Saturday, January 26, 2008

A little background and some SPECT images of my brain

I have ideas all the time. I see connections between completely unrelated topics all the time. I can't read more than a few paragraphs in a good book without having new ideas about how to apply something I've read to something else, frequently distracting me from being able to read any further. Books on tape while I'm driving seem to work a bit better, but I'm still likely to pause them in order to call someone about another idea.

Almost everyone I've met who has told me their first impression of me has included the words "energetic and enthusiastic." My animal totem is the hummingbird, racing a mile a minute. After taking the Myers Briggs type indicator too many times, I know I'm an ENTJ with a high E, that's getting a little more mellow over the years, but is still higher than most (I'm still impressed anytime I meet someone intelligent who is more nonstop than myself).

Two years into my doctoral program, I'd read enough about ADD to believe that I might have it, and that the coping skills I'd developed had made it possible to get through school without doing all the work everyone else seemed to do (especially those readings!). I especially like this passage from Ed Hallowell, an expert on ADHD, which I originally found on wikipedia's entry for Adult ADHD:

"It's like being super-charged all the time. You get one idea and you have to act on it, and then, what do you know, but you've got another idea before you've finished up with the first one, and so you go for that one, but of course a third idea intercepts the second, and you just have to follow that one, and pretty soon people are calling you disorganized and impulsive and all sorts of impolite words that miss the point completely. Because you're trying really hard. It's just that you have all these invisible vectors pulling you this way and that, which makes it really hard to stay on task." (from E. M. Hallowell & J. J. Ratey's book, Driven To Distraction, 1994)

After an intense conversation with my doctor about why I thought I might have ADD, he agreed to let me try taking Ritalin as a test, indicating that people with ADD have a very different reaction to Ritalin than people without ADD (improved clarity and focus vs. jittery and speedy). The Ritalin had a clear positive affect. I use Adderal now, and can feel it help on a daily basis, though I do still have lots of interesting challenges (especially with task initiation and completion).

Because my research interests have long been in psychology and how human brains work, I am always hoping to find out more about my brain, and what the heck is going on with it. When I found Daniel Amen's work on ADD, and discovered he had a clinic near me, I jumped at the chance to see images of my brain. While no insurance would have covered these elective tests, I loved getting them done, and opted to do both of them without any ADHD medication in my system. I also got to fill out a lot of forms about my history and my family's history (especially re: mental & physical health).
In the first test, I was given a 15-minute concentration task (the Connors Continuous Performance Test) requiring attention without being at all engaging or interesting. The instructions:
  1. watch the blank screen, waiting for a letter to appear
  2. when a letter appears on the screen (at irregular intervals), press the space bar...
  3. ...unless the letter is an X; if it is an X, do not press the space bar.

I pressed the bar like a psych student's lab rat, just as soon as something showed up on the screen. I found it nearly impossible to catch that it was an X before I had already pressed the bar, and after 5 minutes, I was getting ready to chew my arm off from the boredom. After 15 minutes, they popped me out and scanned my head.

The second test a week later was so much nicer: just relaxing quietly for 15 minutes, while the radioactive isotope they'd injected "stuck" to the areas of my brain that were getting blood flow. Another scan after that.

So what did the images show? This link shows Amen's rotating image of a "normal" brain, (concentrating, I think):
The key to reading the images:
  • The transparent blue matrix shows "average" brain activity (=~55% of the maximum blood flow in the area).
  • The red areas represent the "hot spots" (>85% of the maximium blood flow), and
  • any white areas represent the "white hot hotspots" (>92% of the maximum blood flow).
In Amen's "normal" image, you can see the blue and some red "hot spots," but no signs of "white hot."

So now, let's look at my brain, scanned after the concentration activity:

A little bit busier than "normal" ? And lit up in areas that normal was just "average" in. So how does that compare to my brain relaxed?

Look at all those white hot spots!! No wonder I have so many ideas and connect so many seemingly unrelated concepts together!!! And many of my best ideas come when I am relaxed.
Having seen these pics, you may better understand my naming of this blog. ;-)
I've learned a lot about myself as I've gone through all this, and know that I perform much better on my list of "things to do" if I am doing things for someone else. Which leads me to a very sincere request to you, someone who has read this far: please post a comment, even just a one word response would be great.

Thank You & Namaste!

- Melissa
p.s. Curious to know more? Check out Amen's Intro to SPECT Imagery (or browse his site at


Xanda the Great said...

'Tis a good blog. I like the post so far. I would say that it would make more sense to present a normal brain and yours in images next to each other, rather than provide a link for one and the actual images for the other. But all is well.

RickSaada said...

Now if only we could harness the massive energy source that is Mel, we could end our dependence on foreign oil, pull our troops from Iraq, and find a cure for... OK, well I'll settle for cool blog posts for now.

Go Mel!

By George said...

Oh organ of thought and neural coordination; interpret, correlate, formulate; organic intranet...some more so than others.