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Sara Denning, PhD, Clinical Psychologist

Therapy, Neurology and the Developing Brain.

By Sara Denning, Ph.D.

"Therapists can no longer rely on the relationship and good will to help their patients create a life free of anxiety or depression."

Bain development and Plasticity is a new discovery that makes psycho therapy a process of learning and neural growth. This Plasticity is the ability to reshape and reorganize through adulthood. Michael Merzenich Univ. of California, San Francisco describes the brain as "continually revising itself”. Therapists can no longer rely on the relationship and good will to help their patients create a life free of anxiety or depression. Knowledge about the brain and its growth demand that therapists be well read in neurology. The research briefly summarized below is clear proof that behavior and self image is a developmental process.

In the Mother’s womb neurological development begins. Weeks after conception the embryo produces half a million neurons every minute. Cells migrate to the brain to specific destinations based on genetic cues and interactions with neighboring neurons. First and Second trimesters neurons reach out and form synapses points of contact (connection) at rate of two million per second. Some of these circuits are already collecting data from the external world of voices, foods and music. Upon birth the baby brain soaks up everything coming through the senses for the next eighteen months. Circuits that receive more stimulation develop stronger connections. Dr. Mark Johnson Center for brain and cognitive development at Birkbeck, Univ. of London

The formation of self begins in the prefrontal cortex ( the area from forehead to the ears) It will extend to other areas and circuits depending on the specific senses i.e. Visual, aural, olfactory.

Memories are stored in the Hippocampus – part of the limbic system deep inside the brain. At age four this system is just become mature. Earlier memories exist stored in the emotional warehouse of the amygdala also in the limbic system which is functional at birth.

Another growth mental period happens prior to puberty. The prefrontal cortex is thickest around age 11 for girls and 12 – 13 for boys. Then another thinning of neurons appears to take place. Sensory processing and movement areas mature before spatial relations and language in parietal lobes on the sides of the brain. The last area to fully develop is the prefrontal cortex.

This executive brain doesn’t reach adult functioning until the age of 25. Desire, energy, and sex drive is present but executive management isn’t fully in place. Dr.Jay Giedd, National Institute for Mental Health.

As neurology comes to the forefront and rushes us into the future old styles of therapy must change to incorporate new understandings of how the brain develops and continues to change throughout the lifespan.

About the author:

Dr. Denning is in private practice in New York City. Go to Sara or Stressedout for more on cognitive behavioral therapy.

Sara Denning, PhD, Clinical Psychologist, New York

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Last Modified: 3/23/2018  

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