Late Breaking News from Neuroscience: My particular area of interest is the intersection of stress, learning disabilities, and ADHD, and I’m excited to tell you about a fantastic article in the Neuroscience section of the April 2012 issue of Scientific American called This is Your Brain on Meltdown. This easy to read article summarizes new research carried out by a team of neuroscientists at Yale Medical School* that breaks new important ground in our understanding of the brain-stress connection.

Ancient (Brain) History: Historically, the impact of stress has focused on the role of the hypothalamus, a part of the “old brain,” (i.e., developed early in the evolutionary process) located at the base of our brain. Stress research has shown that the hypothalamus and other primitive brain structures play a critical role by triggering the production of certain hormones that gets us ready to protect ourselves from a stressful (threatening) event by preparing the body to “flee or fight.”

New News: Until recently, this interpretation of the stress response has neglected the role of the pre-frontal cortex–the evolutionarily “new” part of the brain that governs our executive functions (analyzing, problem-solving, planning actions, making sense out of chaos). The team at Yale has determined that under acute or chronic stress this center of higher-order thinking takes a back seat to it’s more primitive, survival-oriented ancient counterparts and essentially shuts off when we get stressed. It turns out that thinking about escaping a saber-toothed tiger may keep you in harm’s way. Our “ancient” brains are screaming at us: “Don’t think about it—just RUN ! ”

Implications: Let’s consider this new research in the context of learning. Many kids with LD and ADHD don’t really understand the nature of their learning or attention difficulties or know what they can do to overcome challenges associated with these neurologically-based conditions. This puts them in a state of chronic stress which effectively shuts down their executive functioningthe very skills they need in order to learn more effectively. When kids learn what gets in the way of learning and are taught the skills that allow them to gain some purchase on their learning, they began to climb out of what is too often a frustrating, depressing abyss.  In this kind of environment, they can change their mindset, experience consistent successes, and reverse the very biochemistry that can eat away at confidence and competence.

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*Dr. Amy Arnsten, Professor of Neurobiology, Dr. Carolyn M. Mazure, Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology, and Dr. Rajita Sinha, Professor of Psychiatry and Director of the Yale Stress Center, Yale School of Medicine.

Dr. Jerome Schultz is a clinical neuropsychologist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School, and the author of: “Nowhere to Hide: Why Kids With ADHD and LD Hate School, And What We Can Do About It” published by Jossey-Bass/Wiley. twitter: @docschultz


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