In recent years a number of programs or systems referred to variously as brain retraining, amygdala retraining, or limbic system therapy, have been developed to help people recover from a wide range of common multi-system illnesses including multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), fibromyalgia, and electrical hypersensitivity (EHS), among many others including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The most well-known (and arguably successful) of these are Annie Hopper's Dynamic Neural Retraining SystemTM (DNRS) (now available entirely online) and Ashok Gupta's Amygdala RetrainingTM Program. Although there is currently a lack of substantial formal data from controlled clinical studies with which to assess these approaches (excepting a postive 2012 Mayo Clinic Study of Gupta's Program), there have been large numbers of patient reports posted in various online support groups suggesting many people experience significant relief and even complete cure through use of these brain retraining programs.
So what is the scientific and medical basis for these programs and how is it proposed they work?
A Possible Explanation for the Root Cause of Chronic Multi-System Illnesses: Limbic System Hypersensitivity
Chronic multi-system illnesses including MCS, ME/CFS and fibromyalgia - often collectively referred to as invisible illnesses due to a lack of external signs of illness or disability - have had doctors and researchers baffled for decades. Patients have had to endure the indignity of being dismissed as lazy or attention seeking when this is almost always far from the case. In the doctors' defense, they have not been taught about these illnesses in medical school and have never been faced with anything like these illnesses before and thus are at a loss as to what action to take in the patient's best interest. Traditional medicine currently offers little in the way of treatment and those affected are often misdiagnosed as having psychiatric disorders.
Research over the past couple of decades has started to reveal just how complex the pathophysiology of these conditions really is. Findings common to all of these invisible illnesses include signs of oxidative stress1, chronic low-level inflammation1,2,3, hormonal imbalances4,5, and abnormal blood flow to the brain6,7.
An acquired hypersensitivity of a region of the brain known as the limbic system (particularly the amygdala - an important structure within it) to various stimuli provides a compelling explanation for the wide range of initial triggers for these illnesses as well as the long lists of symptoms that sufferers experience across multiple bodily systems and areas of their anatomy. Limbic system hypersensitivity is increasingly being discussed and investigated in the context of invisible illnesses by researchers and medical professionals8,9,10.
An Overview of the Limbic System
The limbic system is essentially a grouping of brain structures including the amygdala, hippocampus and hypothalamus, believed to be responsible for our emotional lives and the formation of memories. It has been described as the “feeling and reacting brain”11. The limbic system is closely integrated with the autonomic nervous system (ANS), endocrine system and immune system. It receives electrical input (e.g. optic nerve signals generated by our eyes) and chemical input (e.g. hormones, cytokines etc) produced in response to stimuli originating both within the body and in the environment around us. It takes these inputs and automatically analyzes them before producing an integrated response appropriate to the situation via these three bodily systems.
The limbic system is part of the ancient brain and associated with subconscious instinctual reactions to maintain homeostasis (simplistically put - "balance") within the body, rather than with conscious higher thought processes such as decision making. A classic example of the limbic system in action would be in coordinating the "fight-or-flight" response when we are in immediate danger.
How Limbic System Hypersensitivity Occurs and Its Effects
If the limbic system becomes too sensitive and begins to react to stimuli that it would usually disregard as not representing a danger to the body, the result is inappropriate activation of the ANS, endocrine system and immune system that it is proposed results in the bodily dysfunction and multitude of varied symptoms seen in invisible illnesses8.
Limbic system hypersensitivity (or "kindling" in medical terminology) can result from exposure of neurons of the limbic system to any chemical or electrical stimuli, either chronically or as a single acute exposure8. Many people suffering from invisible illnesses report that their illness was preceded by events including toxic chemical exposures (e.g. pesticides), viral infection, physical trauma, electromagnetic radiation (living near high voltage power lines or cell towers) and prolonged or severe psychological distress (e.g. stressful job, emotional abuse). All of these and more have the potential to trigger limbic system hypersensitivity and initiate a cascade of physiological changes in the body that result in a downward spiral into chronic suffering with invisible illnesses.
Since the limbic system is tasked with maintaining homeostasis within the body, if it is being inappropriately activated on a chronic basis the effects are disasterous for the individual affected. The “sustained arousal” associated with limbic system hypersensitivity explains why people with invisible illnesses are so often sensitive to so many things from light, sound and gentle touch, through to environmental chemicals, foods, drugs/nutritional supplements and even electromagnetic radiation given off by electronic appliances and gadgets.
Luckily the field of neuroscience has made some groundbreaking discoveries over the past decade or so that provide an opportunity to tackle invisible illnesses at their root - limbic hypersensitivity. Through a recently discovered property of the brain known as neuroplasticity, brain retraining programs aim to restore a normal level of sensitivity to the limbic system and thus eliminate the myriad symptoms and illnesses that hypersensitivity can generate.
For centuries it was thought that once fully developed following adolescence the human brain was immutable and that any damage sustained was permanent. If this model were correct then limbic hypersensitivity and the invisible illnesses it causes would be irreversible - thankfully this is not the case. Research by neuroscientists and modern clinical experience has shown that given the right circumstances the brain is in fact capable of "re-wiring" itself to bypass structural damage or reverse pathophysiologies such as limbic hypersensitivity. This ability of the brain to change itself to improve its own functioning is what we refer to as neuroplasticity12.
The most accessible way to learn more about neuroplasticity is by reading 'The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph From the Frontiers of Brain Science' by Norman Doidge, M.D., a psychiatrist and and psychoanalyst on the faculty of the Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research in New York and the University of Toronto's Department of Psychiatry. This book is both enlightening and inspiring in equal measure.
How Brain Retraining Programs Utilize Neuroplasticity
Brain retraining programs like Annie Hopper's Dynamic Neural Retraining SystemTM (DNRS) and Ashok Gupta's Amygdala RetrainingTM Program take advantage of neuroplasticity to encourage the limbic system to react less sensitively to environmental and psychological stimuli and produce responses in the ANS, endocrine system and immune system that are appropriate rather than exaggerated. In doing so these programs offer a means of restoring normal limbic system function and reducing the number and severity of symptoms experienced by those suffering from invisible illnesses. A growing number of people are actually reporting full recoveries and it is logical to assume that many more who have recovered do not return to support groups and websites to tell their stories but instead return to living full and rewarding lives.
Brain retraining programs use a combination of mental techniques and mind-body therapies that patients practice daily at home over a period of many months to gradually re-wire the limbic system and eliminate symptoms.
Annie Hopper's Dynamic Neural Retraining SystemTM (DNRS)
Annie Hopper has worked in the health and wellness field for over twenty years and developed her Dynamic Neural Retraining SystemTM in order to restore her own health after developing severe and disabling Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS) from working in a sick building, which progressed to include fibromyalgia (FM) and electric hypersensitivity (EHS).
According to the DNRS website the system teaches those suffering from MCS, ME/CFS, fibromyalgia and other invisible illnesses, about the limbic system and neuroplasticity in relation to their health problems and then how to use a combination of the following techniques to regain their health:
- Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
- Core Belief Counselling
- Neuro Linguistic Programming
- Neurosomatic Repatterning
- Gestalt therapy
- Life Coaching
- Body Mind Therapy
- Cognitive Restraint Induced Therapy
- Brain Stimulation Exercises
Since regaining her health Annie has been teaching others how to do the same using DNRSTM in person through seminars around the world, via a professionally produced DVD series, and even via the DVD series and accompanying written material now available entirely online at www.dnrsonline.com - making the program accessible to even those so sick they're housebound.
Ashok Gupta's Amygdala Retraining Program
Ashok Gupta runs a clinic in Harley Street in London, England, where he successfully treats patients with ME/CFS, fibromyalgia and MCS. He is a well-known researcher and therapist in the field of limbic hypersensitivity disorders who has dedicated the last 10 years of his life to understanding and treating the conditions after he himself developed ME/CFS and was able to fully recover using the program he now uses with his patients.
According to his website Ashok Gupta's Amygdala RetrainingTM Program incorporates:
- NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) techniques
- Meditative techniques
- Mindfulness techniques
- Yogic techniques
- and many others...
The Amygdala Retraining Program therefore has elements in common with Annie Hopper's DNRSTM but also a number of differences meaning that one may be better suited than the other to a specific individual's needs. If considering embarking on one of the programs it is therefore wise to read through their respective websites and seek out independent testimonials in order to determine the best match for you.
Learn More From the Official DNRS and Amygdala Retraining Program Websites:
Annie Hopper's Dynamic Neural Retraining SystemTM
NEW Version 5.0 (2019)
Brain Retraining Discussion/Support Groups Here at EiR
- Pall ML (2007) Explaining Unexplained Illnesses: Disease Paradigm for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, Fibromyalgia, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Gulf War Syndrome Harrington Park Press
- Maes M, Twisk FN, Kubera M, Ringel K (2012) Evidence for inflammation and activation of cell-mediated immunity in Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS): increased interleukin-1, tumor necrosis factor-α, PMN-elastase, lysozyme and neopterin Journal of Affective Disorders 136(3):933-9
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- Van Houdenhove B Van Den Eede F and Luyten P (2009) Does hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis hypofunction in chronic fatigue syndrome reflect a 'crash' in the stress system? Medical Hypotheses 72(6):701-5
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- Stewart JM, Medow MS, Messer ZR, Baugham IL, Terilli C, Ocon AJ (2012) Postural neurocognitive and neuronal activated cerebral blood flow deficits in young chronic fatigue syndrome patients with postural tachycardia syndrome American Journal of Physiology: Heart and Circulatory Physiology 302(5):H1185-94
- Jason LA Sorenson M Porter N Belkairous N (2011) An Etiological Model for Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Neuroscience & Medicine 2:14-27
- Bokina AI Eksler ND Semenenko AD Merkur'yeva RV (1976) Investigation of the mechanism of action of atmospheric pollutants on the central nervous system and comparative evaluation of methods of study Environmental Health Perspectives 13:37-42
- Golomb BA and Marshall GN (1999) A Review of the Scientific Literature as it Pertains to Gulf War Illnesses: Pyridostigmine bromide Rand pp.156
- Swenson RS (2006) Review of Clinical and Functional Neuroscience (Chapter 9) (Online) last accessed 17/07/12 at http://www.dartmouth.edu/~rswenson/NeuroSci/chapter_9.html
- Doidge N (2008) The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph From the Frontiers of Brain Science Penguin