An Introduction to Your Child’s BrainThousands of parents may say this page of our website represents the bottom line – because it offers a broad understanding of issues that all moms and dads have always been concerned about: How is my child? Is she OK? What does the future hold for him? How can we help them be all they can be?
This page offers these parents a sweeping insight, a practical and powerful insight, into children who now seem very complicated, but after reading this chapter will feel much less complicated. Really – they will!
This information applies to all kids – all of your kids – no matter where in life they are.
Even if your child is physically sound and academically bright, socially well adjusted, and talented in all areas, there’s still a great deal of information here to help you monitor your child’s growth to make sure nothing goes off track, or to support other parents with struggling children.
If your child is already diagnosed, or has been given a label, or has a neurological condition that is baffling all the professionals, there’s a tremendous amount of critically helpful information in these pages for you, too.
This information is intended first and foremost for parents of struggling children. Next, it is written for the siblings and relatives of those children. And, finally, it is written for all the dedicated professionals who help stand in the gap for our children, day and night – and who, together with the parents, agonize over why some children are making it…. while others are not.
The Game Plan
The Family Hope Center staff have almost three decades of experience successfully treating hundreds and hundreds of kids who started out life perfectly well, but then became hurt from: complicated births, car accidents, strokes, infections, vaccinations, and other tragedies that injured their brains – with implications ranging from mild to profound and even coma.
Is your child clinically blind, deaf, paralyzed, insensate, having seizures? If so, this information will help steer you in the right direction to take the second, third and fourth steps toward changing the outcome of their injury.
Does your child work hard in school, but never quite seem able to keep up? Desperately want to play sports but is clumsy, or just not quite coordinated enough to make the cut? Does your child seem to struggle to get it together when you ask them to do a chore around the house? Does your child have difficulty speaking, or if not, does he have trouble formulating his ideas or expressing them clearly?
Or maybe your child dislikes reading, and does it poorly. Maybe he’s even been diagnosed with a reading disability like dyslexia, or a vision problem like strabismus.
Does your child get very uncomfortable in noisy, crowded rooms? Is his handwriting sloppier than a teenager’s bedroom after a tornado blows through? Does she just have trouble paying attention, or getting along with the other kids in the family, school or neighborhood?
If you’ve got a nagging, immensely frustrated feeling that something’s gone wrong – you are right. You are right, because you know your child so well, and when you compare your child to other kids you see clearly that you’ve got to do something radical to help him. That’s what this is all about.
Over nearly thirty years, we have helped in excess of 15,000 parents whose kids ranged in ability from excellent in all areas, to being in a coma. Children who have the Midas touch, to children who are blind, deaf, insensate, paralyzed and so hurt as to need a tracheotomy to breathe, and a tube to be fed through. We have studied face to face, over countless hours in our office and around the world, not only the children who the parents know need help, but also their “no problem” brothers and sisters. I can say with certainty, that the vast majority of those seemingly well siblings have their own neurological bumps and bruises.
Very, very few children achieve neurological excellence across the board without some committed support by their parents or health care professionals.
Now a word up front about “labels.” Labels are given to children who have various types of symptoms. Medical professionals often give a name to a broad set of symptoms that lots of kids exhibit. It’s a shorthand way to lump together, in one easy-to-say word, a bunch of symptoms – not causes. In fact, these labels fail to speak at all to the key core issues: the location in the brain, the degree, and the extent of your child’s injury. So rather than getting hung up on labeling your kid, I’d rather teach you how to begin to understand where in the brain their neurological dysfunction lies, and guide you in getting started towards promoting brain growth and healing your child.
The first thing we’re going to do with each condition – “ADHD,” “autism,” “Down syndrome” and so forth – is show which area of the brain is responsible for the symptoms these children display. Then we’ll discuss how to begin to create the ideal environment for promoting neurological growth and healing for a child like yours.
Some parents ask, At what point do you stop supporting the development of the brain? At what point is the brain done growing? Well, the great news is that your brain continues to grow and create new neurons and dendrites throughout your entire life. This is the most exciting and hopeful news we could ever have if our child is not well.
Now – let’s get started understanding what’s really going on behind those ambiguous labels, and replace them with some basic yet fascinating information on the brain and –most importantly – how we can begin to help it heal.
The Medulla Oblongata
With a long name, nestled at the base of the brain, the medulla oblongata – just “medulla” for short – is responsible for all of the reflexes, including the primary infant reflexes. It is vitally important to have this part of the brain organized, as it handles the basics of breathing, and the ability to move out of the infant survival stage into the vital and meaningful aspects of learning.
Over many years of helping children, we have found that the infant dynamic postural reflexes had not been integrated in many of them. This lack of integration severely impairs their ability to engage the higher-level functions in the pons, midbrain and cortex. This is like having your basement unlevel and leaking water: how does the rest of your house function? Generally, not well…
This is an amazing chunk of brain. It is the next higher level of the brain, after the medulla. It is so very important to understand the pons, yet it gets very little attention or press. Therefore I want to explain just a bit about why you want to know about this level of the brain.
The pons is vital to the ability to breathe deeply. It controls the facial muscles and the ability to swallow – a problem for many children. It is responsible for registering, feeling and responding immediately to warnings from the body (too hot! too cold! that HURTS!!) and the environment (sounds like thunder, car horns, mommy yelling STOP!!!). This part of the brain also allows you to move your eyes from side to side (important for reading and catching a ball), and helps a child stay alert, focus on tasks and filter irrelevant noises – great for school and doing homework! Finally, the mobility function of this part of the brain governs a child’s ability to commando crawl on his belly as an infant.
An injury to the pons can easily prevent a child from being able to talk, read, swallow and chew, crawl on their belly for transportation, and pay attention while learning. Many, many children in school these days are very disorganized in this level of the brain.
The midbrain – also called the mesencephalon – is a multi-faceted, subcortical level of the brain. Through the body of the midbrain pass a substantial number of fiber tracts especially related to vision, voluntary muscle activity, and other important functions. The midbrain contains:
- Thalamus – A main sensory relay and integrative center connecting with many areas of the brain, including the cerebral cortex – in other words, it is like a massive relay station.
- Hypothalamus – Is the master control of the autonomic nervous system, parasympathetic and sympathetic. This system stimulates and controls structures such as the heart, most glands and smooth muscles. In effect, this system allows your systems to excite and relax as needed. The hypothalamus also integrates the autonomic and endocrine functions with regards to behavior.
- Hippocampus – This area of the brain, apart from its other functions, is primarily responsible for short-term memory – this part can also be considered a part of the limbic brain.
- Pineal Body – A gland-like body that is primarily responsible for melatonin biosynthesis – this helps you sleep and be in harmony with the daily and seasonal rhythms of life.
- Corpus Callosum – A great network or connection of fibers that links the two cerebral hemispheres – right and left – together.
- Cerebellum – This part of the brain is technically not part of the midbrain but does work hand in hand with it. Although it has many functions, it’s primarily responsible for regulating muscle tone, for integrating the motor and sensory pathways, and for balance/spatial awareness.
- Basal Ganglia – The basal ganglia is primarily but not exclusively responsible for gross and refined motor control.
The basal ganglia is made up of the caudate nucleus, globus pallidus, putaman, substantia nigra and the subthalmic nucleus. It is a part of the brain very few people know about, but nonetheless is incredibly important that it be organized. In essence, the basal ganglia are responsible for motor coordination, remembering of learned gross repetitive motor tasks, refined movement, and smooth, even breathing. Convergence – the ability to bring your eyes together – also happens here. This ‘fusion’ leads to depth perception – the ability to read small print, catch a baseball and go up and down steps are examples of good convergence – and is the foundation to understanding abstract relationships within time and space. The ability to locate sounds, understand inflections of voices, be at ease in noisy environments, make meaningful sounds (babbling), creep on hands and knees, and feel meaningful sensations such as tickling, hugging and kissing, also depends on the basal ganglia.
Injury to this area leads to severe rigidity, hypotonia, an inability to creep on hands and knees well, read and comprehend well, play sports well, understand elements of time and space, and directly leads to an inability to understand where sounds are coming from and enjoying sensations such as human touch and clothing. In addition, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases stems from an injury to this part of the brain.
The Limbic Brain
This structure, which is made up of the amygdale and hippocampus (among other structures), sits right above the midbrain area and below the cortex. The limbic brain is always turned on, since its primary function is to warn us of danger. It is associated with autonomic functions such as arousal, motivation, emotion, sex, recent memory, smell and bonding. The olfactory pathway feeds this part of the brain directly.
Incidentally, the prefrontal cortex communicates with the limbic brain and helps dampen in a good way, the activity of the emotional memory of the limbic brain. If the prefrontal cortex is not functioning correctly, the restraint it normally provides is lowered and unchecked emotions will emerge – anxieties, phobias and panic attacks.
Injury to the Limbic brain causes kids to withdraw, avoid eye contact, avoid human interaction, prevent them from playing interactive games such as ‘peek – a boo, have empathy and address themselves in the first person. It also causes kids to perseverate on objects and situations, prevents them from transitioning easily to new situations, and prevents successful integration into social groups.
The cerebral cortex is the extensive outer layer, or “gray matter,” of the cerebral hemispheres. The cortex is responsible for many higher-order functions, including language, information processing and memory, and is importantly involved in sensation and voluntary muscle movement.
There are four primary parts, or “lobes,” of the cerebral cortex:
This lobe is responsible for cognition, memory and emotional intelligence. It is divided into three different areas:
Prefrontal Area. This area is responsible for planning, complex ideas, behaviors, concentration and the ability to focus. This area is also responsible for emotional traits, judgment and inhibition. When the prefrontal area is properly organized it will help the limbic area of the brain, which in turn helps the child who suffers from paranoia, high anxieties and excessive fearfulness.
Premotor Area. This area is involved with volitional movement (storage of motor patterns) and motor activity to the opposite side of the body. In other words, the right side of the brain is responsible for the left side of the body, and vice-versa.
This lobe is responsible for receiving auditory information and recognizing words; it is thus central to the process of learning and understanding language. It is also an important structure for emotions, for making new memories, and for short-term memory. Other parts of this lobe appear to integrate memories of taste, sound, sight, and touch.
Injury to the temporal lobe can result in a lack of accurate sensory information from the lower levels of the brain. This impairs the ability to process auditory information accurately, as well as other hearing impairments. Injury to this area can also cause a person to become overly agitated or irritable, and to exhibit childish behavior.
This lobe is responsible for processing sensory input and sensory discrimination. It is also called the ‘association area.’ It receives (and acts on) information from the lower levels of the brain about temperature, taste, touch, movement of the body and spatial relationships, such as the distance and position of objects. It is also responsible for reading and arithmetic.
Injury to this area can cause a lack of accurate sensory information from the lower levels of the brain. This, in turn, creates an inability to discriminate between different stimuli, locate and recognize parts of the body, inability to write and disorientation in environmental space.
This is the primary visual center of the brain. It processes information from the eyes, and links that information with images stored in memory. In other words, this area helps you determine what you are looking at.
The most common effect of injury to the occipital lobe is visual impairment; severe injury to this lobe can cause blindness. Along with visual impairment, injury to the occipital lobe can cause hallucinations, can cause objects to appear larger or smaller than they are, and can cause colors to appear abnormal.