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Cognitive Column - March 2014

As I write this the sun is shining and I can see many of my bees drinking water from the bird bath. They collect water for the hive; for one thing, they can evaporate it to lower the temperature if it starts to get too hot. It was not so long ago that they were anything but too hot, and if they needed water they had only to venture just outside where it was permanently raining. Perhaps at last things are looking up, not that I have a right to complain, as I live on high ground and for me the floods were little more than an impressive spectacle. I hope none of you suffered in the deluge.

Shakespeare has Mark Antony tell his “Friends, Romans and Countrymen” that he has come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. We have witnessed two deaths recently where praising came to the fore; those of Bob Crow and Tony Benn. Both were very left-wing, and thorns in the sides of the Establishment, yet at their death people (including the right-wing press) were falling over themselves to say what good citizens they had been. I don’t think this had anything to do with a reluctance to speak ill of the dead; politicians and newspaper hacks seldom show any reluctance to rubbish their fellows – dead or alive. I think the characteristic that captured the public’s imagination was integrity; everyone knew the goals and beliefs of these two men, and they stuck to them, honestly and unwaveringly. This is so refreshing in a world of nest-feathering politicians, the people who seem to have developed the art of multi-tasking to such heights that they can say one thing while meaning another and doing a third. What an unedifying spectacle they made during those floods, as bucks were passed and political points scored.

It was good to see that Bill Roache was found not guilty of sexual offences, alleged to have been committed many years before. Of late it has appeared that the courts were being given a strong steer to accept, with little question, the accounts of people who claimed to have suffered rapes and assaults in the distant past. Fortunately, it seems that courts are still able to return not-guilty verdicts; not, of course, that one wishes guilty people to go unpunished. It seems clear that, in years gone by, there was a culture that tended to turn a blind eye to “inappropriate” behaviour, imagining that “it couldn’t do any harm really.” Fortunately the climate changed, but recently so too has our understanding, and we now know that a great deal of real harm can be done by childhood abuse. It appears to be down to epigenetics.

We are all reasonably familiar with the ideas of genetics, that we inherit pairs of genes from our parents, and that they control things such as eye colour or height. Brain structure and function is also determined by genes, so for example there is one which (as with eye colour) comes in two forms. If both members of your pair are of one form you will be vulnerable to depression, whereas if they are both of the other kind you will be more resilient to stresses. One of each gene type and you fall somewhere between the extremes. These particular genes are involved in the control of serotonin, one of the neurotransmitters associated with a sense of wellbeing. Although I have drawn a parallel with eye colour, you may have noticed a distinct difference. Your genes give you brown or blue eyes, but that’s that – no question about how they turn out in the end. In contrast, the other genes don’t determine absolutely whether or not you will be depressed, only the likelihood. To understand this we need to remember that all our cells contain complete genetic recipes for the whole of our bodies – how to make bones, muscles, corneas, everything. In spite of this universality of the “recipe book” only the right things get made in the right places, because genes are activated or not, depending upon their environment. They are said to be switched on or switched off, and the “off button” consists of a chemical block that gets in the way of the gene being used. For those of you into organic chemistry, the block is a methyl group, and it is now possible to look at the methylation of a person’s genes and determine whether they are on or off. This field of study, examining the impact of outside influences upon our genetic code, is called epigenetics.

It has recently been found that adults who were abused as children can exhibit large numbers of methylation changes, the vast majority of them being in brainrelated genes. I don’t think our current level of understanding is sufficient that we can test someone claiming to be an abuse victim, and use the on/off state of their genes to see if they are telling the truth. Even if we could do this, it would probably not tell us the exact nature of the childhood suffering, and nor, of course, could it say who was the perpetrator. What we do know is that the changes appear to bring an increased risk of the person developing psychotic symptoms, such as are found in schizophrenia. As you would expect, brains can develop faults and strengths for a number of reasons, so it would be quite wrong to assume that anyone suffering from schizophrenia must have been abused, or that someone without psychosis must necessarily never have been abused. The level of complexity of our brains is such that they can modify themselves, and this is the essence of cognitive therapy. The influence of cognition is powerfully revealed in the case of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is a distressing condition brought about by exposure to extreme situations, such as being involved in a major traffic accident, witnessing horrific injuries and death. It has been pointed out that surgeons see more than their fair share of blood, guts and death, but don’t seem to get PTSD. This is all down to cognitions; the PTSD victims are terrified, feeling out of control and often expecting to die themselves. The surgeons, in contrast, feel entirely in control and not at all terrified; that important difference in cognitions protects them from the unpleasant sights they must sometimes see. Interestingly, there are parallels between PTSD and psychoses, and in some ways childhood abuse victims can have the characteristics of a PTSD sufferer. Among the many things we don’t know in the exciting new field of epigenetics is whether therapy for abuse reverses the genetic changes, or merely helps the victim to live with them.

Let’s end on a less sombre note! I’ve often referred in these pages to that iniquitous firm G4S. You may remember that they were supposed to be looking after the tagging of offenders, but were caught seeking payment for tagging that had never happened, including claims for tagging people who turned out to be dead! In Eastern Europe, where people believed in the “un-dead” (as in the Dracula story) it was not uncommon to weight corpses down with rocks, or pin them to the ground with a stake, so that they could not walk. I suppose this was a bit mean on the poor creatures; with tagging you could at least keep an eye on their whereabouts and make sure they were back in their coffins by daybreak! Anyway, the good news is that G4S are having to repay over £100,000,000. It’s nice to see justice prevail.

Well, that’s enough from me until next time, so good luck with the studies and, if it continues that way, enjoy a lovely Spring.

Best wishes,

Peter

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