brain highways

Disclaimer:  I’m a parent, not a representative of the Brain Highways organization.

I haven’t blogged in a long time about Brain Highways, probably at least partly because it consumes so much time.  But I get enough questions about it that making a blog entry will probably save me time, so here goes.

Our understanding of Ollie’s time at the baby-house in Russia from which he was adopted is that he spent a significant portion of his time in a crib on his back.  He was not able to play with the other children because he had a habit of making himself spit-up.  A lot.  This was a habit he brought home, too, but grew out of within a few months.  Because of it, though, the staff at this baby-house tended to leave him in his crib, where he spent much of his time, and seemingly most of it laying on his back (as opposed to on his stomach — I’ll come back to that shortly).

Parenthetically, he also came home with the remarkable ability, at ten months old, of being able to snap his thumb and middle finger on each hand, hard enough to be audible.  It was a sort of nervous habit of his, which he also eventually grew out of.  At four, he cannot now snap at all.

At any rate, the time on his back was obvious from the shape of his head, the back of which was very flat.  His head gradually reshaped itself, and now he is a very healthy and normal little boy, with the exception of some very important neurological development.

If you have kids, or are planning to have kids, listen to this part closely.  One of the best things you can do for your child’s development between birth and twelve months is leave them on their stomach on the ground.  Ideally, a smooth floor, so they can slide around on their belly (called “creeping”).  What we’ve been told by the staff at Brain Highways is that this time on the floor is critical to pons and midbrain development.  We of course, as parents who wanted our kids to thrive, encouraged them to stand and walk via toys, hand-holding, etc..  Ollie probably went from just barely sitting up to walking within the span of a few months.

As you can discover for yourself from the wikipedia articles, the pons is responsible for relaying sensory information, as well as integrating with the vestibular system to help (or hinder) balance, speaking, and sense-of-touch.  Apparently, it is also (though wikipedia doesn’t seem to mention it) largely in control of the “fight or flight” response system (perhaps the term “arousal” in the wikipedia article includes this).  The midbrain is responsible for managing things like auditory processing, visual processing, managing eye-movement (ie., reading), reflexes, and a number of other things.

The human brain is very good at adapting to and hiding weaknesses, though, so what seems to happen when these low-level “paths” (call them highways, if you like) through the brain remain underdeveloped is that the higher-level sections of the brain pick up slack, compensating as effectively as they can.  This means that, if your child has an underdeveloped pons and/or midbrain, they are likely doing a lot of juggling in their cortex in order to be able to walk, talk, focus their eyes, absorb the things you say to them, and so on, all at once.  Depending on the level of development your child has completed in these areas, you’ll see varying levels of overall functionality, and often in different areas.  For more developed children, in fact, you may not perceive any fundamental behavioral differences at all, whereas very underdeveloped children will exhibit symptoms strikingly like autism.

As your child ages, however, more and more demands are placed upon the cortex.  Sports, studying, more complex and difficult relationships, greater responsibility, and hormones among other things all conspire to increase the overall load on the cortex.  For a lot of kids, this means a difficult juggling act, and eventually, they drop everything.  With older kids, this type of failure can be very serious.  Worse, it can become cyclical, putting more and more strain on the cortex, and leaving the pons and the midbrain (underdeveloped though they may be) more and more in control, and all the pons knows how to do is fight-or-flight.

Fight or flight sounds simplistic, but it isn’t.  There are variations and subtleties, and sometimes it means different things for different children.  Flight can be shyness, avoiding certain activities, or social anxiety and avoidance of social situations.  Flight means withdrawing.  Fight means a lot of things: explosive outbursts, highly emotional reactions, and yes, physicality.

Neither Ollie or Reid have come to these stages, but Ollie especially has most definitely exhibited some of these fight-or-flight behaviors.  He struggles with sports and has a hard time concentrating.  Until we started brain highways, he had trouble standing still or sitting in one place without rocking and kicking.  He had trouble listening and complying.  Even though it was almost always clear he was trying to please us as his parents, he struggled to comply with even simple instructions.  He chewed on everything he could get in his mouth.  He would frequently have drool on his chin without noticing or reacting.  He was often easily frustrated.

So what is Brain Highways?  It turns out that a lot (all of?) of this low-level development can be made-up in later life, offloading the burden of performing these low-level tasks from the cortex, and sending it back to where it belongs: the pons and midbrain.  So what we do in brain highways are exercises modeled on the behaviors of young babies as they are developing these regions of the brain.  One of the exercises, for example, is called “swords”, and seems to be modeled on the tonic-neck reflex (also called the fencing reflex) that causes young human babies to strike a fencing pose, when they turn their heads (or when their heads are turned for them).  Another exercise is called “creeping”, which is the motion of sliding across the floor that babies do when they want to move, but before their muscles have developed enough to allow them to lift their chest or tummy off the ground.  We do dozens (sometimes hundreds) of these a day, and the results are hard to argue with.  After a few weeks of work, Ollie is different in any number of ways: he almost never drools, he sits much more still at the table, he’s much better at concentrating, remembering tasks and rules, and following directions.  His agility has improved, and he is much better at accepting quick transitions.

We just started the program with Reid (who at his baseline doesn’t have a lot of the problems that Ollie started with, but still has some very telling symptoms), and it will be interesting to see how they improve over the coming year or so.  If you live near Encinitas, CA (or even if you don’t, I think they do traveling workshops), check out the brain highways website linked above, it could be one of the best things you ever do for your kid or yourself.