Published on: May 11, 2020
by Dr. Sandra B. Chapman:
It should come as no surprise that the COVID-19 crisis is placing huge demands on the human brain.
We are experiencing raw, existential anxiety for the health and safety of ourselves and those dearest to us. Many of us worry about making a living in the middle of an unprecedented economic crisis. Then there is the shake-up in our routines, the demands of acclimating to new temporal and spatial constraints of home working and learning. For many, the isolation is hardest, being unable to hug grandchildren or chat with friends over coffee. And finally, there is that thing that the human brain finds particularly difficult to cope with: unpredictability.
On its own, each of these factors is a significant stressor, but together they constitute a quite remarkable set of challenges for our brains to cope with.
Stress is the perception that the demands made on us exceed our ability to cope with them, and the resulting emotion manifests as anxiety. Anxiety is an evolved emotion designed to prioritize our attention on dealing with an emergency over all the routines of daily life. It was designed to get us out of danger fast and get away from the threat.
But the problem with the COVID crisis is that there is no end in sight to the threat, and so anxiety does not serve us well in coping with it. Anxiety alerts the brain’s and body’s first responders, which then do what firefighters the world over do when they arrive at a blazing building: They close down normal traffic and evacuate the area. In our brain, the key traffic is what normally occurs between the long-term planning frontal lobe and the other memory, perception and movement regions. The buildings being evacuated are our memory banks storing our rational priorities and our medium- and long-term goals. Research shows that prolonged anxiety plays havoc with our ability to problem-solve, to use our memory and to respond flexibly to complex, changing situations.
So, can brain science help here? Research at the Center for BrainHealth at UT Dallas and a handful of other institutions around the world focused on understanding the brain’s upward potential is providing answers and some promising strategies.
These scientific advancements and strategies are possible because of fundamental discoveries about the plasticity of the adult brain, which for most of the 20th century was believed to be fixed or hard-wired from early childhood. Thanks to the groundbreaking research of Michael Merzenich at University of California at San Francisco, we now know that every human brain is changed by experience, and specific types of training can induce particular changes.
What does this mean? That the brain is like a muscle: it grows stronger when trained and exercised or falters when neglected.
And it means we can reprogram the frontal lobe networks to produce the clearer thinking and more innovative problem-solving that is so essential to surviving the COVID-19 crisis.
First responders remain at the scene for only so long before handing over the reins to teams responsible for rebuilding and re-establishing normal activity. Fortunately, cognitive neuroscience research has shown that it is possible to rapidly strengthen those frontal-lobe networks disrupted by anxiety, by learning to strategically control our attention. By zooming in to detail and out to the big picture, we are exercising flexibility that is essential not only for problem-solving, but also to integrate and innovate in our thinking.
This doesn’t just make people sharper and better able to solve the problems they face, it also helps regulate unruly emotions. When anxiety activates the amygdala, a primal emergency-responder emotion region in the brain, it sends out disruptive signals that interfere with normal cognitive function, particularly in the frontal lobes. By training the frontal lobe networks to strategically control attention, this inhibits amygdala activity, providing a double benefit of improved cognition and reduced anxiety.
People who have been in high-stress situations — consider those in the military or on the front lines of the pandemic — can suffer from repeated and chronic activation of the amygdala if their brains have difficulty switching out of first-responder emergency mode. Over time, this has been demonstrated to lead not only to chronic, debilitating anxiety, but also to depression, substance abuse and many other problems.
The good news is that we can do something about this, and all it takes is training ourselves to use our brains in a different way.
Research has shown remarkable improvements in these warriors’ emotional health and cognitive function as a result of training the key frontal lobe circuits that inhibit amygdala activity. A randomized clinical trial with individuals with chronic-stage traumatic brain injury (that is, beyond the medically treatable acute phase) resulted in a 58% decrease in depressive symptoms, a 43% reduction in stress-related symptoms, and a 23% improvement in complex reasoning capacity. Corroborating these findings, fMRI brain imaging in separate research has shown the physical strengthening of these brain circuits as a result of cognitive training interventions.
Teens in poverty also have their problem-solving and emotional-control capacities sapped by chronic stress. Research has shown the remarkable, real-world effects of cognitive training on their academic achievement and long-term goal achievement. Randomized classroom training of middle school students with low socio-economic status produced a doubling of the number achieving mastery level in standardized testing as well as an 86% increase in the number of students on track to graduate.
At the other end of the age spectrum, cognitive training has been demonstrated to alter cognitive functioning and improve brain blood flow. Randomized clinical trials with healthy adults over 50 demonstrated a 33% improvement in creative-thinking capability, a 31% increase in central executive network (frontal lobe) synchrony, and an average 8% improvement in brain blood flow. The practical effect is that older adults can regain two decades or more of neural health of frontal networks, and those gains are linked to higher-order reasoning and innovation.
Here is some historical context. A generation ago, we were as fatalistic about the heart as we are today about the brain. We were not surprised when men and women in their prime collapsed with myocardial infarctions — the probability of dying from a heart attack was accepted.
But then a foundational study called the Framingham study discovered that people who engaged in aerobic exercise, ate well, didn’t smoke and controlled their blood pressure had much lower levels of heart disease than others. And so a revolution in physical health began with the aerobic exercise movement, which was actually seeded in Dallas’ Cooper Clinic.
Today, we are no longer fatalistic about heart disease — far from it, as we jog, swim and do all the other preventive things that have resulted in heart disease being more than halved in the last 50 years.
Dallas is also home to a second revolution in health — this time of an infinitely more complex organ, the brain. The latest research shows that it is possible to do for the brain what we have managed to do for the heart — build its capacity to increase our performance and strengthen our resilience against disease and decline.
This new understanding of the brain and its capacity to be strengthened should fill all of us with hope. No matter what we’re enduring now, we can train our brains to not just overcome challenges, but also help us realize our greater potential. Science is blazing a path forward around the concept of improved brain health for everyone, irrespective of age or condition, grounded in the established science demonstrating that the brain is trainable, dynamic and repairable.
These are profoundly exciting ideas to hold on to as we weather these difficult times.
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