Posts made in October 2013

Learning “Sculpts” Brain Connection

Spontaneous brain activity measurably changes after a person learns a new task.

Spontaneous brain activity formerly thought to be “white noise” measurably changes after a person learns a new task, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and the University of Chieti, Italy, [Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106:17558-17563].

Scientists also report that the degree of change reflects how well subjects have learned to perform the task.

“Recent studies have shown that in the absence of any overt behavior, and even during sleep or anesthesia, the brain’s spontaneous activity is not random, but organized in patterns of correlated activity that occur in anatomically and functionally connected regions,” stated senior author Maurizio Corbetta, MD, Norman J. Stupp Professor of Neurology. “The reasons behind the spontaneous activity patterns remain mysterious, but we have now shown that learning causes small changes in those patterns, and that these changes are behaviorally important.”

At the start of the experiment, Corbetta, graduate students Chris Lewis and Antonello Baldassarre and their colleagues in Italy used functional connectivity magnetic resonance imaging to scan the spontaneous brain activity of 14 volunteers as they sat quietly.

Next, researchers scanned the subjects as they spent one to two hours a day for five to seven days learning to watch a display inside the MRI scanner for the brief presence of an inverted “T” in a specific part of the screen. Two sets of brain areas were particularly active during the task: part of the visual cortex that corresponded to the portion of the visual field where subjects were looking for the “T”, and areas in the dorsal part of the brain involved in directing attention to the location on the screen.

After the visual training, scientists again scanned the subjects’ brains while they did nothing.

When the subjects rested at the start of the experiment, spontaneous activity in the two parts of the brain that are important to the visual task was either not linked or weakly correlated, with the two regions involved in the upcoming task only occasionally being active at the same time. After learning, though, each region was more likely to be active when the other region wasn’t. Subjects who were more successful at the task exhibited a higher degree of this “anti-correlation” between the two regions after learning.

Corbetta suggested this learning-induced change in the brain’s spontaneous activity may reflect what he calls a “memory trace” for the new skill. The trace makes it easier to use those parts of the brain together again when the same challenge recurs.

“It’s as though these two brain systems are learning to get out of each other’s way,” he said. “After learning, the brain can identify the targets at a glance in a way that requires less direct attention and thus less interaction between the regions involved in the task.”

In addition to helping “grease” anatomical connections between different brain regions, Corbetta speculates that the changes in spontaneous brain activity may maintain a record of prior experience that constrains the way the same circuitries are recruited at the time of a task.

“This suggests that disruption of spontaneous correlated activity may be a common mechanism through which brain function abnormalities manifest in a number of neurological, psychiatric or developmental conditions,” he said.

Funding from the European Community’s Seventh Framework Programme, the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institutes of Health, and the Third PhD Internationalization Program of the Italian Ministry of University and Research supported the research.

Happiness ~What Every Parent Wants: Mission OT

Susan N. Schriber Orloff, OTR/L, FAOTA

Every parent just wants his or her child to be “happy”.  That is their bottom line.  Therapy, academics, home life, whatever, “just makes my child happy”.  Anyone who has worked with children for any length of time has had this said to them repeatedly over and over again.

It is really not their fault.  Ingrained in the American psyche and in our Declaration of Independence is the “right to pursue happiness”.

Aristotle had it even more precise, he wrote, “happiness…is at the end of action”.

And so in helping children is all about action in the pursuit of happiness.  But as Dennis Prager wrote in his book, “Happiness is a Serious Problem”.

Those actions that we ask of the children are often fraught with frustration and in the pursuit of the happiness derived from increased skills that are not easily achieved.  Along the way it just plain gets “too hard”, the struggle too intimidating and the progress seemingly too slow coming.

We often attribute this to low self-esteem, fragile coping skills, processing issues, etc. In truth it could be related to the definition one is using for Happiness.

What Moms Want

The main goal of most all parents is to have a child who can meet life challenges with confidence. In other words, she wants a happy child in school and out in his/her world.

Meeting the Happiness Goal

Helping both parent and child understand that happiness, while most Americans feel the right to pursue it, is and elusive moving target and is really a by-product of the very hard, and sometimes-slow work of meeting challenges.

As OT’s and teachers we need to brace ourselves when a parent says, “He just isn’t happy in OT”.  Our response needs to convey that our goal is to  “make him/her happy after OT (learning interventions)”.   I often use the analogy about diets: no one goes on one unless their clothes get tight and that is not a happy feeling. Dieting is not fun. But the results are gratifying.

It is also important to help our clients understand what “happy people” do differently so that we can help them modify their behaviors to get to a less fearful place.  Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener in a recentPsychology Today (July/August 2013) research article stated that, “ one of life’s sharpest paradoxes is that the key to satisfaction is doing things that feel risky, uncomfortable and occasionally bad”.  In addition, they state that curiosity is another important factor. “…Curious people knowingly invest in activities that cause them discomfort as a springboard to higher psychological peaks”.   The authors continue that, “…good life…is a matrix that includes happiness, occasional sadness, a sense of purpose, playfulness and psychological flexibility…mastery…belonging.”

The take away here is that part of therapy should be about helping children embrace the unknown and the process of figuring “it” out.  OT as a part of this “life matrix of being” encompassing all the range of feelings, is not about having fun each session, but about getting to brave.

Getting to happy is not a destination, it is a process and OT’s are the guides for each child’s individual pursued journey.