Our Moods in the Winter Months

The winter of 2010 has been particularly rough or impressive depending on your frame of reference. Having spent 10 years in Tucson, Arizona and now living in the eastern part of the United States, I am on the side of “rough.” For millions of people all across the planet, the winter of 2010 has caused school closings, car accidents, loss of power, plenty of exercise with shoveling, water damage, and eventual flooding. The chronic nature of the 2010 winter season has also caused our mood to sour.

Chronic stress can certainly cause changes in the brain. Research indicates this can occur in the form of structural and chemical change. Post-traumatic stress disorder is one type of psychological disorder caused by a life-threatening stressor though reduced efficiency and functionality can also be caused by an unrelenting stressor in our lives. One aspect of the chemical alteration in our brains is a change in our moods. This might mean a clinical disorder such as depression or seasonal affective disorder or a more mild change such as increased irritability, fatigue, frustration, and a sense of hopelessness. Mother Nature is in charge!

It is important to recognize your own situation and how you and your loved ones may be coping with such a difficult winter. For those of us who are not “winter people” this can be a difficult challenge. Some coping mechanisms to consider include:

1.    Remember spring is getting closer each day.
2.    Use the down time to engage in family activities.
3.    Get some work done organizing or cleaning the house.
4.    Try to recreate in the snow as a family.
5.    Shovel the snow as a family (if you are physically able shoveling is a good exercise, but remember to bend your knees     and proceed in small steps).
6.    Build a fire if you have a fireplace and enjoy the moment.
7.    Use relaxation and meditation daily to cope.
8.    Be conscious of how you are feeling.
9.    Talk to your doctor about light therapy if needed.
10.    Spring is getting closer each day.

Bundle up and we will get through this together.

Awareness in Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is the leading cause of progressive dementia in the United States accounting for 95% of all dementias. It is believed that approximately 5 million Americans suffer AD and that this number will nearly triple in the next 40 years. AD is also on the increase worldwide.

AD is a progressive dementia that affects functions of memory, language, spatial skill, personality and functional ability. The disease continues to erode these functions rendering the patient completely dependent. It is generally believed that patients with more advanced AD are not aware of their condition and do not have an awareness of the people or places around them.

New research on awareness in those with vegetative state suggests this may not be true. Communication may also be possible for those in vegetative state. One case of a 29 year-old patient in a vegetative state was able to answer yes no questions by visualizing specific scenes the doctors asked him to imagine. The brain yielded different activity when different scenes were viewed. This particular patient was in a vegetative state for five years.

This new study published in the online version of the New England Journal of Medicine supports previous cases of awareness in those with vegetative state and raises significant issues concerning understanding of brain function and ethical matters dealing with end of life decisions.

Another suspicion this raises for me is whether a patient with advanced Alzheimer’s disease maintains some awareness of his surroundings. Perhaps the patient’s smile or blink to a family member has more meaning than we previously believed. It is not unreasonable to believe that the complexity of the human brain will not permit complete disconnect from those persons or things that are most important to that brain. We may simply not yet have the ability to measure such activity.

The new study reported in the online New England Journal of Medicine will help to spur research into this and other questions. We are on the frontier of an entirely new understanding of the human brain and we will be very surprised by how we have underestimated its ability and power. I refer to this new exploration of human brain potential as “neural energies.”