A Means to An End – Trauma and the Power of Neuroplasticity  

January 1, 2024 at 11:13 AM
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A Means to An End – Trauma and the Power of Neuroplasticity                                                                                                 

By Ana Ceclia Duarte and Jim Stellar

We met first at Northeastern when JS had a neuroscience research laboratory and ACD worked in it as an undergraduate. We did an experiment with others and published a scientific paper. She then went on to a career in nursing and we recently reconnected over her recent interests in pursuing an advanced degree in public health and the sociology of medicine as seen from the background of neuroscience. That was occurring while this blog series was going a bit beyond its classical cognitive-emotional (neocortex-limbic system) integration on topics about the impact on a college student’s major/career plans of experiential education activities and into the cognitive-emotional connections in the topic of trauma. Examples are 1) the recent blog post on restorative justice and 2) a follow-up on trauma and the brain. ACD and I decided to continue that trend here with this blog, beginning with this story from her.

When I think about my childhood, I can only make sense of it through the lens of the scientific study of Chaos Theory. I was introduced to this theory in an introductory chemistry class as an undergraduate while at Northeastern University. This  theory, originally used widely in Mathematics and Physics, is based on the ideology that in nature, chaos naturally occurs and magnifies with time, becoming increasingly unpredictable. I experienced living in chaos throughout all of my developmental milestones – from early childhood well into my adult life. I was unable to predict sources of housing, safety, food and even basic love. Despite the odds I faced, I have been admitted into various Master’s and Doctoral level programs and most recently worked as a Nurse at Harvard University. How was I able to accomplish any of this?

To begin to answer such a complex question, let’s delve a bit into my background. My primary language is Spanish and I am of Puerto Rican and Peruvian heritage. My parents grew up extremely poor and undereducated in their places of birth. One parent was illiterate with a lower elementary school education, if that. The other was able to complete the 9th grade. Both left their homelands to seek a better life for themselves and their families. I respect the adversity they faced as they attempted to make a better life for their children, but unbeknownst to them they each carried what I call the trauma gene and inevitably passed it on to me and my siblings. Due to developmental trauma they were unable to achieve Maslow’s Theory of self-actualization, a precursor necessary to emotional intelligence and resilience. 

This story in the context of chaos theory raises for me the question of resilience, which is a form of cognitive-emotional integration. Where do you think it comes from?

Arguably, cognitive-emotional integration arises from the limbic system, a complex set of structures located deep within the brain. These structures form intricate connections throughout the brain, reaching the prefrontal cortex, the most evolved portion of the human brain. The limbic systemic is much like a grand chandelier – fixed at the base, with intricate branched fixtures designed to illuminate the space it occupies. This chandelier represents cognitive-emotional integration. When the electrical system of the brain does not function correctly, mental fog occurs. This documented syndrome is known as “trauma brain.” Trauma brain, in essence, reconfigures or rewires the brain, forming inelastic connections. Because of this it would appear that resilience would be unattainable for this type of brain. As a Neuroscientist and a Nurse, I am interested in the link between complex trauma and how neuroplasticity contributes to resilience.

How can you use what you have theoretically learned and how can you put it into practical use? What does this have to do with neuroplasticity?

Through my coursework in regulatory cell physiology and pathophysiology, practical evidence has established, for example, that the coronary arteries can bypass injured areas, creating new pathways to maintain homeostasis and adequate blood flow throughout the heart and the body. Just as the heart can create new pathways, the brain can too. Piaget’s theory of cognitive development demonstrates the incredible neuroplasticity of the brain throughout cognitive development in children. From a clinical perspective, neuroplasticity is the basis of physical, occupational and speech therapies in those recovering from stroke, traumatic brain injuries and brain tumors. It gives me great hope for those suffering from Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Neuroplasticity is clearly the key to brain change whether it is learning a new skill or adapting to a new environment as undergraduates did at our shared old school (Northeastern University) did when they went on co-op. But here, it takes on a more “restorative” function. The question now is how do you trigger or maintain that restoration after trauma. Does it depend upon having an inherently resilient approach to life or someone to encourage that in a person. It just seems that one has to have something to propel them to good experiences that will change their brain and their behavior.

Learning is elemental to the restorative function of the prefrontal cortex. In fact, current research by Tang et al. (2022) argues that newly acquired information is necessary for prefrontal cortical plasticity. The process of learning triggers neuroplasticity allowing for resilience through the connection of new pathways. Psychotherapy, a formal education, learning a new language or re-learning a skill after a stroke, also triggers neuroplasticity. These new connections bypass or alter the static neural networks created by chronic stress. The new connections also then aid in the improvement of executive functioning skills, allowing for the change in behaviors that were once protective in nature. The mind-body connection has great implications here for the field of public health.

In my own case, through the process of classical conditioning, I paired, in my own life, educational success with parental love. I recall my mother shouting with joy and encouraging my academic success in her broken English. My mother instinctively knew that when she dropped out of ninth grade, her life became harrowing and intolerable. She wanted her children to escape the socio-economic effects of her lived experience with poverty. Her respect for education became our sole topic of our bonding. The only time I recall receiving encouragement or validation were following moments of academic success. Moments that we celebrated together. I wish we had more precious moments like this. Ones that didn’t hinge on my academic success. I wish she could have directed the joy of learning toward herself and to create new limbic system pathways as I have.

This topic is becoming an important part of this blog series. Look for more posts in the future on this topic as well as continued works on basic neuroplasticity and neuroscience of how direct experiences like internships complement academic learning in college students. Maybe these two threads of discussion can even inform each other.

Broken heart syndrome – an example of cognitive-emotional integration and vagus nerve function

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