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How Childhood Neglect Harms The Brain

Like any new mother, the woman we’ll call Braille was full of hope and excitement the day she welcomed her son into her life seven years ago. “Peter” was 7 years old at the time of his adoption. He’d been living in foster care after being taken from his biological mother.

According to Braille, Peter and his siblings endured years of neglect and abuse living with their biological mother and her violent boyfriend. “It was physical, emotional and continual,” she says.

Peter, now 14, and his adoptive parents are very close now, but the years since the adoption have been challenging. His father recalls Peter’s unpredictable anger, and the times Peter would punch him, out of the blue. His mother says her son could be very sweet and affectionate one minute, but then “he would just fall apart and start banging his head against the wall or start screaming.”

Experts have long known that neglect and abuse in early life increase the risk of psychological problems, such as depression and anxiety, but now neuroscientists are explaining why. They’re showing how early maltreatment wreaks havoc on the developing brain.

Study Of Orphans Finds Smaller Brains

Dr. Charles Nelson, a Boston Children’s Hospital neuroscientist, studies how children’s early experiences shape the developing brain. Abuse and neglect, he says, can cause significant damage to the circuitry of the brain.

“Let’s say there are 1,000 neurons supposed to wire in a certain way, maybe only half wire that way and the other half wire in an incorrect way,” Nelson explains. “By altering the wiring diagram, you are altering behavior and altering psychological states.”

But what prevents the brain from wiring the right way, and how do early experiences get biologically embedded in the brain?
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‘I’m Not Stupid, Just Dyslexic’ — And How Brain Science Can Help

Sixth-grader Josh Thibeau has been struggling to read for as long as he can remember. He has yet to complete a single Harry Potter book, his personal goal.

Growing up with dyslexia: Josh Thibeau, 12, imagines his brain as an ever-changing maze with turns he must learn to navigate. Here he is with his mother, Janet. (George Hicks/WBUR)

Growing up with dyslexia: Josh Thibeau, 12, thinks of his brain as an ever-changing maze with turns he must learn to navigate. Here he is with his mom, Janet. (George Hicks/WBUR)

When he was in first grade, Josh’s parents enrolled him in a research study at Boston Children’s Hospital investigating the genetics of dyslexia. Since then, Josh has completed regular MRI scans of his brain. Initially, it seemed daunting.

“When we first started, I’m like, ‘Oh no, you’re sending me to like some strange, like, science lab where I’m going to be injected with needles and it’s going to hurt,’ I’m like, ‘I’m never going to see my family again,’ ” says Josh, who lives in West Newbury, Mass.

Josh and his three biological siblings all have dyslexia to varying degrees. Pretty much every day he confronts the reality that his brain works differently than his peers’. He’s even shared scans of his brain with classmates to try to show those differences. Some kids still don’t get it.

“There was a student that said, ‘Are you stupid?’ Because my brain was working in a different way,” Josh says. “And I’m just like, ‘No, I am not stupid…I’m just dyslexic.’ ”

The Pre-Reading Brain 

On average, one or two kids in every U.S. classroom has dyslexia, a brain-based learning disability that often runs in families and makes reading difficult, sometimes painfully so.

Compared to other neurodevelopmental disorders like ADHD or autism, research into dyslexia has advanced further, experts say. That’s partly because dyslexia presents itself around a specific behavior: reading — which, as they say, is fundamental.

Now, new research shows it’s possible to pick up some of the signs of dyslexia in the brain even before kids learn to read. And this earlier identification may start to substantially influence how parents, educators and clinicians tackle the disorder.

Until recently (and sometimes even today) kids who struggled to read were thought to lack motivation or smarts. Now it’s clear that’s not true: Dyslexia stems from physiological differences in the brain circuitry. Those differences can make it harder, and less efficient, for children to process the tiny components of language, called phonemes.

And it’s much more complicated than just flipping your “b’s and “d’s.” To read, children need to learn to map the sounds of spoken language — the “KUH”, the “AH”, the “TUH” — to their corresponding letters. And then they must grasp how those letter symbols, the “C” “A” and “T”, create words with meaning. Kids with dyslexia have far more trouble mastering these steps automatically.

For these children, the path toward reading is often marked by struggle, anxiety and feelings of inadequacy. In general, a diagnosis of dyslexia usually means that a child has experienced multiple failures at school.

But collaborations currently underway between neuroscientists at MIT and Children’s Hospital may mark a fundamental shift in addressing dyslexia, and might someday eliminate the anguish of repeated failure. In preliminary findings, researchers report that brain measures taken in kindergartners — even before the kids can read — can “significantly” improve predictions of how well, or poorly, the children can master reading later on.

Implicated in dyslexia: The arcuate fasciculus is an arch-shaped bundle of fibers that connects the frontal language areas of the brain to the areas in the temporal lobe that are important for language (left). Researchers found that kindergarten children with strong pre-reading scores have a bigger, more robust and well-organized arcuate fasciculus (bottom right) while children with very low scores have a small and not particularly well-organized arcuate fasciculus (top right). (Zeynep Saygin/MIT)

Implicated in dyslexia: The arcuate fasciculus is an arch-shaped bundle of fibers that connects the frontal language areas of the brain to the areas in the temporal lobe that are important for language (left). Researchers found that kindergarten children with strong pre-reading scores have a bigger, more robust and well-organized arcuate fasciculus (bottom right) while children with very low scores have a small and not particularly well-organized arcuate fasciculus (top right). (Zeynep Saygin/MIT)

Pinpointing The White Matter Culprit

Using cutting-edge MRI technology, the researchers are able to pinpoint a specific neural pathway, a white matter tract in the brain’s left hemisphere that appears to be related to dyslexia: It’s called the arcuate fasciculus.

“Maybe the most surprising aspect of the research so far is how clear a signal we see in the brains of children who are likely to go on to be poor readers.”

– MIT neuroscientist John Gabrieli

“It’s an arch-shaped bundle of fibers that connects the frontal language areas of the brain to the areas in the temporal lobe that are important for language,” Elizabeth Norton, a neuroscientist at MIT’s McGovern Institute of Brain Research, explains.

In her lab, Norton shows me brain images from the NIH-funded kindergartner study, called READ (for Researching Early Attributes of Dyslexia).

“We see that in children who in kindergarten already have strong pre-reading scores, their arcuate fasciculus is both bigger and more well organized,” she says. On the other hand: “A child with a score of zero has a very small and not particularly organized arcuate fasciculus.”

She says we’re not quite ready to simply take a picture of your child’s brain and say “Aha, this kid is going to have dyslexia,” but we’re getting closer to that point. Continue reading

Unlocking The Brain: Are We Entering A Golden Age Of Neuroscience?

"We still haven’t unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter between our ears. That knowledge could be -- will be -- transformative,” President Obama said in announcing the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative on April 2, 2013, at the White House. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

“We still haven’t unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter between our ears. That knowledge could be — will be — transformative,” President Obama said in announcing the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative on April 2, 2013, at the White House. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

President John F. Kennedy set the nation’s sights on the moon. Fifty years later, President Obama announced his signature science project: neuroscience, the study of the brain.

“As humans,” he said last April, “we can identify galaxies light years away, we can study particles smaller than an atom, but we still haven’t unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter between our ears.”

The president committed an initial $100 million to BRAIN, an acronym for Brain Research through Advancing Neurotechnologies, to fund the development of better tools for studying how the brain works. “That knowledge could be — will be — transformative,” he said.

Over the next two months, WBUR will present a weekly series about brain science advances — many happening in Boston, a major hub for neuroscience research. Today, the overview.

If you click the “Play” arrow above, you’ll hear the hissy, Morse-Code-on-steroids sound of neurons firing, sending signals to each other.

So is this what a thought of yours would sound like, if it were played through an audio monitor like this? No. What you’re hearing is far, far simpler. These neurons belong to a crab; they make up a simple circuit of about 30 neurons that control how it chews and digests food. Their steady, rhythmic cycle is more like what your neurons do to control your breathing.

“Imagine now,” says Brandeis University neuroscientist Eve Marder, “an orchestra with billions of neurons firing in different patterns depending on what you were seeing, what you were hearing, what you were thinking and what you were feeling, so those rhythms would be changing in a tremendous symphony. If you could hear all of the neurons in your brain, it would be very hard to hear patterns, because there would be so many instruments, if you will, playing at the same time. It might sound like a cacophony.”

Making sense of that cacophonous complexity, she says, will be a lot harder than JFK’s moon shot.

“Unlike putting [a] man on the moon, where you knew exactly where the goal was and the problem was largely an engineering problem,” she says, “understanding the brain is a series of engineering problems and a series of intellectually creative, imaginative understandings, and it’s going to require the coordination of creativity across every scientific discipline that we know.”

But even if we give it everything we’ve got, can the human brain ever understand itself?

That’s the monumental gamble of Obama’s BRAIN initiative — and other major neuroscience efforts now getting under way around the world. They’re not trying to solve philosophical questions. They’re responding to the growing realization that brain disorders — from autism to mental illness to dementia — are a worldwide scourge, affecting at least a billion people.

“The global cost from brain disorders is about $2.5 trillion, and will go up more than double over the next two decades,” says Tom Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health. “So policymakers look at these numbers and say, ‘Oh my God, we have got to begin investing to make sure we don’t incur those kinds of costs.’ ”

Neuroscientists have been studying the brain for more than a century, and better treatments for brain diseases have been desperately needed for a lot longer than that. What’s different now is that for the first time, researchers say, we’re beginning to get a handle on the workings of the brain’s billions of neurons and trillions of connections. We’re starting to understand how groups of neurons interact, in smaller circuits or bigger networks — and that scale, out of reach even just a few years ago, is what we need if we ever hope to understand how we have a thought, or a memory, or a mental illness.

“This is an exciting time to be a neuroscientist. I’m not sure there’s ever been a more exciting time,” Larry Swanson, president of the Society for Neuroscience, told an audience last fall at the society’s annual conference of about 30,000 scientists. Continue reading

5 Ways The Brain Stymies Scientists And 5 New Tools To Crack It

Dr. Steven Hyman (Maria Nemchuk/Broad Institute)

Dr. Steven Hyman (Maria Nemchuk/Broad Institute)

In past lives, Dr. Steven Hyman has been the director of the National Institute of Mental Health and the provost of Harvard. He’s currently the president-elect of the Society for Neuroscience, and he directs the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, where we spoke, and where he demonstrated a preternatural professorial ability to speak off-the-cuff in structured outlines. Our conversation, lightly edited and broken down into what seemed to be its natural numbering scheme:

The Obama BRAIN initiative. We’ve had a ‘decade of the brain’ before, in the 1990s —

It accomplished nothing. Because it was a media blitz, it wasn’t based on new science.

So — Why this? Why now? What’s different?

Part of the growing public interest in the brain, and certainly much media attention, is a little bit unfortunate because it focuses on people applying tools, such as brain imaging, in ways that are untutored and underpowered but yield interesting — if not really scientifically valid — ideas about say, why a certain person is liberal or conservative, or why a certain person takes risks or is very self-protective. A subset of those may be scientifically addressable questions, but we’re a long way from understanding them deeply. Nonetheless they’re irresistible to the public and then of course it’s given rise to a new generation of debunkers — fair enough. So maybe we can set aside this false interest, this prurient interest in the brain and focus on the serious matters at hand.

In terms of political will, the question is not why now but why so late?

The bottom line is the brain is well recognized to be the linchpin of being human in the sense that it is the substrate of thought, emotion, control of behavior, and therefore, undergirds our life trajectories, our actions, our morality. And when the brain gets sick in any way we realize that it exacts an extraordinarily severe toll on the sufferer, on families, on society. Just think about Alzheimer’s disease, heroin addiction, major depression, schizophrenia, autism, intellectual disability — these are common conditions in which people can no longer exert reliable, effective agency on their own behalf and therefore society often has to step in for them at great cost and often really great pain.

Tragically, for the longest time there wasn’t so much we could do about it. Using medications that were really discovered by luck, by prepared serendipity; using, in more recent years, the few psychotherapies, especially Cognitive Behavioral Therapies, which have been empirically tested, we have been able to help a lot of people manage their symptoms, in some cases to become better stoics. With imaging technologies we began some decades ago — though at really still very relatively poor resolution — to get spatial maps of what’s happening in the brain. But we were really stymied in terms of getting a deeper understanding, a better picture, for several reasons:

1. The brain is new

The first, which is really important, is that the human brain is evolutionarily very recent in terms of many of its higher functions. What this means is that although we can learn an enormous amount from studying animals the way we do in the rest of biology and medicine, animal models are ultimately limited. Anything that requires language, just to take one example, we can’t model in animals. I think I understand my dog, but I wouldn’t publish it. There are really very many important functions — language, morality, certain kinds of creativity, the arts, humor, not to mention human mental illnesses, that really have not been well modeled in animals.

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