Neural Network Rewiring: You can achieve it if you believe it
As we have discussed in class, the brain is continuously evolving and creating new connections between neurons. These connections make everyday life possible. If humans, or animals in general, were incapable of creating outputs without inputs, they would not be able to creatively solve problems and adapt to new environments. Clearly, this is not the case given that modern homo sapiens have survived approximately 60,000 years of life on Earth (ScienceDaily, 2004). Thus, it is a fact that human brains have evolved to enable neural plasticity, or the ability to reorganize neuronal structures and create new connections between neurons. The question remains as to how the plasticity of the brain is maintained. How is it that neurons can create these new connections?
This topic is particularly intriguing to me in the context of the debate regarding the efficacy of clinical psychopathological treatments. Currently, this debate has created a division amongst psychologists. Some prefer psychotherapeutic therapies to treat mood disorders, others believe pharmacological treatments to be the most effective form of therapy for these same disorders. A great majority of the literature regarding treatment methods, however, will tell you that combining both treatments is the most effective way to lessen symptoms of mood disorders. But what makes these treatments effective? While I was researching this topic, I assumed that pharmacotherapy was only effective because of the chemical interactions that occur after administration of the drug. I admit that I was a little biased in my assumption that pharmacological agents only acted as a “quick-fix” treatment. I further hypothesized that certain forms of psychotherapy, like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (hereafter CBT) would be more effective because more patient participation is required in psychotherapy.
After completing my research, I realized that my new perceptions did not correlate with my previous hypotheses. Neural network rewiring can be achieved through both modes of therapy! Both psychotherapeutic and pharmacological treatments involve learning. In both therapies, neurons create new connections and reorganize the structure of the brain through the process of learning. Humans learn every day, so our brains are constantly being reorganized. However, we also have the unique opportunity to shape our own neural network rewiring by directing our learning process. Learning can be as simple as thinking about something and consciously trying to change our mindset. As stated in a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy blog, “[r]epeated thinking can… trigger a series of reactions which result in brain rewiring” (CBT Blog, 2009). This paper serves to elucidate the process of neural rewiring and brain structure reorganization. First, neural network rewiring through the use of psychotherapy will be explored followed by an explanation of the process of neural network rewiring achieved by pharmacological agents.
In the case of psychotherapy, individuals have to recognize their own negative thoughts and perceptions and change their mindset to a more positive one. Several new techniques have developed within the psychotherapy field. Among these are Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy and Mood Management. Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy “is a blend of two very different approaches- cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)… and the meditative practice of mindfulness” (Renaissance Therapy Clinic, n.d.). The website further explains that Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy “is based on the idea that our thoughts cause our feelings and behaviors” and thus “we can change the way we think to feel or act better” (Renaissance Therapy Clinic, n.d.). As we have learned in class, our realities are constructed by the brain, or mind. If our brain/mind creates thoughts which alter our perceptions and behaviors, we should in turn be able to change the neural network of our brains to better manage our thoughts. This concept has direct implications to clinical psychological treatment methodology.
Another relatively new method of CBT focuses especially on adolescents. This approach is called Mood Management. Dr. Carol Langelier of Rivier College explained that “Mood Management is a skills-building program” to help adolescents cope with “negative emotions that interfere with their ability to function effectively in academic, vocational and social settings” (Langelier, 2005; Langelier, 2001). Dr. Langelier believes that teaching young adults to think about their own emotions will allow them to effectively change their perceptions and behaviors. The adolescents actively engage in a five-step model to assess their emotional triggers, thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and their physiological responses when they are experiencing distress. Once the teenagers were aware of their own emotional processing, they could create new neural networks by consciously altering their reaction to emotional triggers. This method combines research on neural networks and psychotherapeutic treatments, like CBT. Mood Management could potentially be a valuable tool for clinicians in the field today. However, psychotherapy alone may not be enough to effectively treat mood disorders through neural network rewiring and structural reorganization.
Although there has been a heated debate regarding the most efficacious treatment of mood disorders, the consensus in the literature implies that a combination treatment protocol involving both psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy will be most effective. Neural network rewiring occurs in much the same way in pharmacotherapy as it does in psychotherapy. According to Dr. Derek Lowe (2005), “[r]odent studies have shown that antidepressants stimulate the growth of new neurons, and that this correlates with their mood-elevating effects” (Lowe, 2005). Thus, antidepressants (and arguably, other prescription drugs used to treat other mood disorders) initiate neural network rewiring by adding new neurons to the brain, thereby restructuring the neural network organization. Similarly, it has been proposed that the amount of time it takes for antidepressants (and other mood altering prescription drugs) to be effective correlates strongly with the time required for new neurons to develop: “it takes about three to six weeks for new cells to mature -- the same time it takes serotonin-enhancing drugs to make a difference in a patient” (Greenberg, n.d.). This is further evidence to support the theory that pharmacological agents create new neurons upon administration and ultimately lead to neural network rewiring.
The neural network rewiring is achieved through a learning process similar to that found in psychotherapeutic approaches. After new neurons are created, they interact with other neurons. These interactions become crystallized in the brain as new network pathways. Essentially, people taking prescription drugs learn how to feel less distress as a result of the medication. Hence there is a need for pharmacological agents in treating certain mood disorders, but people should still be aware of what they are putting in their body. Often these drugs are non-specific in their interactions with neurons in the brain, meaning that it’s hard to effectively target one specific type of neuron. Further, “[i]n order to get past the blood-brain barrier, psychoactive drugs often must be delivered in much higher concentrations into the blood, often causing unpleasant and dangerous side effects” (Norton, 2009). While a dualistic approach combining psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy is most effective in treating mood disorders, people should be aware of the potential dangers and side effects associated with prescription drugs.
In summary, it is through the process of learning that human neural networks can be rewired to result in a structural reorganization of the brain. Psychotherapies implement strategies to allow the patient to participate in their own therapy, thereby enabling them to recognize their distress and change their thought processes to reduce this distress. Pharmacological treatments initially create new neurons, which in turn make new connections and reorganize brain structure through the process of learning. Combining these two types of treatment is the most effective way to lessen symptoms of mood disorders.
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Langelier, C. A. (2005). Emotions and learning: Where brain based research and cognitive-behavioral counseling strategies meet the road. Rivier College Online Academic Journal, 1(1). Retrieved from http://www.rivier.edu/journal/ROAJ-2005-Fall/J17-LANGELIER-CONNELL.pdf
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