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When Your Mind Says Go But Your Brain Says No

Posted 07-12-08 at 03:50 PM by Carla B.
Everyone knows what it feels like to feel blocked by a mental hurdle. You know you should. You even want to. Kinda, sorta, mostly. But you just can't get yourself out of the blocks and over the hump.

Doesn't matter what the issue is -- remember to eat your greens, make the time to exercise, call Aunt Sue and sound interested, pay those bills, clean that room, get those tires checked -- the sense of "IDonwanna" far outweighs the will to activate. Your mind says 'go' but your brain says 'no' .

So, as Dan Amen MD once famously put it, you press on the gas but get the brakes.

That kinda, sorta, mostly thing is part of the problem. Your commitment to whatever-it-is falls miles short of an urgent mission. But who but the most obsessive can turn the sweeping of floors into a mission-critical exercise every time the dust bunnies beckon?

If there is any one thing that seems to unite all bouncing brains across all of their many stripes it is the guilt and embarassment that comes from feeling stymied around the simplest tasks. It makes you feel like a lamebrain no matter what your IQ. But as I happened to hear on "SciFri" yesterday, scientists at Vanderbilt U. recently found what may be one small clue to what's happening in the brain when you truly want to act, but just can't get it going.

Some brains seem to contain what you might call a "leaky synapse" at certain mission-critical junctions.

To recap and over-simplify: Neuron A squirts a chemical into a synapse (the space between it and the next neuron in line). The job of this neurotransmitting chemical is to convey a message to Neuron B, rather like passing a baton in a relay race. In the well-oiled brain, the messenger molecules make it over the gap in the right amounts at the right times. But in some brains, these molecules may run backwards, away from Neuron B instead of towards it.

The net effect is to make the messenger molecules dissipate when they should percolate. So to speak.

Since we have only recently learned how to measure chemical activity at the level of a single cell, so far this dynamic has only been seen in one pair of patients with one errant gene in this one Vanderbilt study. But in a common sense way, it sure would seem to explain that feeling of pushing the gas and getting the brakes and thus fill in some of the blanks in that gap between our intentions and actions.

It also offers one possible answer to the paradox of why stimulant meds can have a "calming" effect in those who are hyper.

If this proves to be as a common an issue as common sense suggests it might be, then the leaky synapse hypothesis may someday explain a lot about the tension between a willing mind and a balky brain. And that, in turn, may help us ease at least a bit of the guilt and blame.


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Carla B. is the blogonym of an independent journalist in science, health and technology. A former Knight-Ridder columnist and longtime host of the former Mind-Brain Sciences Forum on CompuServe, she has also written at length on the topic of attention differences and adult ADD. This essay is an excerpt from her upcoming collection at bouncingbrainblogs.com.
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