21st Century Brain Research – Empowering!

21st Century Brain Research - Empowering!

21st Century Brain Research was the topic of the GRAY MATTER Roundtable at Stanford University October 6, 2012. Participants: Dr. Frank Longo, Chair of the Department of Neurology and Neurological Sciences at Stanford University; Jill Bolte Taylor, PhD, Neuroanatomist, who suffered a massive stroke but was able to heal her brain and gain full function of her body and brain, and is author of “My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Story;” John L. Hennessy, President of Stanford University; Carla Shatz, PhD, Director of Bio-X, Stanford’s pioneering biosciences program; and Bob Woodruff, Co-anchor of World News Tonight who successfully recovered from serious traumatic brain injury suffered in a roadside bomb attack while reporting from Iraq. Moderator: Juju Chang, Emmy Award-winning correspondent for ABC News Nightline.

21st Century Brain Research – you won’t believe it!

I had the incredible opportunity to attend a roundtable, titled: “GRAY MATTERS, Your brain, your life, and brain science in the 21st century,” at Stanford University on October 6, 2012.

I’ve included the link to the taped show below – the discussion starts at 9:02. But I wanted to first share a few of my notes. Bear with me – these are just notes, listed in note-format – but hopefully they’ll entice you to want to watch the entire 90-minute program. It is truly astounding what is being studied and understood about the human brain. And while there was much discussion of brain impacts of dementia, stroke, traumatic brain injury and Alzheimer’s, the implications of this research for addiction, stress and mental health treatment and recovery is nothing short of profound! [And if your new to the concepts of neural networks, here’s a blog post that gives you the basics, Here’s to Neural Networks and Neurotransmitters: Keys to Brain (and Therefore Emotional/Physical) Health!]

  • There are approximately 100 trillion synaptic connections (which is how brain cells – neurons – communicate) in the brain and the goal is to maintain those connections or gain them back.
  • We form new synaptic connections every hour – what determines if they persist is if they’re being used.
  • Meditation, prayer, mindfulness activities are good ways to heal the brain because they shut down the stress circuitry – allow you to focus on the bigger world, relax and not get hooked into worry – to see the world differently; this is important to creating new memories, as well.
  • Stress strips synapses in the hippocampus so reducing stress is critical.
  • Nutrition, such as a healthy, Mediterranean-type diet, is important for brain health.
  • Sleep is critical to brain health – it allows the brain to codify and organize the day’s learning.
  • In the event of behavioral changes, it’s important to know where the cells are damaged in order to know which activities to focus on in order to heal the brain – for example, music, arts and physical activity feed the right side of the brain. People who have lost speech, for example, can actually sing a song, yet they would not be able to say the words of the song because of the way music is stored in the brain (words in one part and melody in another).
  • Exercise boosts the levels of BDNF (an important protein growth factor); BDNF is critical for promoting plasticity, which is the ability to form new neural connections and maintain the connections we have.
  • Important to do a little bit of a lot of things and mix it up — doing the same thing over and over doesn’t challenge neurons to reach out – so need to stretch your mind – read widely, exercise, take on new hobbies, engage in a wide-variety of activities, have interesting conversations (the idea of doing cross-word puzzles or brain games over and over makes you good at those specifically but are not good for promoting synapses beyond those used for the puzzles or brain game-type activities).
  • Mindfulness activities are important – they allow for free-thinking – not focused on one task, rather letting random thoughts come and go – pushes synapses.
  • Need to believe in the ability of the brain to heal itself and that can be hope or faith or…
  • Need to be “in” the world – not on a cell phone or texting but rather open to what all is around you in order to extend/expand synapses.
  • We are not as good at multi-tasking as we think; multi-tasking occurs in the frontal lobe – the plan, execute and multi-task networks. In head trauma, this ability is often damaged.
  • Rehabing the brain needs to start simple to even get the brain’s attention.
  • The hippocampus is the part of the brain critical for memory. The beginnings of memory come into the hippocampus, which organizes them and then goes out and stores them elsewhere in the brain and when cued (recalled), then goes out and brings them back. The cerebral cortex can create work-arounds to help us with these memory recalls, e.g., pictures, smells….
  • Everything streams through the amygdala, which is part of the Limbic System – the amygdala decides whether ‘incoming’ is trustworthy – so in the case of a person with brain injury, it’s important to get into their space, to make them feel you are trustworthy, rather than just talking at them.


The discussion begins at 9:02.

Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Author | Speaker | Consultant | Founder at BreakingTheCycles.com
Lisa is the author of hundreds of articles and 11 books, including "If You Loved Me, You'd Stop!," "Addiction Recovery: What Helps, What Doesn't," and "Secondhand Drinking: the Phenomenon That Affects Millions." She is a national keynote speaker with over 25 years speaking experience, consultant, and founder of BreakingTheCycles.com. She has spent more than 14 years studying 21st century brain research in order to write, speak, and consult on substance use disorders prevention, intervention and treatment; mental disorders; addiction (aka substance use disorders) as a brain disease; adolescent addiction treatment vs adult addiction treatment; effective treatment for co-occurring disorders (having both a substance use and mental disorder); secondhand drinking | drugging; help for the family; and related subjects. In 2015, she founded SHD Prevention, providing training and consulting to companies, public agencies, unions, nonprofits and other entities to address the workplace impacts of employee secondhand drinking and alcohol misuse.

28 Responses to 21st Century Brain Research – Empowering!

  1. I know so little of how the brain works and this is truly fascinating. What amazes me when I think of my own brain is how it coped and recovered after years of addiction. I now have a lot more respect for my brain and my body!

    • I found this research life-changing, Carolyn. Once I started to understand how the brain worked and how alcoholism and drugs and stress (from secondhand drinking, for example) works on the brain, it made a world of difference. Exciting times!!

  2. Hi Lisa,

    Important information – thanks for sharing your notes. The two that jumped out at me were Mediterranean-type diet and exercise. What we eat is so critical for our continued good health and the information continues to reinforce how essential exercise can be for the brain. I will go back and watch the program. Take care!

    • Hi Cathy – I found those two fascinating, as well. Sleep was a big one, too – and, of course, mindfulness – so amazing the impacts these have on the brain. What I especially like is that a person can be doing these four while they work on taking care of the other parts of their life (therapy around childhood trauma, for example) — healing the brain while they heal the brain :)!

  3. Thank you for sharing the video, Lisa. I agree, it is truly astounding what is being studied and understood about the human brain. After having a stroke a few months back, I am now “exercising” my brain to get it working properly. I am amazed at all the information out there! Thank goodness!

  4. Olga Hermans says:

    Great topics on how our brain functions; it is a vast substance that serves us every day of our life; very interesting

  5. Ruth Hegarty says:

    Thanks for sharing your great notes. I love brain science. Our brain is so delicate yet so resilient at the same time. I never realized how much our diet impacted our brain either.

    • You’re welcome, Ruth! Another great resource on nutrition and exercise and their impact on the brain health is John J. Ratey, MD’s book, “SPARK, The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.” He’s a very engaging writer, and his research is fascinating.

  6. Lorrie says:

    Congratulations on participating in such a wonderfully enlightening event! I especially appreciate the repeat comments in your notes about meditation and mindfulness like this – Mindfulness activities are important – they allow for free-thinking – not focused on one task, rather letting random thoughts come and go – pushes synapses. Can’t wait to watch a little later today.

    • I was excited about that part, as well, Lorrie – and the idea that there are so many ways we can go about doing it. I felt very fortunate to be able to attend the Roundtable and hope you enjoy watching it!

  7. BarbaraJpeters says:

    Thank you for shaing the information on how our brains function. It is important to care for it like we do any other part of us. If we take care of it then it will continue to serve us.

  8. Sherie says:

    This brain research is fascinating! In your notes list, you made mention of this “Need to believe in the ability of the brain to heal itself and that can be hope or faith or…”. That is awesome! I will be back to finish the video. Thanks for the notes!

    • It really is fascinating, Sherie. And as for that particular note, as I recall it was from Jill Bolte Taylor. I have found it to be true with the families with whom I work, as well. Once they understand this science (which is part of what I provide in my work with families and in my lectures/workshops with addicts/alcoholics, family members, students, social workers, etc.), they have the belief they really can heal their brain — that it’s not the old 1970s/80s messages of a fried egg in a pan, “Your Brain On Drugs.”

  9. Lisa, Is there anything more fascinating than the human brain? Thanks for sharing these notes. I would have liked to have been there. (I haven’t watched the video yet.) I have been very cognizant of my own not being very good at multitasking, so it’s interesting to read that here. I think it goes hand in hand with the idea of being present. Hard to do it all at once.

  10. Elizabeth Maness says:

    Our brains are fascinating they allow us to do so many things and the information it holds amazes me. Thanks for sharing this great information.

  11. Solvita says:

    I love learning more and more about the brain. It is so fascinating. I agree, when we multitask, we are not fully present and today more and more people get into stress often through doing it. Complete presence requires FOCUS, which for so many is so hard to do. Though the ability to focus creates the best results in everything we do. Thank you so much for sharing these important points. 🙂

  12. Lisa, you always post such great information. Thanks!

  13. Sharon O'Day says:

    I’ve bookmarked this to watch in the time I set aside weekly for “valuable lessons.” My fascination with the mind began with Charlie Rose’s series on the brain, starting a couple of years ago, having world experts address all the conditions … in layman’s terms. Can’t wait to watch this, Lisa, my thanks for sharing it! (And Jill Bolte Taylor’s story is so inspiring, isn’t it?)

  14. Regina Kohlhepp says:

    Lisa, I’m trying to help a friend who has a 22 yr old son who is addicted to video gaming, by his own report and has, over the last several years, dropped out of college, become more and more isolated, and is in general dysfunctional. He has seen a myriad of therapists since high school and has never been given a diagnosis or had an organic cause ruled out. Although he has been pronounced “gifted” in some areas, in other areas involving motor function he might seem delayed to the average observer. Are you aware of any neuroscientists who are doing work in the video addiction area or anyone who could recommend a professional who would be helpful? This young man lives in Vermont near his family. Thank you for any thoughts, suggestions, you can offer.

    • Hi Regina – I’m afraid I’m not much help with this. I specialize in drug and alcohol addictions and have not kept up with the latest research on behavioral addictions. I do work with Dr. Stan Fischman and the medical school students who go through his eating disorders and addiction rotation class at Stanford Medical School. He may be able to give you some suggestions. Here is his contact information:
      Stan Fischman, MD, Psychiatrist, Child Psychiatrist
      Mountain View, CA
      2485 Hospital Dr
      Mountain View, CA 94040
      (650) 988-7676 Fax: (650) 988-7674
      I’m sorry I can’t be of more help.
      Lisa

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