliant detail, she sheds light on the bizarre interrelationships between her, her infamous brother, and her sister Sonja, all of whom grew up in such a home.

“My father treated his children the same way he treated his wife. He beat us, no matter how small and defenseless we were. As with my mother, he didn’t need a reason—he made one up on the spot. That was how he justified his actions. It was always “our own fault”—we made him do it” …Our behavior at home was exemplary…We were all compliant good kids who never broke any rules…filled with the smell of booze and my father’s unpredictability, those days seemed endless. Only one thing was certain: there would be shouting and hitting.”

Yet when these children became adults, breaking rules became almost a daily occurrence.

Their father’s attitude toward women was that he was the “boss.” Every day he’d scream “Who’s the boss?” and his wife would answer, “You are the boss.” He believed that “…women were inferior beings, their husband’s property, and whores by nature.” His wife was not allowed to leave the house for fear she might encounter other men, and if he came home and she happened to be home, there was hell to pay afterwards.

Yet Astrid became a lawyer.

Willem started early in criminal activities , and the family was often intimately involved. He first became widely know when he and Sonja’s Husband Cor, along with some others, kidnapped Freddy Heineken—the heir to the Heineken Brewery fortune. Of note was that their father had worked for the brewery for most of his adult life.

The Heineken family ended up paying the ransom; Freddy was released for 35 million Dutch guilders. Most of it was eventually recovered by the authorities, but not all. Questions about what happened to the rest eventually led to a falling out between Willem and Cor. After two previous attempts, Willem eventually had Cor murdered. During the first one, Cor’s car was shot up – with Sonja and their son in it.

Astrid had been more or less pressured by Willem to serve him as a sort of consigliere. She would give him legal advice and helped him keep the rest of the family in line, while he kept her in line with various threats. As far as the attempts on the life of the brother- in-law, he at first acted all innocent and “helpful” to the family. He was an expert at manipulating family members and strangers alike by either turning on the charm or by scaring the hell out of them. 

Gradually Astrid and Sonja figured out that it was Willem who had put the contract out on Cor, and because Willem seemed willing to kill even family members, they eventually turned on him.

Although highly mistrustful of the authorities for a variety of valid reasons (assuming Astrid’s reasons were honestly described) and constantly fearful for their own lives, they began working with the Dutch Justice Department. They eventually testified against their brother and helped put him in prison. He remains there, but the trials of several charges against him drag on. Both Astrid and Sonja are at present in hiding.

The author knew that Willem has put a contract out on her and her sister and that their days are probably numbered. She never forgave him for Cor’s murder. She knows he has put out hits on a significant number of murder victims, many of whom having been his former partners in crime.

Nonetheless, she still felt guilty about putting her own brother away. Such is the power of family-of-origin bonds. The last two sentences of the book say it all:

“The only reason you’re still alive is that you want to take our lives. But despite that certainty, Wim, I still love you.”