Tuesday, 14 April 2009

neuroplasticity and addiction

I would like to take the opportunity to say a big huge THANK YOU to my parents for the great job they did of not screwing me up. Seriously. The more I learn about this whole turning genes on and off business (which is referred to as epigenetics, apparently) the more I realize how lucky I am.

Which is to say that I saw a very good talk tonight by Dr. Gabor Maté called The Four Compassions: A humane response to addictions. Lisa, if you haven't heard this guy you should make an effort to check him out. This stuff is right up your alley.

It was a perfect counterpoint to the talk by Bryan Kolb last week. Dr. Kolb was talking about animal models of attachment and stress responses in the context of brain neuroplasticity. Dr. Maté was effectively talking about the exact same thing, except he's talking about the examples he sees every day on the street. He works in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver at the Portland Hotel, working with people with mental health and addiction issues. He took great pains to point out this sort of research that has been done - he cited a study I hadn't heard about. It was an ERP study on six-month-old human infants. He said that they could tell from looking at the pattern of the EEG which babies had depressed mothers. Good lord. It makes perfect sense that this kind of thing would have an effect on infants, but I don't think I ever realized the huge amount of brain plasticity involved. The effects of stress and depression (parental or the child's) can have enormous consequences later in life.

Anyway, Dr. Maté's point was that if you take that into consideration, there is no choice BUT to respond compassionately to addiction. They're not doing it because they're bad people, and they're certainly not doing it just to annoy us. They're doing it because their brains have been changed by (often horrible) childhood experiences, and they are using the drugs to medicate the pain. Criminalizing addiction won't do anything. Of course I've been reading a ton about this stuff from the brain/cognitive side myself, and Dr. Kent Berridge has a theory that addiction represents a dissociation of liking and wanting. Addicts don't like the drugs - they cause nothing but problems. But their brain wants them, and that is a primal kind of craving that is difficult or impossible to resist.

(As a sidenote, I have been thinking about starting a wee side blog where I take the pretty fascinating finds I read about all day and translate them into language a person without a lot of very specific education would understand and sort of write them up that way. I think it would be good for me, plus it's pretty crazy interesting stuff, but hard to get into without access to the databases).

Anyway, this was a very timely lecture for me to hear. Sooner or later I will probably end up working with substance-dependent people at the local treatment facility for my PhD, and it is a bit scary. Let's face it, my main interactions with addicts so far have been scary people shouting at me on the street or demanding money. A whole lecture on "judge not lest ye be judged" was just what I needed.

The lecture, by the way, was at St. George's*. It was billed as "St. George's gift to the city of Guelph". Good on them for getting a speaker addressing this topic, I say.

Besides the drug addiction stuff, my supervisor has asked me to apply for a studentship to do with problem gambling. These things are a huge pain to apply for - letters of reference, research proposal, letter from the university, transcripts, etc etc etc. But if I did get it, that would be amazing, so I guess it's worth a try. There sure isn't much literature out there about problem gambling, either.

In other news, I finally ran out of homemade laundry detergent and had to make a new batch. This time I melted the soap in 6 cups of water and added 9 litres of water after the washing soda and Borax, and stirred it a heck of a lot more while making it and as it was cooling. And it came out so much better! No more clumpiness, this is nice homogenous slime. I added a bit more washing soda (one cup) too, since Guelph's water is so stupidly hard. Have also been busy becoming very well-acquainted with vinegar's hard water deposit-removal properties. Anyway, I think I will declare the experiment a resounding success and not go back to store-bought detergent. This is cheaper and way more fun. Enough said.

Not much else new. Went to church on Easter, which was nice and I was very pleased when we sang the "Christ the Lord is risen today, A-a-alleluia" hymn. But after that it sucked. It was hard not to think of last Easter, in which I got to wander around Britain (and a bit of Ireland) with my family, packed into a tiny car with Lisa in the boot and dad at the wheel, tearing through roundabouts. Man, now THAT was fun. We were going to have a little planting party and plant our peas, but everyone involved either got sick at the last minute or couldn't tear themselves away from schoolwork. We had planned a potluck so I made cabbage rolls, but then only Katie the Newfie and her boyfriend (who was lovely) turned up. And neither of them really eats meat. Sorta disappointing. On the plus side, freezer is now packed with cabbage rolls...

* If you go to the St. George's site, do the virtual Easter egg hunt! It is pretty cool and they have some amazing stained glass windows.


Maureen said...

Yes the brains neuroplasticity can make one susceptible to addiction but BECAUSE of neuroplasticity one can make a choice to change it. If that wasn't the case there would be more addicts around than there are. So I guess what I am saying is, yes be compassionate but also give a person the information to know that what was once embedded in their brain because of neuroplasticity can also can be changed.

GEOFF said...

Hey Annie- you're welcome for your upbringing, but keep in mind that some folks would not necessarily
consider someone who is still in school at your age "normal"
With 4 of 5 still in school and only one making an honest living, I think maybe we plasticised you guys to be addicted to books

Theresa said...

You're welcome. As if we knew what we were doing. We took a guess and it seems to have worked on most of you.

Anne said...

Oh? Which one didn't it work on??

Theresa said...

Different ones at different times.

Will said...

Dr. Mate is coming to speak at VST this summer. I wish I could be there to hear him now.

I agree with Dad- I think our brains were plasticized to be addicted to books.

lisaandrichard said...

I have heard him speak on CBC, read his book-very good called- In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. Very comprehensive and thorough insight into addiction. I'd like to see him in person, lucky you!
His comparison of his own addiction to classical music is a good way to personalize what people on the streets live with. This might lead to a comparison of reading addiction-but I wouldn't want to point fingers.
I think you'll find your time workgin at the treatment centre interesting-I find that the more time I spend with people who are marginalized,the more I think 'there but for the grace of God...'
PLus, start another blog with interestign research stuff! I'll even contribute!!!

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