I Have Executive Functions???

I hear this question a lot from families and individuals, and misinformation and misunderstanding blur the impact of a diagnosis of “Executive Function Disorder”, “Executive Dysfunction”, “Deficiency in Executive Functions”, or whatever term the doctor/clinician uses. Many people confuse Executive Functions with the now-common term of ADHD, which it’s not, although there is a lot of overlap of “symptoms”. New research and data appear almost daily, and it can overwhelm the most avid brain enthusiast, so I will strive to build a simple foundation and gradually use that to lure you into the wonderful world of neuroscience.

Everybody has Executive Functions, so what the heck are they? Basically, the Executive Functions are high level cognitive functions that allow us to accomplish our goals, as well as skills that help us decide what to pay attention to and what we choose to do. Huh?

Simply put, Executive Functions are thinking skills and behavioral skills. The thinking skills include: planning, organization, time-management, self-monitoring, and working memory. The behavioral skills include: task-initiation, response inhibition, shifting/flexibility, emotional control, and goal-directed persistence. In future posts, I will examine each of these skills, providing examples and interventions to strengthen the connections.

It’s important to remember that everybody grows at different rates. Some people’s legs grow at a faster rate; for others, it could be kidneys, arms, feet, etc. Same with the brain—some people simply take longer to “grow into their brain.” When the human brain develops, it grows from bottom to top, back to front. Research currently indicates that the frontal lobes, and specifically the prefrontal cortex, are among the last areas of the brain to develop—and this is the control center for Executive Functions, which tells all the other parts of the brain when and how to work in harmony…or not.

Frontal brain systems, such as the frontal cortex and prefrontal cortex, and connections with other areas of the brain (parietal, temporal, occipital lobes, for example) influence our Executive Functions. The frontal lobes manage information and behavior by: 1) deciding what is worth paying attention to; 2) providing continuity and coherence to behavior over time; 3) adjusting affective and interpersonal behaviors within environmental constraints; 4) monitoring, judging, and adjusting.

A quick analogy…The prefrontal lobe is sort of like a stage manager in a theater performance, cuing actors on the stage and moving scenes along if they drag or slowing down the pace when a scene goes too fast. The manager will not allow actors to leave the stage before the end of the show and constantly monitors the reaction from the audience, shaping future performances based on this feedback. If the manager lacks of system or leaves the theater, the show flops and closes down.

Now before you run out and have yourself, or your loved one, tested, remember that the brain can “rewire” itself based on thoughts and behaviors. Unless there is permanent damage to the frontal lobes or other lobes, or if there is disease affecting the body, your Executive Functions can be strengthened.

And if you live with a “crazy” teenager, the Executive Functions have only begun to develop. More on that next week!

You Should Have Your Head Examined! The Wonders of Neuro Technology

Admittedly, I have a love-hate relationship with technology.  I enjoy using my smart phone and all the apps, but I have been known to cause computers, printers, and a robot or two to go haywire (maybe it’s my magnetic personality). But when it comes to brain-related technology and its groundbreaking applications, it is all love!

As I mentioned in my last post, some technologies allow us to study the structures of the brain, while others allow us to examine the functions of brain activity.  I could spin off for hours discussing this exciting, and ever-developing area of research, but I will model “self-inhibition” and stick to the basics of the technology.

Most people by now have heard of Computerized Axial Tomography, also known as a CAT or CT scan, as well as Magnetic Resonance Imaging, which most people simply call an MRI.  Without going into all the details of how these technologies work, suffice it to say that these are some of the best diagnostic tools the medical community currently has for finding tumors, deformities, and damages to the body and brain.

But when we want to learn more about how the brain works, the medical community has a hodgepodge of acronyms to toss in our medical charts.  The “four biggies” include:

1) Electroencephalography, also known as an EEG;

2) Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, which we all call an fMRI;

3) Magnetoencephalography, which doctors call a MEG;

4) Positron Emission Tomography, commonly termed a PET.

Again, without spinning out of control with my enthusiasm for “neurotechnology”, here’s what the technologies basically allow.  With the EEG and MEG, we can figure out how fast something happens in the brain by measuring electrical and magnetic activity.  The patient wears a whole bunch of electrodes or magnetic detectors on his or her scalp, and the activity gets recorded on the computer.  Although the patient might look like a space alien during the session, he or she has no exposure to radiation.

A PET scan is a little more invasive.  The person gets injected with a radioactive substance that goes through the brain and shows where levels of radiation accumulate.  The patient wears a bunch of detectors that show areas of accumulation.  The information creates a color image, with “hot spots” appearing in red or orange and “quiet zones” in blue or green.  Because of the radioactive risk, this procedure is generally not performed on children.

My favorite–at the moment–is the fMRI, which is noninvasive, painless, and does not involve radiation.  It allows practitioners to observe brain activity, based on blood flow.  When any part of your brain gets more active, it needs more oxygen and nutrients.  Hemoglobin, which has iron and is magnetic, carries oxygen to your brain.  Using a big magnet, doctors can compare areas of oxygenated hemoglobin to deoxygenated hemoglobin entering the brain.  A computer then takes the information and uses colors to identify the areas of the brain receiving the most blood.  Pretty amazing, huh?

I wish that all of us could “have our heads examined”.  Just like a yearly physical, we could all get a yearly “mental” and learn a little more about the three pound wonder that is our brain.

Make it a successful day!


Can Neuroscience Really Impact Learning and Behavior?

Welcome to Brain Cog Coach!

After spending more than 20 years in education, teaching, coaching, and training teachers and business leaders, I have noticed that learning and success (or not learning and defeat) follow similar patterns of behavior.  Once an individual learns to “unlock” his or her brain, set clear, measurable goals, and train the brain into success, no obstacle can deter that individual.  But for too long, education has been stymied by traditional “philosophy” rather than true science.  A learning method that works for you may not work for me, even if we have the same IQ, background, and learning environment.  But what happens in traditional learning settings?  If the new superintendant dislikes a program, he or she throws out the entire program–even if parts of it worked– and replaces it with the next “new philosophy”.  As a society, we have to break free from the “one size fits all” approach to education.  But how do we do it?  How can we implement brain-based learning into our lives?  How can we make gradual changes in our lifestyles to positively impact learning and the fear of success?  (Yes, the fear of success.)

This blog serves as a conduit between research and PRACTICAL practice within the school, home, or workplace.  I intend to present research in clear, easy-to-understand terms, so that individuals and organizations can benefit from information.  Most of my ideas are no, or low cost.  I welcome questions and feedback; this is a collaboration and my small part in helping others understand how their brains work and to use them to the best of their abilities.

Why do kids and adults today seem to have so many attention/focus challenges, and can neuroscience really change the way we interact with each other?  Until quite recently, science had little to offer regarding inappropriate behaviors or how to deal with them.  Researchers made educated guesses based on observations, which wan’t always the most objective way to gather data.  Now technology allows researchers to observe the brain’s electric and magnetic waves, and brain imaging may offer the best opportunity in understanding how the brain controls behavior.

In my next post, I will discuss the technologies that study brain structure and the technologies that study brain function.

Make it a successful day!