Monday, February 01, 2010


Science reporter Anne Mcilroy had an article in the Toronto Globe and Mail last Saturday, January 31 2010: “”How playing Dance Dance Revolution could repair children's damaged brains
Researchers hope repetitive tasks can reverse effects of alcohol.”” The moment I read it, I began to feel hope. It was a thrill tosee that so many researchers are working together.

“”The six-year-old boy plays the game Operation, skillfully wielding a pair of tweezers in a school gym that doubles as a research lab. His brain has been
damaged by the alcohol his mother drank when he was in the womb, but he's adept at extracting tiny plastic bones.

"When it gets too easy we will have him switch to his left hand," says Chris Bertram, a scientist at the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford,
B.C., who is investigating whether children with a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, or FASD, can rewire their brains by improving their strongest motor
skills. Advances in understanding neuroplasticity, or how experience can change the brain, have led to therapies that have helped people who have suffered
strokes or traumatic brain injuries learn to speak again or move paralyzed limbs. Now, a growing number of scientists hope the revolution can help children
whose brains were damaged by alcohol before they were born.

They are testing different approaches - including computer games and other specialized training - in hopes of helping kids with FASD strengthen connections
in their brains and boost their cognitive skills.

Dr. Bertram and his colleagues have assessed all eight kids with FASD who are hard at play at various stations in the gymnasium. All are good at something,
perhaps the fine motor skills needed to pluck a rib out of a cartoonish chest or the co-ordination needed for the interactive videogame Dance Dance Revolution.

But they have a wide variety of cognitive and emotional problems that include trouble paying attention, remembering what they have learned, anticipating
the consequences of their actions and controlling their impulses. Hyperactivity is common; they can be challenging to manage at home and at school. Dr.
Bertram's hypothesis is that the eight-week program will do more than just improve their rope climbing and free-throw shooting.

The idea is that improving one area of brain function, in this case motor skills, will also boost their ability to pay attention and to regulate their impulses.
He is still analyzing the data from the 35 kids who have been through the program, but the preliminary results have been encouraging, he says.

"We call it transfer of learning, or transfer of performance," Dr. Bertram says.

Alcohol damages many parts of the developing brain, says Christian Beaulieu, a brain imaging expert at the University of Alberta. It can affect areas and
structures critical for memory, learning and abstract thinking. He and his colleagues have shown it also damages white matter, the connections that allow
parts of the brain to communicate and work together.

But recent experiments with laboratory animals offer hope. At the University of Victoria, Brian Christie has been able to reverse the brain damage caused
by fetal alcohol exposure in rats by getting them to exercise.””

Mcilroy’s article comes just when I need it. Here at the Hope Foundation we are working on FASD from an adult emotional perspective. With funding from the Edmonton Fetal Alcohol Network, staff from four agencies including our own are collaborating to offer a hope group to parents who have FASD. As adults with children of their own, they struggle to be good parents while continuing to cope with the cognitive, motor and emotional difficulties they had as children. Parenting is made all the more difficult for them because the behavior of their own parents was and still is impacted by substance abuse.
You have to be very focussed to offer a hope group to people who have so many pressing issues. In a two-hour session they offer you dozens of opportunities to veer away from hope. How easy it is to hear their problems, their sadness, their self-stated inadequacies. These, after all, are the reasons they came to a group, the issues they are accustomed to presenting when professional helpers are in the room.

Mcilroy’s article goes on to highlight the positive. “”Dr. Bertram says that many of the current therapies or interventions being used with children with FASD focus on their deficits - for example, anger management
therapy for a child who is acting out in school or extra time devoted to reading or math for a child struggling in those subjects.

"Traditional intervention programs have these kids doing things their brains are not adept at doing, and their success rates are not great. We flipped things
around and said, 'Why don't we build intervention programs based on things they are good at.' "

He and his colleagues build an individual program for each child based on three areas of strength, making it increasingly challenging over the eight weeks.
The kids also get to pick a fourth activity they like. The researchers carefully monitor their progress when they come twice a week after school for two
hours. He is also monitoring levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, to see if it drops after the eight weeks.

There is growing scientific evidence that children with FASD have a heightened response to stress that can make it difficult for them to cope with situations
at home or in the classroom.

At the University of British Columbia, Joanne Weinberg is investigating this phenomenon in laboratory animals and, in particular, how areas of the brain
that are important in the stress response system overlap to a large extent with areas of the brain involved in depression, addictions and other mental-health
problems, also common among people with FASD.

One day, the work could lead to new drugs that target the stress response system.””

In our group we are examining personal strengths, digging through the sadness to find the things people love, the things they are good at. I like to think there will be positive programs to go along with the stress-reducing drugs.

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