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Young Professionals in ACEs

This group is for young professionals -- 35 years of age or younger -- who are studying and working in the field of adverse childhood experiences.

On Twitter? Follow @acestoohigh2

Recent Blog Posts

Addiction Born Out of ACEs and The Return of Hope []

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The downstream effect of childhood trauma has been well documented regarding the biological and psychosocial impacts. This presentation will highlight the neurobiological changes associated with ACEs that function as a "primer" for the onset of addiction and related behaviors. It will conclude with principles for influencing these same pathways that assist with restoration of the mind and health downstream effect of childhood trauma  has been well documented regarding the biological and psychosocial impacts.

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Susie Wiet, MD is an integrative developmental psychiatrist with expertise in holistic
treatment of trauma-addiction, dual diagnosis, and complex psychiatric disorders. She is
the founder and owner of Sovegna (a multi-disciplinary treatment center for recovery) and
the Trauma-Resiliency Collaborative (multi-disciplinary volunteer organization). During her
personal time, she enjoys learning from her children, celebrating time with family and
friends, expanding her creativity, practicing yoga, and deepening her faith.

She graduated from Northwestern University Medical School (Chicago, IL) and trained at the University of Utah in General Psychiatry and Child/Adolescent Psychiatry (fellowship). She holds three American Medical Board certifications: General Psychiatry, Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and Addiction Medicine. She is a member of several professional organizations, most recently Institute of Functional Medicine.

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For questions about registration, please email Kelly Flugum at

For questions about CALIFORNIA ACES ACADEMY, please email Nicole Taylor at

[Please click here to learn more about the CALIFORNIA ACES ACADEMY from Academy of Violence and Abuse.]

Original Flyer attached below.

A Better Normal: Healing Trauma Through Music with Nick Larson - Friday, Aug 14th at Noon PT

Please join us for the ongoing community discussion of A Better Normal, our series in which we envision the future as trauma-informed. 

Friday, August 14th, 2020 
12pm PT // 1pm MT // 2pm CT // 3pm ET
Hosted by Alison Cebulla and facilitated by Cissy White of ACEs Connection with Guest Nick Larson, lead singer of band Próxima Parada.

>>Click here to register<<

"Before any of us had the vocabulary to define ACEs [ACEs = adverse childhood experiences], we were using music as the language of healing." - Cissy White, ACEs Connection, Community Manager

I am excited to bring Próxima Parada lead singer and long-time friend Nick Larson to A Better Normal for a conversation on Healing Trauma Through Music. Their latest album includes a song about growing up with alcoholism in the family in a transformative and healing way that only music can do. There is an awareness throughout the album that pain can be transformed into beauty, the importance of connection, and the pain beneath habits and negative coping strategies. 

The discussion will focus on some of the following themes:

  • Music that heals--specific songs, bands, and albums that helped us cope in childhood and adulthood and why
  • The calling to be an artist and how that calling intertwined with the calling to be a healer: helping people feel and experience a whole range of human emotions from pain to joy
  • The personal stories of trauma transformation behind some of Nick's songs


Próxima Parada’s latest release, Kind Reminder, is 10 songs that help us overcome personal struggles, affirm life, access joy in the present moment, and find peace. Their songs are about acceptance and vulnerability in one form or another, and in every song, the music says just as much as the lyrics. Próxima Parada specializes in music that is both meaningful and a hell of a lot of fun. Starting in 2012 as a group of college friends wanting to extend their dynamic to their community in San Luis Obispo, CA, they never dreamed that they would tour nationally, perform at festivals, and that their music would soothe and uplift people around the world, with 150,000 monthly listens on Spotify, and many songs with 1-2 million+ listens.


>>Click here to register<<

Listen to Próxima Parada'a soulful and uplifting music in advance of this A Better Normal Episode:

Connect with Próxima Parada on Social Media:

A Better Normal Friday, June 19th at Noon PDT: LGBTQ+ Identity and Race in the US: An Intersectional Discussion On Historical and Generational Trauma

Please join us for the ongoing community discussion of A Better Normal, our ongoing series in which we envision the future as trauma-informed. 

LGBTQ+ Identity and Race in the US: An Intersectional Discussion On Historical and Generational Trauma

With Panelists Rev. Dr. D. Mark Wilson and Alexander Cho, Ph.D., Moderated by ACEs Connection staff members Jenna Quinn and Alison Cebulla

Friday, June 19th, 2020
Noon to 1pm, PT (3pm to 4pm ET)

>>Click here to register<<

Please join us in honoring both Pride Month and Juneteenth in this intersectional discussion with two experts on LGBTQ+ Identity and Race in the US. We will be launching our new LGBTQ+ ACEs Connection Community this week.

"The month of June was chosen for LGBT Pride Month to commemorate the Stonewall riots, which occurred at the end of June 1969. As a result, many pride events are held during this month to recognize the impact LGBT people have had in the world." ("Gay Pride",

"Juneteenth is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. Dating back to 1865, it was on June 19th that the Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free. Note that this was two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation - which had become official January 1, 1863." ("History of Juneteenth",

Please join our ACEs & African Americans community here.

Discussion will strive to include the following topics (time permitting):

  • What do people need to know about the historical and generational trauma at the intersection of being a person of color and LGBTQ+ in the United States?
  • What is the path forward to healing?
  • What changes have you seen already in your lifetimes? What needs to change?
  • Digital/social media use (positives and negatives) for queer people of color
  • Interdependence vs individualism
  • Black lives were never meant to matter: a history
  • Historical movements: The Black Power Movement in the 1960s, the Black Consciousness and Arts Movement while at Howard University, a black college, in the 1970s-1980s,  The Black Gay Literary Movement and Afro-Centric Hip Hop Movement of the 1980s-1990s
  • White privilege and entitlement; white shame and guilt
  • Whiteness, race, and the LGBTQ+ community
  • African American and black churches and homophobia
  • Recognizing the contributions of LGBTQ+ people to the African American church

>>Click here to register<<

Rev. Dr. D. Mark Wilson

Rev. Dr. D. Mark Wilson is an African American clergyperson ordained in the American Baptist Churches, USA, the former Senior Pastor of McGee Avenue Baptist Church (Berkeley), where he served for twelve years. He earned his undergraduate degree from Howard University, his Masters of Divinity Degree from Harvard Divinity School and Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Michigan.  He is the current Director of Music at Easter Hill United Methodist Church and the former Assistant Professor of Congregational Leadership at the Pacific School of Religion. In additional to his work as a pastor, he is a Lecturer in the Department of Sociology Department at St. Mary’s College of Moraga, California and Continuing Lecturer in the Music Department of University of California at Berkeley, where he conducts the UC Berkeley Gospel Chorus.  In addition to creating courses on race, ethnicity, gender and LGBTQ equality at St. Mary’s College of Moraga, Dr. Wilson has used musical performance to create diversity and global justice throughout the community and world in Cuba, Nicaragua and Sri Lanka.  When he’s not sharing music around the world, he can be heard singing in the bass section and performing solos in the Cantare Con Vivo Chorale, directed by David Morales. Pastor Mark, as he is affectionately known to church members, is the Bay Area’s first African American pastor to come out as a gay man in a Bay Area African American Baptist Church and to be welcomed and embraced by the church’s membership. He has also been an early leader of the Welcoming and Affirming Movement to affirm LGBTIQ people in the Baptist faith community.  He is a member of City of Refuge United Church of Christ and former Outreach Coordinator for the Project Trust Collaboration of San Francisco Theological Seminary and Kaiser Hospital, addressing spirituality and mental health. 

Alexander Cho, Ph.D.

Alexander Cho, Ph.D., is an expert in LGBTQ youth digital media use, race and ethnicity, and digital design. He is the University of California President's Postdoctoral Fellow in Informatics at UC Irvine and incoming Assistant Professor of Asian American Studies at UC Santa Barbara. He is co-author of "The Digital Edge: How Black and Latino Youth Navigate Digital Inequality" (NYU Press) and co-editor of the forthcoming "a tumblr book: Platform and Cultures" (University of Michigan Press). He is active in policy and advocacy settings, most recently working with UNICEF as lead author of the report "Digital Civic Engagement by Young People." Prior to his academic work, Alex was a journalist and editor, including publishing the worldwide exclusive coming-out interview with Star Trek icon George Takei. Website.

>>Click here to register<<

Equity & Inclusion Statement

ACEs Connection is an anti-racist organization committed to the pursuit of social justice.

In our work to promote resilience and prevent and mitigate ACEs, we will intentionally embrace and uplift people who have historically not had a seat at the table. ACEs Connection will celebrate the voices and tell the stories of people who have been barred from decision making and who have shouldered the burden of systemic and economic oppression as the result of genocide, slavery, family separation, forced relocation, mass incarceration, red lining and all other practices, policies and institutions that have traumatized marginalized groups. These groups include people of color, people living with mental health and substance use challenges, people living with disabilities, and members of the LGBTQI community. 

Of interest: Spend June 5 with members of the new National Academies report: Realizing Opportunity for All Youth

Of interest: 

Spend June 5 with members of the new National Academies report: Realizing Opportunity for All Youth

Announcement in ACES Connection calendar : June 5 Calendar Announcement


or at Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy, University of Virginia  (ILPPP)


Working with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine ILPPP is providing opportunity to learn about the National Academies' new report, Realizing Opportunity for All Youth that finds ample evidence that changes in brain structure and connectivity that happen in adolescence present young people with unique opportunities for positive, life-shaping development, and for recovery from past adversity.

Faculty for the day will be Richard Bonnie, Professor with the UVA School of Law, and ILPPP Director, who was chair of the committee producing the report. Other presenters from the report committee include Joanna Williams PhD, UVA Curry School of Education, and Susan Mangold, Esq. Juvenile Law Center, Philadelphia. Discussants will include Andrew Block JD, Associate Professor of Law and Director of the State and Local Government Clinic with the UVA School of Law, and Julia Taylor MD, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics with the UVA School of Medicine, from leadership of the Virginia Department of Development Health and Behavioral Services and the Virginia Department of Social Services. 


We Want YOU to be Part of The League of Extraordinary People

You are extraordinary.

Writing this post feels like I have come full circle. In April of 2019, Alfred White reached out to me on ACEs Connection. Shortly after, we spoke at length about the plans he had to create a place of healing and hope in Federal Way and King County, Washington, specifically for individuals with a history of trauma and who were now impacted with symptoms such as addiction and homelessness. I recall sharing with Alfred that there was such a need for this in that community, but doubt if the community was ready for such an endeavor. It would be another ten months before I spoke with Alfred again, and when I did, I was happy to learn that he had proven me wrong.

When Alfred and I reconnected in early 2020, I was shocked to learn that he had been battling extensive chronic health conditions – health conditions that resulted from a generational and lifelong history of trauma and adversity that had begun before he was even born. Alfred shared with me that he had been diagnosed with liver cancer and was awaiting a liver transplant. He shared that he also had fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, and a series of other health conditions. The trauma impacting Alfred’s mind, body, and soul manifested in his life as substance abuse, homelessness, and criminality. This culminated with Alfred swallowing 1/4oz of crack cocaine, ultimately having a near miss with death, and making the decision that it was time to get clean and sober. 

An image of Alfred after his last encounter with substances.

Despite the extensive challenges on top of intergenerational trauma and early adversity, Alfred demonstrates a great deal of hope and resilience. He secured a property and partnered with a general contractor to renovate a space into a resilient residential treatment facility, and he continues to pursue connections to breathe life into his vision for a healing center. Alfred impresses and inspires me on a daily basis, proving that our traumas and our histories do not define us.

It was an honor when Alfred extended an opportunity of partnership to me. My passion for supporting children and families, as well as building community capacities, aligned well with the plans he described. Alfred is the Founder of The League of Extraordinary People. My heart was filled when we finalized our Mission and Vision statements earlier this week. There is no greater feeling for me than the fulfillment I experience when engaging in work to empower others. If this work resonates with you as it did with me, we would love to connect with anyone, particularly those who are peers as Alfred is. No matter your background, skill, or experience, you are extraordinary and have something meaningful to contribute to this work! As we progress through this virtual time, many opportunities for volunteering are available – for example, content development, writing and editing, photography, or even simply sharing your journey with us to inspire others.

Our mission is to launch an educational and spiritual enrichment revolution to build hope, resilience, and healing through community empowerment.

Our vision is to establish a transformational, integrative, and replicable self-healing Center of Extraordinary People. This residential community model will heal transgenerational trauma through a foundation of safety, trustworthiness and transparency, peer support, collaboration and mutuality, empowerment of voice and choice, and purposefully elevating historical ethnic and cultural legacies.

Be part of The League of Extraordinary People!

You can find us at

Tips for Working at Home from ACEs Connection Staff

ACEs Connection is fueled by a small diverse workforce. Due to the needs of the worldwide ACEs movement, we are strategically located in various regions across the country.  Because of this, we are a virtual workforce. Here at ACEs Connection, we are pros at working from home. 

Due to the COVID-19 crisis, I know that many of you are transitioning from brick and mortar businesses, offices and cubicles to home offices. Working from home under normal circumstances requires adjustment and focus. Working from home during a viral pandemic, and maybe in close quarters with family, definitely requires a new level of coping, resilience and flexibility. I have compiled tips and suggestions from our staff about  working from home during these trying times.

We are all individuals. We have different needs and there is nothing more personal and unique than your talents and struggles when it comes to regulating emotions and behaviors. You will need to devise a work-from-home strategy that supports your productivity and well-being. Here are three questions to ask yourself as you adjust to working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic: 

What is your schedule?

Schedules are important and great for regulation. Parenting With ACEs community moderator Cis White said: “I know many people say create a schedule and stick to a routine, but I’ve let myself let go of that because the truth is I don’t yet know what I need yet to do my best work right now. The only commitments I don’t break are meetings and conference calls.” 

If you find comfort in routine, I suggest sticking to your normal schedule. Get up at the same time you normally would if you were going to the office. Get dressed (you can skip the shoes). Use the time you would normally spend on your commute preparing for your day (writing a to-do list, meditation, etc.). And, lastly, take frequent breaks. Frequent breaks may help with distractions and increase your focus and productivity.  

Lara Kain, community moderator for ACEs in Education, agreed. When asked how she works best from home, she said: “I try to schedule in regulation breaks throughout the day, moving my body in some way — even for 5-10 minutes. I try to be aware of my focus and concentration. When I start to wander, I am losing my ability to focus and be productive. Then I need to get up and stretch, walk around the block, dance or something else.” 

Donielle Prince, our San Francisco Bay community facilitator, added: “Definitely have a start and end time. If you enjoy your work, and/or have project deadlines, because you’re already at home, it can be seductive to just keep working. This is something you wouldn’t do at work, because typically you need to stop, commute home, run errands, etc. Now that you’re at home, nothing pulls you away, but I promise you: You WILL burn out if you never stop working. So set a start time and an end time, and stick to it. Have a lunch period where you stop working — flexible timing, doesn’t matter if you make it 11am or 2pm. But take a real break. And take other short breaks, to stretch, walk, etc. Creating a schedule and sticking to it will be the difference between being productive at home for weeks, versus burning out quickly and having a hard time getting motivated, because you overdid it. In other words: Pace yourself!”

Karen Clemmer, our Northwest community facilitator, brings a different perspective.  Karen invited us to consider our “natural rhythm” and prioritization. “Align your most complex work so that you focus on them during your peak performance hours," she said. "If a large number of tasks come in and cannot be addressed immediately, consider making reminders on your work calendar. If useful, color-code items on your calendar (red=urgent, blue=general reminders, etc.).” 

What are your boundaries?

This next question may be the most difficult to answer and implement, especially if you are living in a crowded house during the COVID-19 quarantine. For those of us who are home alone, boundaries look like manipulating the environment to address counterproductive psychological coping strategies, like procrastination. Donielle suggested that, if possible, “have a designated space that serves as your workplace, that is different than where you relax at home. Like Pavlov’s dogs, you can train your mind to feel like working in your workspace, and when you leave it you feel relaxed and cozy at home.” 

When it comes to procrastination, Lara confessed to being a procrastinator, so she sets boundaries around housework. “I can distract and procrastinate with the best of 'em," she explained. "When working at an office the structure is built for you, but now at home when I had a project for work all of a sudden I had an intense desire to clean a closet I hadn’t looked in for a year. So no house projects or housework for set hours, and I stick to it. And on the flipside I had to set boundaries for work — otherwise I found myself working unhealthy hours and schedules and not getting life stuff done.” 

For those of us who have family and other loved ones in the home, it's important to communicate your expectations and boundaries with your housemates. Gail Kennedy, who leads our community facilitators and our activities in California, said it's imperative to “have a house meeting with your family/housemates and come up with house guidelines/rules BEFORE they become an issue. For our family, my college-aged daughter, who has had to move back in, is a night owl. My husband and I are the early-to-bed, early-to-rise types, so we had a bit of a blow up when our daughter decided to re-organize her bedroom, which is next to our bedroom, at midnight!”

“With the kids and husband home all the time now," Lara said, "I had to be much more explicit about when they can bug me and when they can’t. When my office (in my bedroom) door is shut, I am on a Zoom or call, so do not enter, not to pet the dog, get the cat, use my bathroom, etc. — all the reasons in the world they can find to need to be in my room at that moment (and never want to come in when I am free...LOL). When my door is open and I am working, they can knock on my door. But I ask them to ask themselves first: 'Do I really need mom to solve this or can it wait (or ask dad or solve yourself).' If it can wait then wait.” Lara also suggested that you check out this article if you are working from home with kids. 

Is your workplace (home) trauma-informed? Have you integrated practices based on ACEs science?

Last, but not least, it is imperative during this critical time to walk the talk. Now more than ever, we must live in our trauma-informed doctrines and practice what we preach.  Donielle has become a pro at creating a calming ambience for her workspace with music. “I first started with 'study music'," she said. "Then I discovered how peaceful 'forests with waterfalls' is, and when I want a different vibe, I search 'coffee shop' and find a bunch of entertaining options, from simulated coffee shops to real-time recordings of coffee shops that make you feel like you’re there! Lately, I can’t get enough of 'cozy ambiance', which has beautiful homes, often with fireplaces crackling, and/or snow or rain fall. I feel so relaxed and I’m able to focus my attention. It’s also soothing, which we all need because of the uncertainties of living through this pandemic. Follow your interests and plug in search terms to find soothing backgrounds that help you focus.” 

Allow time to feel whatever you feel, noted Karen: Anxiety, fear, or any other feeling, and acknowledge the feelings. "Take a moment, then breathe deeply to reset your focus and to get back on track," she advised. "Acknowledge that these are dysregulating times and there will be more real and imagined distractions than usual. Try to be mindful of how your body feels, where you hold tension, and what works best for you to let go of the tension and to stay focused and on task. Be flexible, take brief breaks when needed. Consider stepping outside for 5-10 minutes to refresh, breathe deeply, and if it is sunny tilt your face to the sky and soak in the rays of sunshine.  Ask for help if you need it. Bottomline, be as kind to yourself as you would be towards anyone else in a difficult situation.”

“I’ve worked from home for years," said Cis, "and do know the power of getting outside for a walk and sunshine even 10 minutes a day, of stretching, drinking water, and usually getting dressed." She also provided her strategies for staying regulated:    

  • Guided imagery to build the immune system because I’m immune compromised and have asthma and doing something helps me counter the panic/freak-out fears about getting sick.
  • Expressive writing, because it’s good for the immune system and feels good to be with people who process on paper, and in a virtual community, and find words for that inner landscape and level of experience which is hard for me to access without a prompt and safe space.
  • Admitting that while I wish to be flooded with calm, triggered by joy, and uber regulated, I’m not yet occupying that space and if I can just not be actively overwhelmed by uncomfortable sensations of anxiety, dread, and obsessive rumination and can get outside for walks, share conversations, cuddles, and maybe meals with loved ones, doing my job, and keep from acting out or being a jerk or apologizing quickly when I can’t, well I’m actually rising to the occasion and meeting the moment well-enough.
  • Reminding others who don’t know as much about traumatic or toxic stress that it’s normal to feel threatened, and that some people are actually in survival mode right now and must first attend to their basic needs and doing so is being resilient. It’s okay If that means regulation isn’t as ideal or might not look like it does when things are ideal or not terrible.”

It's okay to not know the right thing to do, she said: “I’ve managed post-traumatic stress with parenting, with partnering, with work, and even with cancer, but never with all of those things and COVID-19. I’m not sure what safe and healthy looks like.”

I hope this blog was helpful to you as you take on working from home.  In today's world of climate change and technological advances, telework will likely become the new normal.  Thank you for all the work you do!

7 Signs You Are Emotionally Numb []

Last updated: 

The official definition of the word Numb is, “Deprived of the power of sensation; without feeling.”

The official definition of the word Empty is, “Containing nothing; not filled or occupied.”

Of course, the word “numb” is used to describe a physical sensation, for example, “My leg is numb from cold.” And the word “empty” commonly applies to physical objects, such as, “This basket is empty.”

But these two words also have meanings far beyond the physical that are useful in understanding the human experience, happiness, and life satisfaction. They have an important link to people’s minds that goes to the epicenter of all three. It is this: both of these words describe feelings that are far more common than most people realize.

Most people don’t give much attention to their feelings and would not think of using the words empty or numb to describe their own emotions. But as a psychologist, I have seen, without a doubt, that countless people who seem absolutely fine on the outside walk through their lives feeling either empty or numb, or both, on the inside.

Read full article on

ACEs & African Americans Community on ACEs Connection

ACEs Connection envisions a resilient world where ALL people thrive. 

We are an anti-racist organization committed to the pursuit of social justice.

In our work to promote resilience and prevent and mitigate ACEs, we intentionally embrace and uplift people who have historically not had a seat at the table. 

ACEs Connection celebrates the voices and tells the stories of people who have been barred from decision-making and who have shouldered the burden of systemic and economic oppression as the result of genocide, slavery, family separation, forced relocation, mass incarceration, red lining and all other practices, policies and institutions that have traumatized marginalized groups. These groups include people of color, people living with mental health and substance use challenges, people living with disabilities, and members of the LGBTQI community. 

In the spirit of our Equity Statement, I would like to introduce our newest interest-based community, ACEs & African Americans. Descendants of slaves across the African diaspora are a unique and vulnerable, yet incredibly resilient, population. This community focuses on the descendants of Africans dispersed throughout the Americas during the Transatlantic Slave Trades. Topics will include adverse childhood experiences, historical trauma, inter-generational transmission of trauma, African American parenting practices, health disparities, the effects of racism, microaggressions and implicit bias, as well as resilience and post-traumatic growth.

My expertise lies in African American psychology, historical trauma and inter-generational trauma. It was my graduate studies focused on African American parenting styles at Vanderbilt University's Peabody College that led me to the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study in 2010

I am excited to be the community manager here, along with Maria Hamilton Abegunde, and I invite you to join us and to contribute your voice to our community.  If you have any questions, feel free to contact me at Happy Black History Month!   

The Tiny Cell that Connects our Physical and Mental Health, and Solves a Decades-old Mystery of Why Toxic Stress Leads to Brain Changes that Spark Depression, Anxiety

More than a decade ago, I was diagnosed with several autoimmune diseases, one after another, including Guillain-Barré syndrome, which left me paralyzed twice while raising two young children. All told I spent six years in and out of bed and hospitals, learning, between crises, to use a cane or walker to navigate life as a working-mother-with-chronic-illness.

My immune system was repeatedly and mistakenly attacking my body, causing the nerves in my arms, legs, and those I needed to swallow and breathe to stop working, leaving me, all too often, to raise my children from bed.

As I slowly began to recover and learn to walk again, I noticed that along with distinct physical losses (I could walk but not run), I had experienced shifts in my mood and clarity of mind. Although I'd always been an optimistic person, I felt a bleak unshakeable dread. When I read Harry Potter to my son, it felt, to me, as if those “dementors,” who steal away hope and joy, had cast their dark spell on my brain, too.

I also noticed cognitive glitches. Names, words, facts, were hard to bring to mind. I can still recall cutting up slices of watermelon, putting them in a bowl, and staring down at them thinking, "What is this called again?"I knew the word but couldn't remember it. I'd cover my lapse by bringing the bowl to the table and waiting for my children to call out, "Yay! Watermelon!" And I'd think, "Yes. Of course. Watermelon." I recall trying to tie my daughter’s shoe and struggling to remember how it was done.

As a science journalist whose niche spans neuroscience, immunology, and human emotion, I knew at the time that it did not make scientific sense that inflammation in the body could be connected to — much less cause — illness in the brain. At that time, scientific dogma held that the brain was the only organ in the body not ruled by the immune system. The brain was considered to be "immune privileged."

In the early 2010s, that began to change. As neuroscience and immunology started to merge, they began dismantling that century-old tenet. Scientists pivoted away from believing that the brain and body function as church and state entities, and began to embrace an entirely new brain-body paradigm that tells us that the brain is also governed by the immune system.

This ground-breaking science couldn’t come a moment too soon. As we look back over the past decade, one thing is disturbingly apparent: We are increasingly a people in despair. For many, when despair becomes depression, or untenable anxiety, the standard answers — antidepressants with a dose of therapy — are not enough to assuage suffering.

We know this because the rates of mental health disorders and suicide are rising. Nearly a third of the 264 million people who suffer from major depression around the world don’t respond to any antidepressant treatments, and many who do find that medications stop working over time. A surprising number of young people who attempt suicide are already taking antidepressants. As Gregory Plemmons, M.D., at Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt put it recently, pediatric beds in hospitals used to be for kids fighting off pneumonia; now they’re full of kids who don’t want to live.

As other areas in medicine move rapidly forward with findings in their fields — for instance, targeted cancer therapies are extending the lives of oncology patients — psychiatry lags behind in providing new answers. In some ways that makes sense: the brain has long remained the black box of science, and it’s only very recently that we’ve had the tools necessary to peer inside the brain on a cellular level.

Still, even as neuroscience and neuroimmunology rapidly advance, and the two fields become one, the options we give an individual suffering from depression, or anxiety, or a mood disorder today, are largely the same ones we offered a patient 30 years ago.

The past decade has been a golden era in brain research, one in which scientists have offered extraordinary hope for today’s mental health crisis by rewriting our basic understanding of how disorders of the human brain develop, and how we might help prevent or ameliorate them. And they all come down to one tiny, elusive cell, called microglia (remember that name!), which turn out to be game-changers for mental health.


In 2012, Harvard researchers Beth Stevens and Dori Schafer used new visual tools to unmask the behavior of these previously little understood cells, called microglia, mapping their actions in the brain in exquisite detail. Under the right circumstances, microglia keep the brain healthy; they twirl around neurons like tiny dancers stretching out their long, elegant limbs, soothing and bathing neurons in anti-inflammatory factors that help protect the brain’s all-important neural circuitry.

But microglia, it turns out, also have a dark side. When they sense incoming threats — the same triggers that can overwhelm our body’s immune system: chronic stressors (including adverse childhood experiences), environmental toxins, trauma, infections— microglia can morph from angels into frenzied assassins. They can begin to spit forth inflammatory toxins and engulf and destroy the very neural synapses they once protected — those fundamental to our mind state, mental processing, mood, behavior, and memories. Indeed, the root causes of depression and anxiety, stem not so much from chemical imbalances but from microglia gone rogue — when microglia spit out inflammation that alters levels of dopamine and serotonin.

Because these microglia-led inflammatory changes appear differently in the brain from one person to another, we give it a hundred different names: OCD, ADHD, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, memory loss.

It also turns out that people who have high levels of chronic inflammation, as measured by simple blood tests, have higher levels of microglial activation in the brain, a keen and worrisome indicator that too many synapses are being lost.

This science also solves a decades-old mystery: the link between trauma and loss of brain synapses has long confounded the medical community. We’ve known for some time that adverse childhood experiences can alter important synaptic wiring in the brain — we can see this in brain scans of children and teens who’ve experience chronic unpredictable stress, whether that stress is due to parents fighting, emotional neglect, chronic humiliation, poverty, or community violence. Connections between important areas of the brain can become compromised, wanted and necessary brain circuits and synapses can be lost. Gray matter volume decreases. We also know that children facing ACEs have a higher rate of mental health disorders, mood disorders, and Alzheimer’s as the years tick by.

With this science, we now understand why. Our brain is our “Seventh Sense", in a constant, intricate, breathtaking dance with the environment responding to the world around us — including everyone, and everything, in it — in ways that reshape our minds. Our body and brain are constantly chatting in a bidirectional conversation about whether we are safe, or not safe. When our brain gets the message we aren’t safe, this brain immune inflammatory response — led by microglia — can lead to depression, anxiety, and memory loss. In unhealthy or toxic environments, microglia can become the brain’s untimely assassins.

These revelations that microglia function as a kind of “holy grail” cell, one that serves as both the assassin and the guardian of the self, gives a stymied field new hope that extends beyond the serotonin hypothesis — and offers us new possibilities and hope for healing. Neuroscientists are racing to offer up novel, noninvasive ways to gently manipulate microglia to protect and restore the brain to health.

In 2016, neuroscientist Li-Huei Tsai, director of The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT, programmed software so that LED lights on a handheld wand flickered at the frequency of gamma brain waves, which are compromised in Alzheimer’s, and delivered pulses of light from outside the brain, noninvasively, to mice with a version of Alzheimer’s. This treatment caused microglia to stop spitting out inflammatory toxins and attacking synapses. Instead, microglia bathed neurons in neuroprotective factors, repaired vulnerable synapses, and stimulated new neurons to grow — all while scouring the brain for plaques and tangles and clearing those away, too. Mice showed improvements in memory tasks, with results lasting for up to a week. Human clinical trials are well underway.

Another brain-hacking method, transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS, introduces gentle, brief magnetic pulses from the scalp’s surface to the brain areas where synapses have gone offline. These pulses induce a mild electrical current that hands microglia and neurons a fresh, proper set of signals. In 2016, Harvard researcher Alvaro Pascual-Leone demonstrated that TMS can restore healthy brain circuitry in depressed patients who have not responded to medications. Some patients who experienced significant relief after 30 treatments with TMS never experienced a relapse of depression, even years later.

Microglia also communicate with the over 100 trillion nerve cells that line our gastrointestinal tract. Unhealthy alterations in the gut’s microbiota can contribute to depression and other mood disorders in the brain. Valter Longo of University of California and Mark Mattson of Johns Hopkins unveiled in 2014 and in 2018 that one way to influence both the gut and microglia is through intermittent fasting and fasting-mimicking diets, which help increase the resistance of neurons to overpruning. With fasting, we may have some ability to influence microglia to turn from the dark side to the light again.

Scientists are also working to try to reboot microglia by hacking the largest nerve in the body, the vagus nerve, which travels down from the brain stem and throughout our torso, sending its roots into our heart, lungs, and digestive system. The vagus nerve acts as a superconductor, sending bidirectional signals between body and brain. When the body is under emotional or physical stress it zips “fight flight freeze” warning messages up the vagus nerve to the brain, which puts microglia under duress too, leading, over time, to changes in everyday mood and behavior. Work to calm the vagus nerve — like Stephen Porges’s Safe and Sound Protocol — are now more crucial than ever. Meanwhile, human clinical trials are examining whether stimulating the vagus nerve can ameliorate symptoms in chronic pain, memory loss, depression, and autoimmune disease.

The brain has long been inscrutable, as compared to, say, treating heart muscle. Psychiatry is still a long way from being able to connect the dots between the activity of brain cells and a patient's felt experience or "symptoms," much less correlate emotional symptoms to a precise treatment. To date, it's been a guessing game – throw drugs in, and see what happens. But the discovery that microglia are like one giant light switch through which many signals related to diseases of the brain pass gives us a new paradigm. As a result, a sea change is coming to medicine – that is, if physicians and psychiatrists are ready to step up to the plate and help close the interminable lag time between what’s happening in the lab and what’s happening in the clinic.

This new view of the brain — that microglia-led inflammation, triggered by a combination of genes and environmental factors from emotional trauma to toxins, can slowly brew in the brain throughout a lifetime — sheds hopeful new light on the mind-body connection, rewriting our understanding of brain health and illness. Patients have great agency here to ask for more tools in the healing toolbox, and physicians have new insights and options to help patients find relief from suffering.

For those caught in the liminal space of despair — between wanting and not wanting to live this life — the clock is ticking.


Donna Jackson Nakazawa is a science journalist and the author of six books, including “The Angel and the Assassin: The Tiny Brain Cell That Changed the Course of Medicine,” which was published Jan. 21, 2020. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

A version of this essay first appeared in The Boston Globe on January 21, 2020, and has been modified.

This Young Woman is Helping Struggling Teens by Truly Seeing Them and Caring []

By NationSwell Team, NationSwell, January 29, 2020

At age 5, Claudia emigrated with her family from Chile to the United States, but the experience was hardly the American Dream. She lost her sister to a drug overdose and experienced PTSD from living with domestic violence. But instead of these experiences breaking her, they broke her open and helped her create a better life.

She knew she was not the only one living with trauma in her Newark, New Jersey school. So after college, she returned to help others overcome their challenges and succeed in school. She started Future Leaders Accomplishing Intellectual Readiness (FLAIRNow) to break down the walls faced by students of different backgrounds and give them the skills to start a career.

She learned to accept the bad in the world and still see the good. Every day, she says, her students teach her how to keep turning the bad into good. 

[Please click here to read more.]

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