My brain scan: a look at the organ I have carried in my skull for half a century
I need to know why I’ve developed weak legs. But what else will the scan tell me?
Scanning the brain: the good news is that while brains can be deformed by adverse childhood experiences, it is also possible to effect repairs, to alter their physical structure.
I am lying here on a slab in the Beacon Hospital about to meet my maker. Oh, I don’t mean I’m going to die – it is much more significant than that: I’m going to see my brain for the first time.
I’m having a brain scan. Nothing prepared me for the emotional side of this. I’m going to see the organ I have carried inside my skull for half a century. This is the repository of the good and darkest thoughts, shaped by happy days and long dark nights of the soul.
This is the innermost director I hardly know. Did I shape it, or did it shape who I became? What I do? There is an Edgar Allan Poe story I remember as I lie here. It concerns a man who sold his appetite so the buyer could eat, drink and be merry and the seller would feel the effects. The man who sold his appetite would wake up hungover, wondering what damage, what scars he would find on his body, his liver. Is this how I feel about my brain? Is it a separate, unknown, possibly dark director of my life choices?
Lighten up, I tell myself as I lie there. But I’m fascinated by the mask the radiographer puts over my face – it will emit the rays that make up the images. A mask to see behind the mask I think as the machine swallows my legs and torso and moves over my head.
Building the brain
The first 1,000 days of life shape how a person deals with adversity, friendships, success or happiness in later life, according to Irish-American academic Prof Kevin Nugent. Speaking in Dublin last year, the founder of the Brazelton Institute in the division of developmental medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital said the process of building the brain was “not genetically determined”. Instead he posited that brain architecture is determined by a person’s early environment. “The first 1,000 days are crucial to brain development,” he says, noting that sensitive care in the first weeks of life are essential to development of a happy, well-adjusted person. How was my care in those years? Is my brain deformed, my expectations and my life performance stunted because of events I do not remember? Would a scan tell me?
Martin Teicher of the department of psychiatry at Harvard University scanned the brains of some 200 people who had been exposed to adverse environments in the developmental period. He found that the volumes of three important areas of the hippocampus were reduced by up to 6.5 per cent in those exposed to even verbal abuse in their early years.
Neurobiologists can assess damage using psychometric tests. They can also use brain scans. The magnetic resonance imaging machine clatters and bangs and stops two inches from my nose.
The Victorians were keen on the idea of “the criminal brain”. What if the wrong areas of my brain are lighting up? I’m not a criminal, but what if the scan reveals that on some very deep level, I’m rather shallow?
While brains can be deformed by adverse childhood experiences, it is also possible to effect repairs, to alter their physical structure. In Ireland earlier this year, another Harvard academic, psychiatrist Daniel J Siegel, gave a talk, An Interpersonal, Neurobiological Approach to Transforming Developmental Trauma into Integration and Resiliency, which was hosted by the Psychological Society of Ireland. In it Siegel argued that the brain could essentially be repaired by an interpersonal approach, that interactive counselling could repair physical damage to the brain.
My brain must know it is being scanned, but I feel no protests. I get some frights at the noise, but I’m mastering the urge towards flight. Siegel again, reminding me that concerns with security and confidence can be fixed.
I take this reasoning as a sign that I should exercise more. But actually I’m lying on the slab because I’ve developed weak legs. So with no obvious joint damage the doctors are hoping to rule out neurological issues.
I think of the start of this process and the many blood tests I did at my GP’s clinic. When eventually I felt compelled to ring and ask for my results, the practice nurse told me it was all good news. They hadn’t rung because it was all clear, she said, nothing abnormal at all. Nothing to worry about.
“I can’t bloody walk,” I roared down the phone.
I wonder can the brain scan show the missing lights where the anger management zone should be.