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Discovering the causes of forgetfulness and PTSD

Ever have a “senior moment?” Or forget a name during the course of an introduction? Or recall a moment so vividly that it seems to be happening before your eyes?

Dr. Apostolos Georgopoulos addressing the audience during his talk, "Brain Resilience and Emotional Trauma."
Dr. Apostolos Georgopoulos addressing the audience during his talk, "Brain Resilience and Emotional Trauma."
William Fietzer
A neuroimaging technique for mapping brain activity by recording magnetic fields produced by electrical currents in the brain,
William Fietzer

It is, in a way. That was one of many neuroscience insights Dr. Apostolos Georgopoulos provided his audience at the Humanists of Minnesota monthly chapter meeting at the Field Community School on February 15, 2014. His presentation, “Brain Resilience and Emotional Trauma,” related his basic research discoveries about why Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is such a difficult malady for sufferers to overcome.

Calling the brain a resilient and “massively interacting organ,” he said its function is “nothing else than a control station” to “keep the homeostasis of the body” (maintain internal stability) and “adapt to the environment.” Though its 100 million neurons accomplish these tasks in numerous ways, he likened brain activity to “a network” of countries on earth where people in the United States, for example, are connected to people in China and could communicate with them should they choose to do so.

Like groups of people in a communications network, groups of neurons (neural networks) in an individual brain “talk” or correlate with each other continually. They also end such conversations or de-correlate so new connections can occur and more information can be accessed for further processing (action) or retained for storage (memory).

Where healthy brains can perform these functions again and again, the physically traumatized brains of people with conditions such as PTSD remain “stuck,” that is, they fail to de-correlate from the traumatizing experience. In fact, the neuronal message becomes stronger over time as the internal communication becomes a permanent memory trace that is relived again and again.

For healthy individuals, such basic research helps explain why people forget or why some memories are so persistent. For Dr. Georgopoulos it explains that:

  • Brain function is the communication among neural ensembles
  • Alterations in brain function should be reflected in disturbed communication
  • Disturbed communication can be informative about disordered brain function.

For neuroscientists and biomedical specialists, it explains how brain signals can be made to drive prosthetic limbs, i.e. neuroprosthetics.

Dr. Georgopoulos takes pride in the practical results derived from his basic research. “If it works, it’s worth it,” he says. Much remains, however, that researchers still do not know, such as why some people are more sensitive to neural trauma than others. Though his lecture may have contained some off-putting jargon, its message overall was that one day trauma from PTSD and other brain disfunctions may be no more harmful than a Baby Boomer forgetting the name of his wife.

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