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Hacking your own brain

November 7, 2011

CPS is a disease of faulty neurotransmitters. Some lesion or injury to your Central Nervous System has stopped the correct transmission of sensations, and you end up with endless pain as a result. Whether it’s because that lesion is overproducing neurotransmitters, and thus flooding the receptor sites with pain messages – or whether the broken sites themselves are producing the pain messages, though inability to deal with neurotransmitters, hasn’t been discovered.

Perhaps CPS is just like Phantom Limb Syndrome. A “broken” or truncated CNS transmission line produces the pain messages, the same way the broken/truncated transmission lines do in PLS. I don’t know enough about PLS’ mechanism to see how it might be similarly functioning in CPS. If only Ramachandran were interested in this disease! But far too many doctors have not heard about it. At least three of the new CPSA members have related the same awful story this week, of doctors who refuse to believe such a disease exists because they have never heard of it. But that will be the subject of tomorrow’s post.

I was first introduced to the idea that neurotransmitters are the key to our brain’s functioning when I was put on amitryptlline back in 1983 for depression. For weeks, I had been feeling as if I existed in a dark, dull hole, where my thoughts dwelt on misery and self-loathing, and my despair seemed overwhelming and incurable. I couldn’t sleep, but lay in the dark thinking of my pleasureless future without love. I had no energy; I felt surrounded by a slate gray, inescapable cloudlike mass, a sort of insulation from life’s pleasures.I had troubled dreams, which work me up in the grey hours before dawn. Foods lost their savor. Music I had loved left me flat; it only reminded me of the happy days when I enjoyed dancing. I wrote journal entries wondering why I was so unlovable, and how I could have been so stupid to believe that the man that had left me had been in love with me. “How could I have ever been so wrong?” was my constant query to myself, and to my friends. I knew that I was in deep psychic trouble, but seemed powerless to change it.

Now I look back and think that I was in a kind of madness. But that first anti-depressant pulled me out of it, back to sanity as I knew it. My doctor prescribed it for me, with the explanation that, “This is relatively new, and it may help you. Would you like to try it?” I had always resisted drug treatment for mental problems. I’d seen what Thorazine had done to my mother ten years before, when she’d been prescribe very high dosages for what was identified as her “schizophrenic break.” To think that I had inherited her illness – whether a result of heredity or environment- was the ultimate sign of failure, of my lack of control over my own destiny. But when I agreed to try anti-depressants, there was nothing left for me to lose. The idea that I controlled my fate was obviously false, since I couldn’t control the economy (which had severely limited my employment opportunities), politics (which had given us Republican government) or my personal life (since the man I had thought I was marrying had moved out to play the field). “What the hell,” I thought. “Nothing else seems to be working.”

For three weeks, nothing happened. I took that little pill every morning with breakfast anyway. Then one Monday, the oddest thing occurred. I could only describe it at the time as swimming up through very dark water, which got brighter and less heavy as you reached the surface. Finally, you broke through – and the weight and the darkness were gone. My depression felt *gone.* The sense of lightness and freedom were amazing.

That was the day I realized just how dependent on neurotransmitters and brain functions we are to create what we call our personalities, our temperaments, and even our souls.

I spent a great deal of my spare time researching the brain and its functions. I even looked into programs in neuroscience – but realized that no graduate program was going to admit a person without an undergraduate degree in the biological or chemicals sciences. Now, of course, advances in neuroscience have gotten to a point where even the facts that I was taught in college: “The brain grows until you are approximately 18, and then it spend the rest of your life static and declining.” – have all been tossed out and completely revised. There really has been a neuroscientific revolution.

All the time that the science has been evolving, so has my own little squishy biological jelly-laboratory inside my skull. I’ve gone through at least five different anti-depressants, some of which worked better than others. I’ve tried to kick the anti-depressants, attempts which only drove home to me how altered they had made my own chemistry. I investigated meditation, and became convinced that the method that it used for altering consciousness could *only* be because it altered neurotransmitter patterns. In that regard, the mystical practices go full circle through the studies of human consciousness and the soul, to meet the neurobiologists on the “other side” of Academia. There was my “breakdown,” as former generations might call it, when I was in grad school, which I know understand as a major change in brain functioning. There was my auto-immune illness beginning in 2000, which also altered my brain chemistry.

Now, there is the biggest “experiment” of all: my stroke(s) in two brain areas, and the resultant CPS.

The most pressing question is “How can I stop this pain? How cam this pain be lifted from others?” Whether there are techniques that involved neuroplastically re-training your brain – the sort of thing That Doug Sharp succeeded in doing – or drug regimens, or exercises, or re-imagining exercises, I propose to try them all. Certainly there are quite a few books that are built on the idea that you can “retrain” your brain. Some of them include:

Balance Your Brain, Balance Your Life  “28 Days to Feeling Better Than You Ever Have” This was published in 2003, so it’s missing the past eight years of information. However, it does work on the theory that the neurotransmitters in your brain must be “balanced,” and points to the big categories: dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, acetyl,choline GABA. . It advises dietary changes that you can make in order to change the neurotransmitter precursors. It also gives you mental exercises to perform, asking yourself questions to determine what your psychological pitfalls and “grooves” are, and proposes new ones so that you can start thinking in new patterns. It also advises exercise as a kick-start to changing your brain through blood perfusion.

The Younger (Thinner) You Diet “How Understanding Your Brain Chemistry Can Help You Lose Weight, Reverse Aging, and Fight Disease” Published in 2008. It uses the same principle of altering brain neurochemistry through food that was previously discussed in “Balance Your Brain,” with the specific goal of helping you body lose weight. It includes the same things all diet books do: meal plans and recipes. For instance, if you need more dopamine in your life, you eat a 40% protein diet.

Change Your Brain, Change Your Body (2010) This is Daniel Amen’s book exam9ining the neuroscience behind weight loss. He  uses questionnaires to help you determine whether you lack dopamine, serotonin, GABA, or a number of neurotransmitters. (I, of course, lack more than one – dopamine, GABA, AND serotonin.) He is more interested in what supplements will treat these imbalances than in diet or exercise, although he does discuss thos a bit in passing. Amen, of course, is selling his own combinations of supplements (rather like Dr Dharma),but the pitch can be ignored. He has a detailed bibliography of citations to peer-reviewed studies, so that makes it very easy to start doing research on your own. I suppose I’ll have to get an alumni library card so that I can use the RU Sci-Med library in Piscata, happinessway. Online citations are sometimes available, but usually they are online accessible behind a for-pay firewall that is extremely expensive. He doesn’t have an actual daily plan, the way the  preceding books do. But his info can be utilized to work with some of the others.

I’ve also been reading two other books that discuss mysticism and calmness. One of them, Buddha’s Brain, is entitled “The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom.” It is the book I was looking for 30 years ago: an examination of the actual neuroscience behind “mystical” states. Since the state of mystical blissful union with the One Source has been similarly described in every religion from the beginning of time, it only makes sense that this state is neurologically based. There are changes that occur in the human brain, which is neuroplastically shaped by meditation to produce sensations of calmness, compassion, love and spiritual connection.

Matthieu Richard also discusses these neurological connections in Happiness: A guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill. Richard is a Buddhist monk and former cell biologist whose books posits that happiness is built out of compassion, gratitude, and openness to experience. I read his book (and gave it to Jan as a Christmas present) after watching his TED talk, “Habits of Happiness.

But to truly understand how to learn and practice compassion, you have to read Karen Armstrong’s remarkable new book, 12 Steps to a Compassionate Life. This similarity of mystical experience in all religions has become one of Armstrong’s major research devotions, and her publication history shows this, culminating in 2010’s “The Case For God. Armstrong, like Elaine Pagels, has had a huge impact on the way I view the anthropology of religion, as well as the true nature of God. Humans may not be able to understand God fully, but they can “grok” Hi, if they live a certain way and follow specific practices. Armstrong’s new book lays out those practices, which she says are universal. They are based on the idea of compassion for others: for people, for living things, for the environment of Nature itself. They way to treat others is stated very simply in the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself. Imagine their human experience; have compassion and care for them. Treat *yourself* compassionately. Learn to forgive and to nurture. Act these values. These practices, in turn, leads to internal peace.

Compassion, gratitude, right action. This way of living is one that I’ve known for decades, but have all too often failed to practice. These practices all can be learned, and by continued repetition, for as little as 30 days, made habitual. Practicing them reshapes the brain. That was my theory thirty years ago – and now, other researchers have produced the evidence to prove it. The research techniques have advanced to such a point that we actually can watch new neurons being transported to, and growing in, sections of the brain that are the site involved in new activities. Here is a video, for instance, of neurons being transported along axonal pathways to new locations in the hippocampus

Can I hack my brain in such a way that CPS can be overcome? It is, after all, a disease of the Central Nervous System – in my case, of the brain. Here are all the indices of how the brain works at its most basic, and the tools that are presently at hand to hack it. Some of them are ancient: meditation. Some of them are far more modern, such as the supplements and medications. My goal here is to develop a practice, composed of diet, exercise, supplements, proper medications and rest, and spiritual/intellectual practices, that can profoundly effect my CPS. I want to find out exactly *how* this disease may be controlled by the patient – and where more research might be best centered. Central Pain Syndrome is right now known by many diverse names, but all of them fall under the same rubric. All of these diseases cause the same torture, the fires of Hell. I may never be cured, but I can work diligently to help find a cure.

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