Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Rats to Humans, the Importance of Animal Studies

Michael Meaney set out to test whether baby rats who are licked more turn out differently from those who are licked and groomed less and if so, why. (Meaney is at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute and is a leading researcher in maternal care, stress gene expression and epigenetics: http://www.douglas.qc.ca/researcher/michael-meaney.) These studies on the origins of adult disease rigorously tested whether it really is the mother's behavior that makes the difference and showed what happens in the brain of the offspring to produce the adult characteristics. Meaney and his research team found that baby rats who were licked by their mothers a lot turned out to be less anxious and fearful as adults and produced lower levels of stress hormones than those who were groomed less. “All the mothers nurture their pups, provide ample milk, and the pups grow perfectly well,” Meaney said, “But there is one behavior, called licking and grooming, that some mothers do much more than others—four or five times as much. The pups who are licked more are less fearful, they produce less stress hormones when provoked, and their heart rate doesn't go up as much, so they have a more modest stress response than the pups who are licked much less”.

The scientists even took the mothers out of the picture altogether and stroked the baby rats with paintbrushes. Meaney maintains, “It does the same thing that maternal licking does.” The change in the production of the brain receptors was apparent by the second week of life.

“This is a very important study,” said Peter Blackman, a professor of pediatric and prenatal biology at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, who was not involved in the research. He pointed out that the expression of genes in mammals can be permanently changed by how mothers and infants interact and how that can have long-term effects on behavior and psychiatric health. If those baby rats were licked just as much weeks later, the critical period would have passed and the lifelong effects would not be evident.

I am going to quote from a book called “Monkeyluv” by Stanford University biologist and neuroscientist, Robert M. Sapolsky (Scribner, N.Y. 2005). We see in his reported research on mice how early the critical period can be. Not only are early childhood events important for later life but even more important is fetal life. Sapolsky was commenting on how genetic influences are not the be-all-and-end-all that we sometimes believe; not only are life circumstances important but pre-birth influences can be critical.

“Relaxed-strain mice that were raised from birth by timid-strain moms grew up to be just as relaxed as any other member of their strain (strains are genetically uniform groups of animals). With the same kind of technology used by clinics performing in vitro fertilization, the investigators cross-fostered mice as embryos (cross-fostering is letting one strain of mice raise a genetically different strain of mice). They implanted relaxed-strain eggs into timid-strain females who carried them to term. Some relaxed-strain pups were raised by timid-strain moms, and others by relaxed-strain ones. The result? When the supposedly genetically hard-wired relaxed mice went through both fetal development and early puphood with timid-strain moms, they grew up to be just as timid as any other timid-strain (inherited) mice. Same genes, different environment, different outcome.” (page 52) Sapolsky then goes on to comment: “Environmental influences don’t begin at birth. Some factors in the environment of a timid-strain mouse mother during her pregnancy—her level of stress…are affecting the anxiety levels and learning abilities of her offspring, even as adults.” He emphasizes that “relaxed-strain mice aren’t relaxed only because of their genes; their fetal and neonatal (around birth) environments are crucial factors.” (page 53) There is a growing body of research with animals, and more recently with humans, that corroborate my point: birth and pre-birth events can help determine our behavior as adults; and if we neglect these influences we shall not fully understand who and why we are what we are. Moreover, we shall not know how to treat and reverse all manner of problems we have as adults. From conception on we are building a superstructure. We need a solid foundation for that superstructure so that we can be integrated adults who can withstand the impact of the elements. Conclusion: genetics is important but life experience, even in the womb, can be equally if not more important. Whether we manifest high blood pressure, asthma or migraine not only depends on genetics but what happened to us very early on. If we ignore life in the womb we are leaving out life experience that can affect us for a lifetime.

One wonders, “can we really go back and reexperience fetal events?” Let me put it this way: in evolution each new level of brain development incorporates lower, earlier levels. The thinking neocortex is a sort of an add-on from previous animal brain forms. So at birth there are already sensations from pre-birth that play a part in how the newborn reacts to that birth trauma. When a patient relives a birth trauma (if there were one), she is in fact also experiencing sensations (the base of feelings) that occurred previously. This is how we can relive pre-birth events without being aware that they come from experience in perhaps the fifth or sixth month of gestation.

As a general rule, the earlier in life a need goes unmet, the more devastating the later effects of deprivation will be. The closer to the “critical period” a trauma occurs, the more harmful it is. One way we can define critical period is the irreversible quality of its effects. The more time that has elapsed after a critical period has passed, the greater the force required to create an imprint. It takes a tremendous trauma after the critical period to have a profound and lifelong effect. Why do needs go unmet? For a passel of reasons, but it is often true that parents are so immersed in their own unmet needs (with the resulting narcissism) and pain that they simply cannot attend to their child.


  1. That is amazing stuff. So all those kids who are still left to cry out at night are being so damaged so early. My older brother died from terrible Spinadifida only a few days after he was born. I can imagine that my Mothers very anxious state (only her needs and feelings are important) would have reduced the folic acid in her body to very low levels so that his fate was probably sealed within the first few hours after conception. A tragic event which may Parents have hardly ever talked about. I remember being in the car driving past a very specific gate in Herefordshire when my Mother told my sister and I for the first time. The imprtance of that memory is only now clear. I was about 11. The treatment I recieved as a child was so bound up with the time I spent in the womb and also the time my Brother spent in the womb. At eleven to discover one had an older brother and to still not recognise how his death influenced my life and how my Parents treated me. Not very well.

    I have a God Son who has Asbergers and he spent the first few weeks in an incubator after he was born. How much of his Asbergers started there and before and was then compounded by a very Narcisistic Mother.

  2. Once the mid-brain is developed, does it stop developing alogether (by nature - not just neurosis) when the neocortex starts fully developing?..interesting thought. Maybe once a certain time has passed the mid-brain's core developmental status becomes rigidly locked down, so brain development thereafter is pure "add on" from the neocortex *only*.
    (But, of course, the neocortex's development should be intimately related to the earlier brains, of which are surely the foundation that the neocortex develops from).

    If this is so, then there's no escape from the lost development of the earlier brains of which may have occurred from deprivation. Not even later pain-integration will provide for it [removing your neurosis is not removing your lost developmental history]. The architecture is fixed - if it is. I don't know if it really is though. Does anyone know?

    It would also suggest that you can know if a person is ever going to really 'grow up' from a very young age. Because the major developmental maturity (or not!) is already completed and set by the age of 6 years or so.

    ...hhhmmm, and maybe an emotinally simple mind (due to emotional deprivation) directly understimulates the neocortex, and likewise fails to drive the neocortex's proper development in childhood? I remember you noting a while back, Art, that love increases the neural density of the brain. Maybe this effect is in part related to direct intra-brain under-stimulation? Who knows, eh?

    1. Andrew: It seems like the hippocampus is one of the few structures that go on evolving for the rest of our lives. can you make your question more precise? art

    2. Hello Art,

      Not so much a question but one of my speculative thoughts.

      My "question" is that the brain develops like a concrete layer cake (and I'm talking about information-architecture - not biology alone).

      So I'm suggesting that once the first-line layer is developed it becomes set in it's architecture, and then so forth for the mid-brain. So, as the mid-brain develops from the brain-stem after infancy the brain-stem does not then significantly develop, because at this point it is essentially rigidified (think: set concrete). Or maybe the architecture of the brain-stem does go on evolving at the later stage? My loose guess is that it doesn't.

    3. Andrew: My guess is he once the die is cast there can only be tweaks here and there. I don't see any major structural changes after that but you never know what neurology will find. art

  3. It's interesting that every so often an experiment comes along to build on a previous one. This one with the mice builds on the famous one's using baby monkey's and real, wire frame and cloth Mothers but also recognises the important aspects of being touched rather than just sitting with something soft.


Review of "Beyond Belief"

This thought-provoking and important book shows how people are drawn toward dangerous beliefs.
“Belief can manifest itself in world-changing ways—and did, in some of history’s ugliest moments, from the rise of Adolf Hitler to the Jonestown mass suicide in 1979. Arthur Janov, a renowned psychologist who penned The Primal Scream, fearlessly tackles the subject of why and how strong believers willingly embrace even the most deranged leaders.
Beyond Belief begins with a lucid explanation of belief systems that, writes Janov, “are maps, something to help us navigate through life more effectively.” While belief systems are not presented as inherently bad, the author concentrates not just on why people adopt belief systems, but why “alienated individuals” in particular seek out “belief systems on the fringes.” The result is a book that is both illuminating and sobering. It explores, for example, how a strongly-held belief can lead radical Islamist jihadists to murder others in suicide acts. Janov writes, “I believe if people had more love in this life, they would not be so anxious to end it in favor of some imaginary existence.”
One of the most compelling aspects of Beyond Belief is the author’s liberal use of case studies, most of which are related in the first person by individuals whose lives were dramatically affected by their involvement in cults. These stories offer an exceptional perspective on the manner in which belief systems can take hold and shape one’s experiences. Joan’s tale, for instance, both engaging and disturbing, describes what it was like to join the Hare Krishnas. Even though she left the sect, observing that participants “are stunted in spiritual awareness,” Joan considers returning someday because “there’s a certain protection there.”
Janov’s great insight into cultish leaders is particularly interesting; he believes such people have had childhoods in which they were “rejected and unloved,” because “only unloved people want to become the wise man or woman (although it is usually male) imparting words of wisdom to others.” This is just one reason why Beyond Belief is such a thought-provoking, important book.”
Barry Silverstein, Freelance Writer

Quotes for "Life Before Birth"

“Life Before Birth is a thrilling journey of discovery, a real joy to read. Janov writes like no one else on the human mind—engaging, brilliant, passionate, and honest.
He is the best writer today on what makes us human—he shows us how the mind works, how it goes wrong, and how to put it right . . . He presents a brand-new approach to dealing with depression, emotional pain, anxiety, and addiction.”
Paul Thompson, PhD, Professor of Neurology, UCLA School of Medicine

Art Janov, one of the pioneers of fetal and early infant experiences and future mental health issues, offers a robust vision of how the earliest traumas of life can percolate through the brains, minds and lives of individuals. He focuses on both the shifting tides of brain emotional systems and the life-long consequences that can result, as well as the novel interventions, and clinical understanding, that need to be implemented in order to bring about the brain-mind changes that can restore affective equanimity. The transitions from feelings of persistent affective turmoil to psychological wholeness, requires both an understanding of the brain changes and a therapist that can work with the affective mind at primary-process levels. Life Before Birth, is a manifesto that provides a robust argument for increasing attention to the neuro-mental lives of fetuses and infants, and the widespread ramifications on mental health if we do not. Without an accurate developmental history of troubled minds, coordinated with a recognition of the primal emotional powers of the lowest ancestral regions of the human brain, therapists will be lost in their attempt to restore psychological balance.
Jaak Panksepp, Ph.D.
Bailey Endowed Chair of Animal Well Being Science
Washington State University

Dr. Janov’s essential insight—that our earliest experiences strongly influence later well being—is no longer in doubt. Thanks to advances in neuroscience, immunology, and epigenetics, we can now see some of the mechanisms of action at the heart of these developmental processes. His long-held belief that the brain, human development, and psychological well being need to studied in the context of evolution—from the brainstem up—now lies at the heart of the integration of neuroscience and psychotherapy.
Grounded in these two principles, Dr. Janov continues to explore the lifelong impact of prenatal, birth, and early experiences on our brains and minds. Simultaneously “old school” and revolutionary, he synthesizes traditional psychodynamic theories with cutting-edge science while consistently highlighting the limitations of a strict, “top-down” talking cure. Whether or not you agree with his philosophical assumptions, therapeutic practices, or theoretical conclusions, I promise you an interesting and thought-provoking journey.
Lou Cozolino, PsyD, Professor of Psychology, Pepperdine University

In Life Before Birth Dr. Arthur Janov illuminates the sources of much that happens during life after birth. Lucidly, the pioneer of primal therapy provides the scientific rationale for treatments that take us through our original, non-verbal memories—to essential depths of experience that the superficial cognitive-behavioral modalities currently in fashion cannot possibly touch, let alone transform.
Gabor Maté MD, author of In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters With Addiction

An expansive analysis! This book attempts to explain the impact of critical developmental windows in the past, implores us to improve the lives of pregnant women in the present, and has implications for understanding our children, ourselves, and our collective future. I’m not sure whether primal therapy works or not, but it certainly deserves systematic testing in well-designed, assessor-blinded, randomized controlled clinical trials.
K.J.S. Anand, MBBS, D. Phil, FAACP, FCCM, FRCPCH, Professor of Pediatrics, Anesthesiology, Anatomy & Neurobiology, Senior Scholar, Center for Excellence in Faith and Health, Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare System

A baby's brain grows more while in the womb than at any time in a child's life. Life Before Birth: The Hidden Script That Rules Our Lives is a valuable guide to creating healthier babies and offers insight into healing our early primal wounds. Dr. Janov integrates the most recent scientific research about prenatal development with the psychobiological reality that these early experiences do cast a long shadow over our entire lifespan. With a wealth of experience and a history of successful psychotherapeutic treatment, Dr. Janov is well positioned to speak with clarity and precision on a topic that remains critically important.
Paula Thomson, PsyD, Associate Professor, California State University, Northridge & Professor Emeritus, York University

"I am enthralled.
Dr. Janov has crafted a compelling and prophetic opus that could rightly dictate
PhD thesis topics for decades to come. Devoid of any "New Age" pseudoscience,
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downright fascinating to any lay person interested in the mysteries of the human psyche."
Dr. Bernard Park, MD, MPH

His new book “Life Before Birth: The Hidden Script that Rules Our Lives” shows that primal therapy, the lower-brain therapeutic method popularized in the 1970’s international bestseller “Primal Scream” and his early work with John Lennon, may help alleviate depression and anxiety disorders, normalize blood pressure and serotonin levels, and improve the functioning of the immune system.
One of the book’s most intriguing theories is that fetal imprinting, an evolutionary strategy to prepare children to cope with life, establishes a permanent set-point in a child's physiology. Baby's born to mothers highly anxious during pregnancy, whether from war, natural disasters, failed marriages, or other stressful life conditions, may thus be prone to mental illness and brain dysfunction later in life. Early traumatic events such as low oxygen at birth, painkillers and antidepressants administered to the mother during pregnancy, poor maternal nutrition, and a lack of parental affection in the first years of life may compound the effect.
In making the case for a brand-new, unified field theory of psychotherapy, Dr. Janov weaves together the evolutionary theories of Jean Baptiste Larmarck, the fetal development studies of Vivette Glover and K.J.S. Anand, and fascinating new research by the psychiatrist Elissa Epel suggesting that telomeres—a region of repetitive DNA critical in predicting life expectancy—may be significantly altered during pregnancy.
After explaining how hormonal and neurologic processes in the womb provide a blueprint for later mental illness and disease, Dr. Janov charts a revolutionary new course for psychotherapy. He provides a sharp critique of cognitive behavioral therapy, psychoanalysis, and other popular “talk therapy” models for treating addiction and mental illness, which he argues do not reach the limbic system and brainstem, where the effects of early trauma are registered in the nervous system.
“Life Before Birth: The Hidden Script that Rules Our Lives” is scheduled to be published by NTI Upstream in October 2011, and has tremendous implications for the future of modern psychology, pediatrics, pregnancy, and women’s health.