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Hack the Brain, Heal the Mind

The Brain, Overworked


Back in the day, hunter-gatherer societies relied on immediate, intense physical and emotional responses to threats to ensure survival. The brain was able to manage the mental load caused by these experiences because there was ample time between threats for the brain to recover and reset. That refractory period also provided the brain with reassurances of safety, including opportunities to connect socially and opportunities for rest. Compare that to the first responder brain, which is bombarded with a blitzkrieg of stimulating experiences that require quick judgment and thoughtful responsiveness repeatedly throughout a shift, with very little time to recover. In fact, on average the first responder brain may experience more periods of intense activity than rest. This intensity then becomes the default mode for the brain and restful states of mind might be distinguished by the brain as a hindrance or a threat.

Research indicates that this chronic exposure to intense neural activity affects the structures and functioning of the brain. Specifically, neural imaging with first responders identified a smaller Hippocampus (Levy-Gigi et. al. 2014). This area is directly connected to the nervous system and plays an important role in memory. Changes to this area of the brain have been associated with impairment in “memory, navigation, exploration, imagination, creativity, decision-making, character judgments, establishing and maintaining social bonds, empathy, social discourse, and language use” (Rubin et. al. 2014).


The Brain, Dysregulated


Our brain is designed to cycle through different levels of conscious awareness and brain wave activity depending on the environment, situation, and needs of the individual person from moment to moment. “Whenever we think, use our senses, move, experience emotions, or other actions, neurons fire in the brain and send electrical signals between selected synapses. These signals are interpreted as brain waves, with different frequencies associated with different brain functions” (Forkner, 2019). Chronic stressors or repeated trauma reinforce specific responses in the brain, which disrupts the brain’s healthy response patterns. For instance, remaining in a hypervigilant state and activating the nervous system repeatedly throughout a shift helps to maintain the awareness and responsiveness needed to be a first responder, but it also contributes to the development of chronic neural dysregulation. This dysregulation contributes to hypervigilance, restlessness, insomnia, challenges connecting socially, difficulty concentrating, memory impairment, and changes in mood. When the brain attempts to regulate itself, sometimes it overcorrects and there is a pendulum effect, where the brain swings back and forth from an overactive to an underactive state; from feeling alert and active, to feeling “checked-out” or numb.


The Brain, Adapting


The brain has an incredible capacity to heal itself. The concept of neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s innate capacity to adapt. It is defined as “the ability of the nervous system to change its activity in response to intrinsic or extrinsic stimuli by reorganizing its structure, functions, or connections” (Puderbaugh, M. & Emmady, P.D., 2022). Basically, the brain actively recovers from and adapts to changes caused by stress, trauma exposure, and even physical injury. Neurofeedback uses technology and sensory stimuli to trigger this adaptive response.



(National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine)



In Action


Decades of research have supported the use of neurofeedback to help military personnel and first responders improve performance in the field, reduce and recover from the impacts of chronic stress and trauma exposure, and offset the effects of shift work. There are many things that help to regulate the brain in our day-to-day lives (nutrition, physical activity, social connectedness, environmental stability, access to supportive resources, etc.). Most often, the brain requires a combination of healthy outlets and self-care to maintain stability. But the demands placed on the first responder brain often overwhelm and surpass the capacity of these resources. Some things work more or less effectively, depending on the individual person. Neurofeedback helps the brain by breaking the patterns of dysregulation and training the brain to return to a state of balance using technology that provides neural stimulation, auditory, and/or visual feedback in real time. Neurofeedback teaches the brain how to self-regulate.This allows your brain to engage in and benefit more from those other healthy outlets, such as spending time with family or exercising.

 

Examples of Neurofeedback


Alpha-Stim

Alpha-Stim is a device that delivers a subtle electrical current to the brain via electrodes that clip to the earlobes. This activates a response in the brain that promotes the release of serotonin and acetylcholine, which help to regulate mood and stimulate the brain’s parasympathetic “calming” response (the “off switch” for the fight or flight response). Research indicates this response has a cumulative effect with repeated use of the device, in some cases promoting sustained changes in brain functionality that support the brain’s ability to manage and bounce back from stressors. For more information about the research and science behind Alpha-Stim, visit: https://www.alpha-stim.com/healthcare-professionals/clinical-research/


Vitanya

Vitanya is a neurofeedback program that combines Brainwave Entrainment technology with supplements (i.e. Ginkgo Biloba, COQ-10, Turmeric) that support brain health and functionality. Brainwave Entrainment utilizes rhythmic sensory stimuli (in this case auditory and visual stimuli administered via a headset), to promote specific brain wave activity (Sirinivasan et. al., 2020). Research demonstrates this process may improve the brain’s ability to transition from one state to another and self-regulate. This is associated with outcomes such as improved sleep, improved cognitive performance, increased resilience to stress, and improved mood stability. For more information about the research and science behind Vitanya, visit: https://vitanya.com/brain-performance/


Cereset



Cereset uses sensors placed on the scalp to read the brain’s activity. This information is then translated into sound waves that are echoed back to the brain. The brain interprets this feedback, allowing both hemispheres of the brain to sync up and re-balance. Sending this echo to the brain repeatedly provides the opportunity for the brain to strengthen that signal, adjusting and re-establishing stability. Research indicates this process may promote recovery from traumatic brain injury, improve resilience to stress, improve mood stability, and promote recovery from PTSD. For more information about the research and science behind Cereset, visit: https://cereset.com/brain-health-and-wellness/cereset-description-and-credibility/


 

REFERENCES Forkner, C. (2019). The Impact of Neurofeedback on PTSD: A Case Study. Insights to a Changing World. Retrieved from: https://www.academia.edu/39148015/The_Impact_of_Neurofeedback_on_PTSD_A_Case_Study

Huang, T.L. & Charyton, C. (2008). A comprehensive review of the psychological effects of brainwave entrainment. Retrieved from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18780583/

Levy-Gigi, E., Richter-Levin, G., Keri, S. (2014). The hidden price of repeated traumatic exposure: different cognitive deficits in different first-responders. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnbeh.2014.00281

Rubin, R.D., Watson, P.D., Duff, M.C., & Cohen, N.J. (2014). The role of the hippocampus in flexible cognition and social behavior. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2014.00742

Puderbaugh, M. & Emmady, P.D. (2022). Neuroplasticity. National Library of Medicine. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK557811/

Sirinivasan, A., Karuppathal, E., Venkatesan, K.R., Kalpana, R. (2020) Brainwave Entrainment through External Sensory Stimulus: A Therapy for Insomnia. Retrieved from: https://n.neurology.org/content/94/15_Supplement/1784 Smith, S. (2021). The Healing Powers of Neuroscience. Retrieved from: https://tempecoalition.org/the-healing-powers-of-neuroscience/

Vitanya (2020) Increasing Mental Resilience and Creating High Performance Communities. Retrieved from: https://vitanya.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/1-Vitanya-Research-Summary-police.pdf

Voss, P., Thomas, M.E., Cisneros-Franco, J.M., &de Villers-Sidani, E. (2017) Dynamic Brains and the Changing Rules of Neuroplasticity: Implications for Learning and Recovery. Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01657



 

© 2023 by Jessica Carter

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