Empathy, value, pain, control: Psychological functions of the human striatum

This 2016 US human study found:

“A link between existing data on the anatomical and physiological characteristics of striatal regions and psychological functions.

Because we did not limit our metaanalysis to studies that specifically targeted striatal function, our results extend previous knowledge of the involvement of the striatum in reward-related decision-making tasks, and provide a detailed functional map of regional specialization for diverse psychological functions, some of which are sometimes thought of as being the exclusive domain of the PFC [prefrontal cortex].”

The analysis led to dividing the striatum into five segments:

Ventral striatum (VS):

  • Stimulus Value
  • Terms such as “reward,” “losses,” and “craving”
  • The most representative study reported that monetary and social rewards activate overlapping regions within the VS.
  • Together with the above finding of a reliable coactivation with OFC [orbitofrontal cortex] and ventromedial PFC, this finding suggests a broad involvement of this area in representing stimulus value and related stimulus-driven motivational states.

Anterior caudate (Ca) Nucleus:

  • Incentive Behavior
  • Terms such as “grasping,” “reaching,” and “reinforcement”
  • The most representative study reported a stronger blood-oxygen level-dependent (BOLD) response in this region during trials in which participants had a chance of winning or losing money in a card guessing game, in comparison to trials where participants merely received feedback about the accuracy of their guess.
  • This result suggests a role in evaluating the value of different actions, contrasting with the above role of the VS in evaluating the value of stimuli.

Posterior putamen (Pp):

  • Sensorimotor Processes
  • Terms such as “foot,” “noxious,” and “taste”
  • The most representative study reported activation of this region in response to painful stimulation at the back of the left hand and foot of participants. Anatomically, the most reliable and specific coactivation is with sensorimotor cortices, and the posterior and midinsula and operculum (secondary somatosensory cortex SII) in particular, some parts of which are specifically associated with pain.
  • Together, these findings suggest a broad involvement of this area in sensorimotor functions, including aspects of their affective qualities.

Anterior putamen (Pa):

  • Social- and Language-Related Functions
  • Terms such as “read,” “vocal,” and “empathic”
  • The most representative study partially supports a role of this area in social- and language-related functions; it reported a stronger activation of the Pa in experienced singers, but not when novices were singing.
  • It is coactivated with frontal areas anterior to the ones coactivated with the Pp, demonstrating topography in frontostriatal associations. These anterior regions have been implicated in language processes.

Posterior caudate (Cp) Nucleus:

  • Executive Functions
  • Terms such as “causality,” “rehearsal,” and “arithmetic”
  • The representative study reported this region to be part of a network that included dorsolateral PFC and ACC, which supported inhibitory control and task set-shifting.
  • These results suggest a broad, and previously underappreciated, role for the Cp in cognitive control.

The authors presented comparisons of the above striatal segments with other analyses of striatal zones.


One of the coauthors was the lead researcher of the 2015 Advance science by including emotion in research. The current study similarly used a coactivation view rather than a connectivity paradigm of:

“Inferring striatal function indirectly via psychological functions of connected cortical regions.”

Another of the coauthors was a developer of the system used by the current study and by The function of the dorsal ACC is to monitor pain in survival contexts, and he provided feedback to those authors regarding proper use of the system.


The researchers’ “unbiased, data-driven approach” had to work around the cortical biases evident in many of the 5,809 human imaging studies analyzed. The authors referred to the biases in statements such as:

“The majority of studies investigating these psychological functions report activity preferentially in cortical areas, except for studies investigating reward-related and motor functions.”

The methods and results of research with cortical biases influenced the study’s use of:

“Word frequencies of psychological terms in the full text of studies, rather than a detailed analysis of psychological tasks and statistical contrasts.”

http://www.pnas.org/content/113/7/1907.full “Regional specialization within the human striatum for diverse psychological functions”

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What was not, is not, and will never be

Neuroskeptic’s blog post Genetic Testing for Autism as an Existential Question related the story of “A Sister, a Father and a Son: Autism, Genetic Testing, and Impossible Decisions.”

“I decided to put the question to my sister, Maria. Although she is autistic, she is of high intelligence.

Maria was excited to be an aunt soon, and was willing to do what she could to help my baby – even if what she was helping with was to avoid her own condition.

She is high enough functioning to know some of what she’s missing in life, and has longed her entire life to be “normal.” If she could save her niece or nephew some of the pain and awkwardness her condition had caused her, she was willing to help.”

In the concluding paragraph:

“What struck me about this story is the way in which the prospect of the genetic test confronted Maria with a very personal decision: will you do something that might help prevent someone else becoming like you?

Isn’t this very close to the ultimate existential question: all things considered, would you wish to live your life over again?”


Aren’t the majority of humans also “high enough functioning to know some of what she’s missing in life?”

Aren’t our feelings of what we’re missing one of the impetuses for us to have also “longed her entire life to be normal?”

This feeling was aired in Dr. Arthur Janov’s blog post What a Waste:

“What it was, was the feeling of great loss, something missing that could never again be duplicated.

It was no love where it could have been the opposite if the parent’s gates could have been open. But it could not be because that would have meant terrible pain and suffering for them; and their whole neurologic system militated against any conscious-awareness.”


We long for what was and is impossible:

  • For many of us, the impossibilities of having normal lives started with prenatal epigenetic changes.
  • Our experiences of our postnatal environment prompted us into adapting to its people, places, and contents. These neurological, biological, and behavioral adaptations were sometimes long-lasting deviations from developmental norms.
  • Other genetic factors combined with the above to largely make us who we were and are.

And our longing for an impossible-to-reconstruct life doesn’t go away.

We often may not be aware of our longing for what “could not be” and of its extensive impacts. More often, such feelings impel us into so many hundreds of ideas, beliefs, and behaviors, a sample of which were referred to above:

  • Behaviors to “do something that might help prevent someone else becoming like you”
  • Ideas such as existential philosophy
  • Beliefs that manifest the “wish to live your life over again.”

The problem is that spending our time and efforts on these ideas, beliefs, and behaviors won’t ameliorate their motivating causes. Our efforts only push us further away from our truths, with real consequences: a wasted life.

What keeps an individual from understanding their reality? I invite readers to investigate Dr. Arthur Janov’s Primal Therapy for effective therapeutic approaches.

Where do our beliefs about our children come from? An autism example

A 2015 case study by Ohio physicians highlighted:

“Although only a small minority of patients with autism have a mitochondrial disease, many patients with mitochondrial myopathies have autism spectrum disorder symptoms.

These symptoms may be the presenting symptoms, which presents a diagnostic challenge for clinicians.

The case of a 15-year-old boy with a history of autism spectrum disorder and neurocardiogenic syncope, admitted to the inpatient unit for self-injury, whose young mother, age 35, was discovered to suffer from mitochondrial myopathy, dysautonomia, neurocardiogenic syncope, Ehler-Danlos syndrome, and other uncommon multisystem pathologies likely related to mitochondrial dysfunction.”

I was somewhat taken aback by the Abstract and Introduction statements:

“All autism spectrum disorders are known to be heritable, via genetic and/or epigenetic mechanisms, but specific modes of inheritance are not well characterized.

This form of ASD is known to be heritable, as are all forms of ASD, despite the previous belief to the contrary, though the mechanisms of inheritance, both genetic and epigenetic, are not well characterized.”

The definition of heritable as used was “able to be passed from parent to child before birth.” The reference provided for the statements was a 2014 French review Gene × Environment Interactions in Autism Spectrum Disorders: Role of Epigenetic Mechanisms.

I didn’t see the “known to be heritable” phrase mentioned in the referenced review. However, I also didn’t see anything stated in the review or cited from its 217 references that disproved the phrase.


I shouldn’t have been surprised by “despite the previous belief to the contrary” in the above quotation. I’d guess that the physicians frequently encountered parents who needed such beliefs when faced with their child’s condition.

A relevant hypothesis of Dr. Arthur Janov’s Primal Therapy is: a major function that our cerebrums have evolutionarily adapted is to use ideas and beliefs to repress pain and make us more comfortable.

I value this inference as an empathetic method of interpreting people’s behaviors and expressions of thoughts and feelings.

When a “known to be heritable” phrase can unleash pain, it likely won’t be understood in its appropriate context. Among the physicians’ challenges was a barrier that kept the parent’s pain from being felt – the belief.

http://innovationscns.com/autism-in-the-son-of-a-woman-with-mitochondrial-myopathy-and-dysautonomia-a-case-report/ “Autism in the Son of a Woman with Mitochondrial Myopathy and Dysautonomia: A Case Report”

Is the purpose of research to define opportunities for interventions?

In this 2014 review, a social scientist first presented an interpretive history of what he found to be important in the emergence of epigenetics. He proceeded into his view of “a possible agenda of the social studies of the life-sciences” in the “postgenomic age” with headings such as “Postgenomic biopolitics: “upgrade yourself” or born damaged for ever?”

This view included:

“The upgradable epigenome may become the basis for a new motivation to intervene, control and improve it through pharmacological agents or social interventions.

An important trend is the use of epigenetic and developmental findings in the so-called early-intervention programmes.

It is possible that epigenetic findings will become increasingly relevant in social policy strategies.”


In this blog I often highlight research that may help us understand details of how each of us is a unique individual. It’s my view that insofar as research helps each of us understand our unique, real self, we may be able to empathetically understand others’ unique qualities.

Click individual differences for a sample of how researchers explain away uniqueness in order to converge on a study’s desired objectives. They seldom attempt to further understand what caused each subject to develop their unique qualities.

Why would this reviewer advocate that researchers and people employed in the social sciences, people employed or involved in social services, and their funders, intentionally disregard another individual’s unique qualities?

I’ll answer this question from a perspective that explains how this common, reflexive action derives from a person being unable to face the facts of their own life. Pertinent fundamentals of Dr Arthur Janov’s Primal Therapy are:

  1. Pain motivates a person’s unconscious act-outs of their underlying problems.
  2. The behavior that caused a problem is sometimes also the act-out behavior.
  3. Act-outs enable a person to re-experience the feelings of their historical struggles, in a vain attempt to resolve them.
  4. Due to pain barriers, people seldom become consciously aware of and – more importantly – address the causes for their problematic behavior.
  5. “The patient has the power to heal himself.”

A consequent hypothesis is that a person will often glorify their unconscious behavior and surround themself with justifications for it. For example, a person who can’t sit still may refer to their incessant activity with socially acceptable phrases such as “I’m always busy” or “I love to travel.” They’ll structure their life to enable their unconscious act-outs, never questioning how they were attracted to an always-on-the-go occupation such as flight attendant, only vaguely feeling that they were made for it.

The behavior relevant to the current review may be exhibited by a person with a history of having no control over their own life. Following the above first two fundamentals, the pain of historically not having control over their life may motivate them to control other people’s lives.

Unfortunately for everyone who’s affected, such unconscious behavior doesn’t resolve anything:

  1. The initiator may achieve some symbolic satisfaction by controlling others’ lives.
  2. This temporary satisfaction doesn’t make the initiator’s underlying problems less painful.
  3. The motivation driving these unconscious act-outs isn’t thereby reduced.
  4. The initiator repeats their controlling behavior, stuck in a loop of unresolved feelings.
  5. Since the self-chosen interests of someone who’s being controlled are lesser concerns to the initiator than exercising control, the controlled person may or may not be helped by the controller’s act-outs.

Research provides abundant evidence that we are unique individuals.

This is a strong indicator of who is best qualified to direct each of our unique lives.

A person who’s driven to control others’ lives usually won’t accept epigenetic research as instructive for understanding, honoring, and respecting others as unique individuals. They’ll use research as a way to enable their own unconscious act-outs, and view it as offering opportunities for interventions into the lives of others.

This is the way that “pharmacological agents or social interventions” are often the intended “use of epigenetic and developmental findings.” Interventions receive justifications with “a possible agenda of the social studies of the life-sciences.”

Becoming aware of one’s own act-outs, and then individually addressing one’s own underlying problems, often take backseats to employment and other concerns to keep enabling one’s own behavior. That makes it likely that interventions justified by “epigenetic findings..in social policy” will continue, regardless of whether the subjects agree that they’re being helped.

For examples, take a look at a few of the YouTube presentations by people employed in the social sciences and social services on a topic of epigenetics. Compare them with the current state of epigenetic research in Grokking an Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) score.

What did you notice? How many presentations emphasized disrupted prenatal development, a period when problems can be prevented? Did you instead see that many more of the presentations emphasized controlling behavior?

http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fnhum.2014.00309/full “The social brain meets the reactive genome: neuroscience, epigenetics and the new social biology

A review of the epigenetic basis for mental illness

This 2015 New York combined animal and human review of epigenetic studies noted:

“While genetic factors are important in the etiology of most mental disorders, the relatively high rates of discordance among identical twins, particularly for depression and other stress-related syndromes, clearly indicate the importance of additional mechanisms.

Environmental factors such as stress are known to play a role in the onset of these illnesses.

Exposure to such environmental insults induces stable changes in gene expression, neural circuit function, and ultimately behavior, and these maladaptations appear distinct between developmental versus adult exposures.

Increasing evidence indicates that these sustained abnormalities are maintained by epigenetic modifications in specific brain regions.”

Placing the “maladaptations” and “sustained abnormalities” phrases into their contexts:

  • A fetus biologically adapted to their environment – however toxic it was – in order to best survive.
  • These adaptations for survival were subsequently viewed as Disrupted Neurodevelopment and “maladaptations” from the perspectives of normal development and environments.
  • The “sustained abnormalities” caused within the earlier environments “are maintained by epigenetic modifications.” An improved environment wasn’t impetus enough to change developmental “maladaptations.”

Per the below link, it’s been a month since this review was published. Why has there been ZERO news coverage of it?

One reason may be that the Friedman Brain Institute, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, didn’t issue a press release or otherwise publicize it. Another reason may be the groups that are opposed to its findings:

  • Parents who provided harmful environments for their children, beginning at conception;
  • People who feel threatened when scientific causal evidence resonates with what happened in their own lives, and in response, limit their empathetic understanding of others’ problems;
  • Social workers, psychologists, and others in industries whose paychecks depend on efforts that aren’t directed towards ameliorating the causes for these later-life effects;
  • Psychiatrists and medical personnel whose livelihoods depend on pharmaceutical and other treatments that only alleviate symptoms;
  • Researchers whose funding depends on producing non-etiologic findings.

Despite such resistance to this review’s findings, a large number of people would benefit from publicizing evidence for:

“These sustained abnormalities are maintained by epigenetic modifications in specific brain regions.”

http://nro.sagepub.com/content/early/2015/09/24/1073858415608147 “Epigenetic Basis of Mental Illness”

Grokking an Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) score

What does it take to empathetically understand, to make a part of oneself, to grok an ACE score?

The ACE effort was initiated in 1985 in an era before epigenetics was well-studied. Its artifacts included the ACE pyramid:

The_ACE_PyramidThe historical ACE lifespan continuum on the left began at conception. The pyramid on the right promoted a limited view of ACE that assigned childhood as the pyramid’s base.

Current official depictions of the ACE pyramid assign an expanded view of ACE as the pyramid’s base. The viewer’s attention is directed to “Scientific Gaps” between pyramid layers, but the largest gap remains: the continuum starts at conception but the pyramid still starts at childhood. The narrative claims:

“To provide scientific information that would be useful for developing new and more effective prevention programs.”

The official ACE pyramid doesn’t accurately reflect current science documented in, for example, Epigenetic effects of early life stress exposure. By downplaying Disrupted Neurodevelopment that may begin at conception, governing agencies implicitly endorse approaches that fail to address prenatal causes for later-life adverse effects.


If the ACE diagram was drawn thirty years later in 2015 to incorporate evidence for epigenetics, Disrupted Neurodevelopment wouldn’t be a consequent layer to an ACE base. The potential start of Disrupted Neurodevelopment would coincide with conception:Updated for 2015 to show Disrupted Neurodevelopment

What’s an example of current ACE-related scientific evidence that wasn’t present three decades ago and also isn’t represented in the official ACE pyramid? Prenatal Disrupted Neurodevelopment may be considered today as a possible consequence of a “Yes” answer to half of the original ACE questions:

  • Were your parents were too drunk or high to take care of you or take you to the doctor?
  • Were your parents ever separated or divorced?
  • Was your mother often or very often pushed, grabbed, slapped, or had something thrown at her?
  • Did you live with anyone who was a problem drinker or alcoholic or who used street drugs?
  • Was a household member depressed or mentally ill?

These threats and other stresses cause a fetus to biologically adapt. When such adaptations occur during prenatal development, they may:

  • Have much larger impacts and
  • Cause Biological Impairments that
  • Don’t unassistedly disappear over time.

Emphasizing Disrupted Neurodevelopment that may begin at conception would encourage:

  • Research that’s directed toward producing causal evidence for adaptations that largely occur during the early periods of an individual’s lifespan; and
  • Research on how these adaptations consistently influence our later-life ideas, biology, and behavior.

The above recommendations for research are neither the current focus of ACE research nor the direction of related efforts to assist affected individuals. Relevant studies that I’ve curated on this blog often only produced symptomatic evidence. If a study couched its findings in non-etiologic phrases such as “is associated with” or “is linked to” or “may relate to,” it didn’t address ACE originating causes.

“New and more effective prevention programs” seldom address Disrupted Neurodevelopment and Biological Impairments with efforts to reduce the source of the damage. At best, they only alleviate the symptoms. If a program’s presentation showed multivariate analyses with ACE score probabilities and percentages, it didn’t address originating causes.

For examples of the current focus of ACE efforts, take a look at a few recent YouTube presentations by people employed in the social sciences and services. What did you notice?

How many presentations emphasized prenatal Disrupted Neurodevelopment, a period during which problems may be prevented by addressing causes? Did you instead see that these were outnumbered by many more presentations that emphasized Health and Social Problems symptom interventions?


So, what does it take to empathetically understand, to make a part of oneself, to grok a person’s ACE score?

It’s best to avoid the advice of studies such as:

I feel that people first need to ameliorate the origins of their own problems. Then they may be able to help others therapeutically address causes for ACE symptoms.

Need proof? Think of someone you’ve met whose thoughts and feelings and behavior were caught up in and motivated by their own problems:

  • Did you feel they could empathetically understand others?
  • Wasn’t the welfare of the people who may have been helped truly incidental and secondary to someone who was acting out their own problems?

http://www.translatingtime.org provides an inter-species comparative timeline. For example, an input of:

  • Species 1: Human
  • Process: Lifespan
  • Location: Whole Organism
  • Days (post-conception): 270
  • Species 2: Mouse

produces a list of event predictions.

For ACE purposes, note how many significant events occur before humans are born at day 270, assuming everything goes right with our developmental processes! Also, the model predictions for humans end at post-conception day 979, three weeks short of when we celebrate our second birthday.

Transgenerational epigenetic programming with stress and microRNA was an example of how Disrupted Neurodevelopment that caused epigenetic Biological Impairments can begin immediately after conception. That study didn’t observe the resultant effects of Health and Social Problems until the subjects were adults!


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Can a Romanian orphan give informed consent to be an experimental subject?

This 2015 study used Romanian orphans as lab rats for findings of which I failed to see the value. The world didn’t really need any further research to demonstrate that foster care would be better for a child than staying in an orphanage.

The researchers placed the orphans in five separate stressful situations, and measured their cortisol and DHEA-S levels, along with their electrocardiograph and impedance cardiograph activity. The findings were:

“Children who were removed from the Romanian institutions and placed with foster parents before the age of 24 months had stress system responses similar to those of children being raised by families in the community.

The children raised in institutions showed blunted responses in the sympathetic nervous system, associated with the flight or fight response, and in the HPA axis, which regulates cortisol.”

One unsupported assertion from the researchers was:

“We provide evidence for a causal link between the early caregiving environment and stress response system reactivity in humans with effects that differ markedly from those observed in rodent models.”

The researchers stated that rodent studies have converged to find:

“Early-life adversity results in hyperreactivity of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis.”

It’s baloney that the same results from early life adversity in rodents haven’t also been present in humans. Even the lead researcher herself said in a news article:

“More significantly, McLaughlin said, their [the orphans] stress response systems might have been initially hyperactive at earlier points in development, then adapted to high levels of stress hormones.”

The difference was that the rodents were monitored 24/7 until researchers killed and dissected them. The children’s periods of adversity likely started while in the womb, and their lives had been monitored for research purposes sporadically after their births.

Everybody knows that just because adverse events and effects in these children’s lives weren’t recorded by researchers didn’t mean these effects weren’t present at some point.

Particularly irksome was another unsupported assertion from the lead reviewer:

“The children involved in the study are now about 16 years old, and researchers next plan to investigate whether puberty has an impact on their stress responses. It could have a positive effect, McLaughlin said, since puberty might represent another sensitive period when stress response systems are particularly tuned to environmental inputs. “It’s possible that the environment during that period could reverse the impacts of early adversity on the system,” she said.”

No, this is NOT possible. We may as well expect an apple to fall upward.

The impacts of early adversity persist with enduring physiological changes as shown in experimental studies. Studies have NOT provided evidence that the subjects’ environment can cause the effects of complete reversal of all these changes, no matter the stage of life of the subjects.

This point was addressed in The effects of early-life stress are permanent alterations in the child’s brain circuitry and function rodent study:

The current study manipulates the type and timing of a stressor and the specific task and age of testing to parallel early-life stress in humans reared in orphanages.

The results provide evidence of both early and persistent alterations in amygdala circuitry and function following early-life stress.

These effects are not reversed when the stressor is removed nor diminished with the development of prefrontal regulation regions.

That study had the same reviewer as the current study. The current study’s lead researcher knew or should have known of this and other relevant research. She knew or should have known of the irreversibility of critical periods, during which developments either occurred or were forever missed.

Did the lead researcher make assertions not supported by the study or relevant research – assertions made counter to her scientific knowledge – show her unease about treating the orphans as lab rats? Was there was some other agenda in play?

The larger problem was the study’s informed consent with this group of Romanian orphans. If you were in contact with a damaged person, and implicitly gave them hope that you would improve their life, then who are you as a feeling human being when you don’t personally carry through? Does the legal documentation matter?


Also, I’ve noticed problems with several studies that had this particular reviewer:

Add the current study to the list.

http://www.pnas.org/content/112/18/5637.full “Causal effects of the early caregiving environment on development of stress response systems in children”


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