Gun Violence and the NRA

The following essay of mine was published in the Op-ed pages of the Orlando Sentinel on January 10, 2013. I weight it against the unreasonableness of the NRA:
 
In 1989, in response to the Stockton school shooting, in which five children were killed and 29 were wounded by an assailant with an assault rifle, I wrote a newspaper essay describing the utter stranglehold the NRA had over our politicians and Constitution. Rereading the article today, I am struck not only by the utter lack of progress on gun control in the last twenty-three years, but that things have gotten shockingly worse. I wrote, in part:
 

“If Thomas Jefferson or George Washington could visit the scene of the recent massacre of children in Stockton, Calif., they would likely weep. They would weep not only for the gun-downed children of Vietnamese refugees seeking a sanctuary from war, but also for the Constitution itself.

 

“They could not imagine in their wildest fantasies that the Second Amendment could become as warped and perverted as to immerse their precious country in any bloody sea of AK-47 assault rifles and Uzi machine guns. They would weep to find that, alone among the Western democracies, the United States offers death by gunfire as an everyday occurrence.”

 

“Behind this historical perversion, wrapped in bloodstained flags of deranged patriotism, stands the National Rifle Association.

 
The shocking complacency of our society for twenty-three years is only exceeded by the NRA’s Wayne Lapierres antidote for bullets buzzing as thick as flies – more bullets. The NRA is actively trying to cram loaded and concealed weapons into the last hallowed venues left in our lives – churches, the work place and schools. I am trying to imagine a venue in this country where the NRA would agree that guns are inappropriate. I would venture to say baby cribs, but I remain unsure.
 
What has happened to our politicians in the twenty-three years since Stockton? They are, I feel, collectively suffering from the “Stockholm Syndrome,” a condition whereby prisoners or abductees begin to admire their captures. To say that our politicians at the time of the Stockton massacre were captives of the NRA would be an understatement. But to describe the situation just prior to the Connecticut school shooting is difficult, since the notion of senators and representatives as slaves is such a paradox. I picture them as the captive zombies in the “Walking Dead,” neutered, with nose rings, being led quietly across an apocalyptic landscape.
 
Even our Supreme Court (surprise) in Columbia V. Heller, has given its Constitutional blessing to reasonable gun control legislation. But when even the most tepid whiff of reasonable legislation is brought up, the NRA screeches about the “slippery slope” which ends in black helicopters and UN led house to house searches for guns. This is childish. Horrifically enough, the motivation behind this argument springs not from its member’s fear of criminals, but fear of the U.S. government itself. So, in essence, we are witnessing the most powerful lobby in the country reserving and expanding the rights of those who want the option to use military grade firearms against our current government sometime in the future. What a noble cause. What sort of nightmare have we sleepwalked our way into?
 
The original core of the NRA, the hunters, have been quietly left behind by the NRA as they are an aging and shrinking block of support. This explains the NRA’s two decade pandering to the paranoid right. While all other industrialized democracies in the world have moved toward rational restrictions on guns, far beyond what will or should occur here, we continue to stockpile a cache of almost 400 million weapons because of the fantasies of a fearful minority that these guns will be taken. A deadly snake has swallowed its tail.
 
In the early 1950’s, during the “Red Scare” Senator Joseph McCarthy similarly bullied this country and cowed our politicians. He finally went too far and was publicly called down by Army lawyer Joseph Welch, who said, as McCarthy blindly attacked an accused “You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” Similarly, we need to demand decency and true citizenship from the NRA. Our zombies/politicians needed a ____ slap in the face. If the deaths of these children won’t’ wake them up out of graveling serfdom to the NRA, nothing ever will. Let’s at long last be adults about this – no one is going to break down gun owners doors and hysteria over reasonable restrictions should be treated for what it is – selfish, unthinking and unpatriotic.

This Story was Written by a Client who Suffered a Severe TBI During a Car Accident

 

Let’s start with my name, it is Michael Jason Saranko, but most people call me Mike. At the present time, I am a full time student at Hillsborough Community College, and a proud father of my son Alexander Nathaniel Saranko. From time to time, I often think about what my true goals are in life, and what I hope to accomplish by going to college now, and in the future. I have come to realize that there are differences between what I need to do, and what I want to do. In a few simple words one could say, “I do the things I need to do, to get to where I want to be in life.” Saying that has made a huge difference among the things I have chosen to write about.
 

To begin with, my for most important goal is to ensure my son has everything he would ever need and most of the things he may want, and to ensure his health and happiness. At the same time, I want to maintain a happy and healthy life for myself. In order to do so, one of the goals I want to accomplish would be to graduate from college, then pursue a degree somewhere in the field of law possibly becoming a lawyer. Becoming a lawyer has been a long time goal of mine since I was a child. I can recall times as a child watching my father at the law library studying case law to win, or get out of any lawsuits he may have been involved in. I soon came to realize law is just a bunch of paper work in defending a point of view for whatever reason a person may have. Basically, saying who ever did the most ‘homework’ for their case, and got the best facts usually won. Incidentally, an obstacle I am currently dealing with, and have had to try to overcome happened nearly five years ago on August of 2007. This event happened only two months after I had graduated from high school, and was in the process of moving into my own apartment to begin college. It was a normal day just like any other. Everything was going well as I was driving about to make a left turn to enter a gas station, when out of nowhere my life changed forever as I was involved in a motor vehicle collision in the middle of my turn. My vehicle was only traveling around five miles per hour. As I turned another vehicle ran a red light and plowed into me going nearly sixty miles per hour hitting me on my right passenger side. The impact folded the passenger side of the vehicle onto the driver side. I suffered many injuries including, but not limited to a sub-dural hematoma, a right collapsed lung, and two fractures in my top two vertebra. I was very lucky to have survived, seeing how the top two vertebras I fractured controlled my breathing, and motor functions. Shortly after the collision, a homicide crew came to investigate my wreck as if I was not going to survive. The result, lead to me being in a coma for around eight days before I awoke to the worst head-aches anyone could ever imagine as my brain swelling receded. I awoke not knowing that this whole experience would change my life forever, but I soon realized as time progressed that it did. This experience to date would be one of the most difficult points in my life I have had to overcome. Many people have said to me that the person I was before my wreck, and the person I was when I awoke were two different people, but sadly more for the worst than the best. Around thirty days after staying in the hospital I was released, having to wear a neck brace for the following five months. I have had to overcome a great deal having to cope with the great strain of a brain injury that left me with seventy eight micro-mili-meters of hemorrhages throughout my brain. Basically, saying that seventy eight micro-mili-meters of my brain was damaged beyond repair, and I had to re-learn what I had lost. From this point on, some aspects of my life changed forever. However, the real long term goals I have always had since the beginning have not changed, but have become harder to achieve.
 

Another goal I have always had is to become a private pilot. Not to work as a pilot, but to fly myself, and friends from place to place. The year prior to my collision I was attending flight lessons at a nearby airport. But unfortunately, after my collision I lost all ambition to fly, for fear that I would not be able to perform my duties as a pilot. As time progressed, I have been able to overcome that fear. Currently, I have started flight lessons again taking one per week. As the years passed following my collision I lost all interest on the important things I needed to do in life to get to where I want to be in life. Mostly in the years following my collision I was in a care free phase in my life, because school was too hard, and focusing on anything was too difficult for me. It wasn’t until August of 2010 when my son was born I had realized I was taking things for granted I shouldn’t have, but also gave up on things I should have tried harder to achieve. My son has given me “that spark” I had lost since the motor vehicle collision I was involved in. I thank God for blessing me with my son; he is the fuel for mostly everything I do.
 

Overall, life is full of up and downs. No one should ever lose sight of the true things in life they want and desire. If you fall get back up, and push harder. My goals in life are to do good in college and someday possibly become a lawyer. While at the same time, being the best father I can be in every way possible. In the meantime, I am taking flight lessons to someday become my own private pilot. Everyone has dreams, no one should ever lose sight of them. In my view, life is about finding happiness in what I do, and fulfilling my dreams. Life is too short to stress over the small things. I try to enjoy every day as it could be my last, keeping my head up and moving forward in this dream I like to call life.

Epigenetics and TBI

As if there were not enough ground shaking discoveries to go around in the field of brain research, a huge paradigm shift is underway not only in brain research, but in all of biology. The breakthrough is called epigenetics. Basically, epigenetics turns our prior smug assurances about evolution and heritability upside down. We made fun of the Frenchman Lamarck for his notion of characteristics acquired during an animals lifetime being passed to its offspring. Epigenetics as a field has discovered that much of the formerly considered “Junk DNA” actually is responsible for genetic manipulation due to factors that we experience during our lifetimes.
 

The genetic structure of “DNA” as we know it does not change during this process. However, the “switches” that turn DNA on and off can be changed during a lifetime by certain events. There are over 2,000 proteins thus far that can be manipulated by the process known as acetylation. The modification of histones also comes into play. These changes are within our genetics and can be passed down to our descendants.
 

 

The field of epigenetics was relaunched in 1942 by Waddington, but it was not until a more recent study in Sweden that the full ramifications became evident. In a town known for its periodic starvation in the early twentieth century, researchers found that the stress of starvation generated heritable changes in the individual who had experienced starvation versus someone who had not. These changes in physiology such as body fat ratio, pre-disposition anxiety and depression were found to be directly related to the life experiences of the Swedes being studied. Many other examples have come forth over the past several years.
 

In terms of brain injury research, there are significant ramifications coming out of epigenetics. In a study entitled “Long-Term Epigenetic Modification After Mild Traumatic Brain Injury” (Darwinsh H, 2010) showed that mice with induced MTBI showed bio-markers for epigenetic changes 35 days after injury. Because similar studies involving neuro-chemical and axon changes after trauma in the human brain have shown, contrary to our expectation, that the changes are chronic and ongoing for up to seventeen years, it is likely that these epigenetic changes are going to be found to be chronic. The likelihood is that some of the adverse consequences associated with TBI are going to be transmittable to the next generations. These would include:
 

• Susceptibility to depression
• Susceptibility to anxiety.
• Perhaps decreased resistance to alzheimer’s and parksinson’s.
• Maladaption to stress and cortisol.
 

There should be a lot of work coming out on this in the next six months to one year. As if TBI victims didn’t have enough to worry about regarding recent research! The idea of trans generational tort damages, either suffering them as a plaintiff or paying for them as an insurance company, is for another day. Indeed.

Brain Injury and Fatigue

It is a very common complaint of victims of traumatic brain injury that since the injury they experience extreme bouts of fatigue. Symptoms of “fatigue” are often ignored or downplayed by doctors because  it is considered a “vague” symptom.  It is also a symptom that has not been specifically linked to any known mechanism or area of damage in of the brain.
 
Like many other aspects of brain injury, this symptom of fatigue is now being studied and explained in much greater detail than done before.  This is once again thanks to the sacrifice our soldiers have made in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Army researchers trying to help them.
 
The first thing we know about the creation of fatigue is that in functional MRI testing, TBI victims with frontal lobe injury, when asked to perform spelling or math problems, have a much higher rate of “brain recruitment”.  Brain recruitment means what part of the brain and how much of the brain is activated by doing a given task. By these recent studies we know that the person with the injured brain is forced to recruit a larger percentage of their brain to complete a certain task, whereas an uninjured person would be activating a much lower percentage of their brain.  The brain burns up about 30% of the bodies energy on a given day.  Thus, over-recruitment of the brain because of injury is literally fatiguing, since it is costing a much higher rate of energy to do things that previously cost the body much less energy.  It would be the same of putting 5 lb weights on each hand throughout the day.  It explains nicely why there is such widespread and debilitating fatigue with TBI survivors.
 
In another recent study (Vanzuiden M et al., 2012) soldiers were tested before and after deployment regarding reports of severe fatigue.  It was found that severe fatigue was associated with higher reactivity to IL-1 beta and it was found in higher levels in those with severe fatigue. TBI also plays a part in increasing what is known as pro-inflammatory cytokines in the blood for many months or years after injury.  This can explain the very high level of severe fatigue found in TBI survivors.  If a way can be found to decrease the reactivity to the immune system of the IL-1 beta, treatment can be found.

Brain Trauma and Alzheimer’s

Historically, there has been an association between brain injury and the later development of Alzheimer’s. The research regarding persons who have suffered repetitive trauma (boxers or football players) is clear – that repetitive trauma gives rise to the devastating condition known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, which is in effect, ultra early Alzheimer’s (U. EAD). In recent autopsies of deceased football players, pathologists encountered brains which appeared to be the brains of elderly people, when in fact the individuals were in their 30’s or 40’s. The repetitive trauma creates an accumulation of amyloid plaque and later “tangles” known as intracellular neurofibrillary threads (NFT) which are the hallmarks of this condition.

 

It was speculated, but not proven by any study, that a similar development could occur in the brain after a single traumatic brain injury in humans. Now, a recent study (Johnson VE et al. 2012) has shown that in those with a history of a single traumatic brain injury, there is long term pathology, involving a greater density of amyloid plaques and widespread NFT, in a third of the patients followed with survival of a year or more. The authors noted “This suggests that a single TBI induces long term neuropathologic changes akin to those found in neuro-degenerative disease.” Another study published in Brain Pathology (Chen X et al., 2009) followed 23 cases of post TBI survival patients for three years and found that even years later there was continued neuronal swelling in the axonal bulbs and axons. Strangely, the degree of axonal pathology three years later in survivors was higher than the cases in which death occurred after a much shorter duration, showing that axons continued to swell and disconnect over a protracted period of time. They noted “that the” at persistent nature of this pathology suggests that TBI can induce a progressive neuro-degenerative process.” The final mystery was that in this study, unlike some others, they did not find accumulation of amyloid plaque years later, even in the face of ongoing degeneration of brain tissue.

This news adds the our already staggering burden of future Alzheimer’s victims. To add thousands of additional individuals a year, because of TBI, to the pool of likely or even possible Alzheimer’s victims is distressing. We can only hope that our politicians and leaders in healthcare are taking notice of this potential time bomb. Add in injured soldiers and those unknowingly injured by repetitive trauma in a lifetime of sports and the future need for an Alzheimer’s cure becomes almost imperative.

New Study Sheds Light on TBI and Loss of Consciousness

An excellent study in the Journal of Neurotrauma (Browne KD et al. 2011) has shed light on another aspect of symptom onset – unconsciousness. Many insurance companies and some unread doctors, will insist that no brain injury can have occurred in an accident whereby the victim did not lose consciousness. They would likewise suggest that the primary method of brain injury in trauma, diffuse axonal injury, can likewise not occur unless the victim has a loss of consciousness. However, Dr. Browne and his colleagues using pigs, very rapidly rotated their heads in different directions without striking an object. This motion alone was found to cause diffuse axonal injury at levels consistent with mild traumatic brain injury. Interestingly, they found that rotation in the axial plane (being hit in the rear or front of a vehicle moving forward to back) produced unconsciousness in the pigs, while forces in which the head rotated along the croronal plane did not produce a sustained loss of consciousness. A week after the trauma the brains of the pigs were looked at and it was shown that both types of rotation produced similar and significant amount of DAI in both pigs, while the axial plane pigs brain stem showed signs of injury.

 

Therefore, it can now be said that loss of consciousness during an accident is a feature of the direction of movement of the head more than it is about the seriousness of the eventual brain injury found. Damage to the neurons of the brain can occur and do occur in the context of a mild traumatic brain injury with or without the unconsciousness that arises from damage or pressure to the brain stem. Loss of consciousness is not a equirement for brain injury nor for the presence or absence of DAI damage in the brain.

 

This study sheds light on why certain car accidents tend to knock out the occupants, while others do not. It is well known that angular rotational forces (e.g. a car hit from the side and not the rear) can injure the brain more readily.

TBI and Symptom Onset: What is Real?

For many years it has been medical gospel that symptoms of a tramatic brain injury will appear immediately after the impact and will thereafter decrease over the passage of time through recovery.  However, more research into the biological impact of TBI at the cellular level suggest that some of the damage to the brain tissue following trauma can continue for months and even years after the time of trauma.  There are also other factors which make this a formally “gospel” of symptom onset antiquated and untrue in many cases.

 

Canadian researchers (Doucher PA, et al. 2010) looked at how even initially mild axon damage tends to worsen in hours, days and even weeks after a head injury.  They found that within axon cells (white matter fibers that transmit information between lobes of the brain) trauma adversely affects the crucial pumping systems within the brain cell, throwing the healthy percentage of different chemicals in the cell out of whack, causing cell death.  In particular, the sodium, calcium, and potassium levels become excitotoxic, in which the electrical current in the cell is out of whack causing degeneration and death of the cell.

 

It is well known now that brain atrophy can appear even in the context of a mild traumatic brain injury.  Because of brain swelling, there are a few studies which indicate how much brain atrophy occurs within the first two months after injury, but one study suggest that most of the atrophy takes place during this time.  However, in cases of moderate and severe TBI, follow up studies have shown that the atrophy in the brain continues occurring at above normal aging rates, for a year and more.  Studies of the pathological chemical reactions following traumatic brain injury can continue to be found four years after the initial injury.  Using spectroscopy, which measures the exact correlation of chemical products within the brain, they have found that traumatized brains keep this adverse composition of brain matter and thus ongoing symptoms, for years following impact.

 

Finally, onset is often “delayed” because the victim, post injury, is doing nothing to tax the brain.  Two weeks in bed or off work or school, with no multi-tasking or complex social environment to deal with can give the illusion “that all is well.”  Even after returning to work or school, it can take months to fully realize or admit that “things are not right.”   Often friends and family gently point this out.

 

Victims should not be penalized by insurance companies for human nature – hoping they will be okay and going back to work.  When adverse psychological symptoms snowball and become worse.  This can also account for reports of significant impairment arising months after trauma

 

Overall, the research shows delayed biological events in the brain for months or a year post impact.  Treating doctors need to be aware of this.

THE BRAIN AS PREDICTION COMPUTER

In recent years a theory has been developed describing the brain as actively employing memory against incoming sensory data in order to avoid focusing on known factors and to try to predict instantaneously what is going to happen next. The brain has thus been called “a prediction computer.” It has also been called the “top-down prediction theory.” It rose through evolution and it allows our brains to function and not be overwhelmed by the amount of incoming sensory information.

 

A very interesting example of this can be shown on a YouTube clip (see Hollow Face Optical Illusion). There, we see something that is virtually never seen in the real world, namely a hollow face, which our brains “interpret” as a normal face, based upon 100% of our past experience. This shows how the “top-down” prediction model of how the brain works can actually alter our perceptions of what is really coming in through out sensory organs. Our brain is saying “this can’t possible be a hollow face” so it recreates what we see as a normal face. We have perception of an object, our brain’s instantaneous attempt to understand it, and to predict what it means. In the vast majority of instances, we sense things that we have previously sensed before. In that way, scientist have described the way the brain works as “saving band width” or not sending along sensory data that is or has been well predicted. Another example would be comparing your memories of a random day in the past thirty days with your memories of, say a vacation to Europe. Because your brain is less able to “predict” what is around the corner in a new and novel place, the experience is much better remembered than a day through the daily routine.

These theories and studies (Friston 2010; Bubic 2010; Keraga, 2007) also lead us into some interesting directions regarding rehabilitation of an injured brain and perhaps methods to utilize during our lives to strengthen the brain against the ravages of old age and dementia. Neuro-regeneration of brain cells is known to be enhanced by confronting “novelty.” It is obvious how this might occur – new connections and memories must be developed to accommodate confronting sensory data (visually, through sounds or taste) that is novel as unpredictable.

 

Thus, persons who are hardwired to seek novelty (neophilia) would tend to strengthen their brain over time when compared to individuals who stay within the confines of the very well known parameters of life. Likewise, it would seem that experiencing “avant garde” art and the added effort on the part of the brain, should be promotional of neuro-regeneration since, by its nature, it will confront the brain with new and unexpected sensory input, whether it be new modes of music, painting or even food. Studies have shown that the uncomfortable feeling people have when experiencing atonal or novel music is in part created by the brain sending out signals that it is confronting something unexpected. Further studies need to be done to confirm this connection.

 

The unexpected, the new, the novel, the challenging – all of these should be part of a regular diet for a healthy brain. Try to fool the prediction computer, shake it up a little bit.

Brain Rehabilitation Ideas

We know now that the brain is elastic throughout our entire lifetimes. That is, we are able to positively or negatively affect its structure by how we live. Illness and lack of cognitive stimulation result in a shrinking of key parts of the brain while physical exercise, cognitive stimulation, and healthy lifestyle tend to add brain mass.

 

We have been suggesting for clients at braininjury.com to engage in free methods of rehabilitation and to chart whether or not this program works for them. The program is simple:

 

1. Obtain a device capable of downloading and playing audiobooks with headphones.. Download several books to listen to but try to make selections that are not just easy listening. Remember that cognitive challenge is what we are looking for here.

 

2. Walk at least one hour per day while listening to your books through the headphones.

 

3. Take a different route each time if possible. Again, novelty and multi-tasking of the brain during physical exercise is what we are looking for.

 

We know walking itself over and above cardiovascular exercise, as well as exposure to novel situations promote and results in neuro-genesis.

 

We invite you to try this method of rehabilitation either acutely or in chronic situations ad would love to have you report back to braininjury.com on the outcomes.

 

We look forward to hearing from you.

The Second Brain in the Gut

In the last ten years a series of discoveries has changed our ideas about our mind/body connection. The evidence is building that one cannot distinguish the mind from the body, as previously thought. For example, with humans there is a second brain, complete with one hundred million neurons, which exists embedded in our intestines, known as the enteric nervous system. A bit of a surprise!

 

There is even a new field known as “Neuorgastroenterology” which studies the function and effects of the enteric nervous system. Does this second brain “help” us think? The early answer was no, but further studies have clouded the issue. Scientist have found that 90% of the information passing between the second brain through the first brain through the vagus nerve is information from the gut to the brain not the other way around. The enteric nervous systems uses 30 neuro-transmitters, just as the brain does. This explains why we feel emotional moods in the gut. Irritable bowel syndrome actually arises from too much serotonin in the gut. To complicate matters even further – serotonin is the primary neuro-transmitter involved in mood regulation (think prozac).

 

A recent study (Cryan JF, 2011) shows that the microbiota (actually foreign microorganisms that work in symbiosis, helping us digest our food) actually communicate with the brain and affect our behavior. Stress response, anxiety and depression have all been modulated by using mice bred not to accept certain bacteria in their gut.

 

This is only the beginning. This field has just begun to look into the full effects of the enteric nervous system on our lives. The effects of these discoveries on how we think about traumatic brain injury rehabilitation, mental illness rehabilitation and the pharmacology of mental illness will be far reaching. It is strange and humbling to think that billions of non-human bacteria are having a say in how we feel and act. For more information see the Second Brain by Michael Gershon.