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Drug-free solutions to learning disabilities.

Learning disabilities have been reported in famously successful people--Walt Disney, Alexander Graham Bell, and Winston Churchill--to name a few. Learning disabilities (LD) are problems that affect the brain's ability to receive, process, analyze, or store information.

Autism, attention deficit/hyper-activity disorder (ADHD), and other neurodevelopmental, learning, and behavioral disorders wreak havoc on both child and family. They have reached epidemic levels. As many of children in the autism spectrum are now approaching adulthood, parents and caregivers face the prospect of seeing an end to public school programs and having to plan for the rest of their children's adult lives.

Learning Disabilities Versus ADHD

It is estimated that 7% of children aged 4 to 17 are affected with LD, and an equal number are affected with ADHD. (1) (Note: attention deficit disorder [ADD] is not quite the same as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder [ADHD], but the two are usually lumped together in the statistics.) More importantly, ADHD and LD are often found in the same child. They are overlapping spectrum disorders.

LD tends to run in families, so heredity may play a role. Some cases of LD can be traced to brain development, both before and after birth, so low birth weight, lack of oxygen, premature birth, and early nutrition may be a factor in learning disabilities. Infants and young children are susceptible to environmental toxins. Lead and mercury are linked to learning disabilities.

ADHD is also a broad category covering different things--attention, activity, and impulsivity. As is the case with learning disabilities, ADHD may have a genetic link and may be related to birthing issues, nutrition, and environmental toxins.

In both cases, there is an issue with brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. These chemicals help send messages between nerve cells in the brain.

Widespread Medication of Children

In some classrooms, 100% of students are on medication for some form of learning or attentional disorder.

Prescription drugs are one quick answer--just pop a pill in hopes of rebalancing brain chemistry. But these drugs are classified by the US Food and Drug Administration as Class II narcotics--in the same class with cocaine and methamphetamine. Ritalin is an amphetamine. In street lingo, it's called "speed." Schedule II includes only those legal drugs with the very highest potential for addiction and abuse. They carry a "black box" warning, the most serious medication warning required by the FDA. The situation gives rise to the interesting irony that selling speed to children is a felony, but feeding speed to children with a prescription is called "treatment."

These drugs have been linked to cardiovascular problems and sudden death. The more common side effects can be so devastating or unpleasant that many children just don't want to take them. A recent study by National Institute of Drug Abuse in Bethesda, Maryland, showed that individuals who did poorly on cognitive tasks actually did substantially worse when using Ritalin or Concerta. This is a significant finding, because methylphenidate is commonly prescribed for those who do poorly on tasks.

Peter Breggin, a medical doctor and Harvard-trained psychiatrist, wrote:
  The "therapeutic" effects of stimulants are a direct expression of
  their toxicity. Animal and human research indicates that these drugs
  often suppress spontaneous and social behaviors (making the psycho
  stimulants) seemingly useful for controlling the behavior of
  children, especially in highly structured environments that do not
  attend to their genuine needs. (2)

According to California neurologist Dr. Fred Baughman:
  The single, biggest heath care fraud in U.S. history--the
  representation of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to
  be an actual disease, and the drugging of millions of entirely normal
  American children as "treatment," is spreading like a plague--still.
  Once children are labeled with ADHD, they are no longer treated as
  normal. Once methylphenidate hydrochloride, or any psychiatric drug,
  courses through their brain and body, they are, for the first time,
  physically, neurologically, and biologically abnormal. (3)

Do children with ADHD and/or LD actually have a disease treatable with drugs? What kind of intervention can help kids without severely affecting their body chemistry or personality? ADHD, for example, is more than just hyperactivity. Root causes may include brain processing abnormalities, problems with the entire listening/hearing system, food or environmental allergies, metabolic insufficiencies, and heavy metal toxicity.

Looking at the Bigger Picture

The pieces of the puzzle necessitate a holistic approach with emphasis on nutrition. The body simply acts on the information it's given; if a child is sensitive to gluten, the body is going to react. Many children with ADHD have diets full of hybridized wheat, genetically modified corn and sugar, synthetic sugars, and chemical additives. Some specific foods can cause a child to become agitated, to space out, or to become violent. Well-behaved children suddenly start to bite their mothers, hit their siblings, wander around in a daze--all when they are tested for specific foods. Sometimes what set the children off are not foods, but rather colorings, additives, and preservatives. Red dye is a big culprit, for example. The symptoms are readily reversible, when the appropriate homeopathic dilution of the substance is administered, and the effects are reproducible. Some children have turned around just by removing specific foods to which they are sensitive and adding omega-3 fatty acids to correct a deficiency.

Other children get a big boost with chelation to remove metals that are silently stored in brain and bones and gum up the works. Children with elevated body burdens of lead are more easily distracted, less organized, and more prone to aggressive behavior than children without this burden. The average American infant is born with more than 200 synthetic chemicals in its body. (4) A study from the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center confirmed a suspected link between prenatal tobacco exposure and ADHD, and demonstrates that the greater the level of blood lead, the greater the risk of ADHD. (5)

Many children and adults with ADHD have leaky gut syndrome, meaning that their intestines are so damaged that they cannot process what they eat, and so become malnourished.

A starving brain has an extremely difficult time simply functioning, much less learning anything. We often think of the brain as a computer that just has to be plugged into an electric outlet in order to work perfectly. However, if the software is deficient or corrupted, the computer does not run its programs very well. Similarly, the brain functions through electrical impulses and specific pathways. However, in order to generate those impulses, it requires many nutrients-proteins to supply the amino acids needed for manufacture of neurotransmitters and other messengers, glucose to supply the energy needed for the manufacturing process, lots of vitamins and minerals to serve as cofactors, or assistants, in the manufacturing process. ... The pathways have to be correctly developed, and able to handle the flow of information. If any of these components are missing or deficient, then the brain can no longer process information at top speed. It slows down, or gets the messages garbled.

What is in the child's environment? Sometimes a child will react to mold in the classroom, or have a bad day every time the grass is cut because of allergies to the grass. Some children react to pesticides or to chemical air "fresheners."

Parasitic infections are common with ADHD and autism; remedies can correct that. Sleep deprivation is another piece of the puzzle that can be addressed through both behavioral and nutritional means, sometimes with specific supplements.

David Granet, PhD, director of pediatric ophthalmology at the University of California, San Diego, reviewed 1700 records of children diagnosed with ADHD. He discovered that, of those who had taken eye exams, 16% had convergence insufficiency, an eye disorder that makes focusing on nearby targets difficult. This is three times the number of non-ADHD children. More research is needed to determine if a brain impairment is causing both ADHD and the eye disorder, or if the eye disorder manifests the same symptoms as ADHD and causes misdiagnosis. (6)

The Brain Training Alternative

An enormous amount of information has come out of the scientific community in the last few years about how the brain functions and how it can repair itself. The information holds great promise for everyone dealing with LD. We now know that the brain can change and repair itself, even into old age. Neuroplasticity, as it's called, is the brain's ability to reorganize neural pathways based on new experiences. In order to learn or memorize a fact or skill, there must be persistent functional changes in the brain that encode, or show the roadmap to, the new knowledge.

One of the most promising brain training programs developed uses hemoencephalographic biofeedback, combined with exercises, to improve information processing. Clinical use shows it to be twice as effective in half the time of the older qEEG methods. "The allopathic mindset that pharmaceutical drugs are the treatment, despite patients' immediate and long-term side effects, is outdated," said Dr. Stephanie Reese, a leader in the study of brain processing techniques. "I was a school teacher for many years and saw so many kids simply drugged, I said there has to be a better way. And there is. Dr. Toomim showed us the way."

Hershel Toomim, DSc, discovered that the blood supply flowing to the active area of the brain carries more oxygen when stimulated. He used this knowledge to develop hemoencephalography biofeedback--HEG for short. This noninvasive technique uses near-infrared light to measure the degree of increase in oxygenation of the blood, when stimulated with neurofeedback techniques.

HEG uses the same infrared principle as the little fingertip clip-on oximeter that reads pulse rate and oxygen levels in the hospital. HEG increases the amount of oxygenated blood flowing to the frontal lobes where decision-making and brain control take place, thereby affecting all areas of the brain. Patients learn how to increase blood flow on demand. Blood brings oxygen--high-octane fuel for the brain.

The harder the brain cells work, just like muscle cells, the more they demand nutrition. And just like muscle cells, the nutrition they need is provided by oxygen. Blood brings oxygen and the basic nutrient, glucose, at life-sustaining levels to all parts of the brain. Without oxygen, the brain cells cannot convert glucose into the energy they need to do the work of directing the body's functions. The brain has an amazing ability to supply extra blood preferentially to those parts in active use.

Extra blood supply over a period of time builds new neuron connections. And when those new connections are exercised, they become permanent, rather than being pruned out by the nervous system.

Parents are discovering that brain training opens up new horizons to help those with cognitive disorders. Studies have found that when a person with autism or ADHD is under stress, the blood flow decreases in the frontal area of the brain and limbic system--areas important for impulse inhibition--so that they are less able to control their impulses when under stress. Children with ADHD often have underdeveloped neural pathways in the part of their brains that directs and focuses their attention; they are distracted by everything they see or hear. HEG neurofeedback helps them make new connections so that they can stay focused on the person talking to them rather than on the cars driving on the nearby freeway--or the bunny rabbit in the front yard.

A Highly Integrated Approach

Many children with LD and ADHD don't hear the same way that others do. They hear the same sounds, but their brains have trouble making sense of what they hear. Tuning out unwanted sounds in their surroundings is often difficult. This makes it hard for them to focus and concentrate.

HEG combined with sound therapy stimulates the brain, allowing the child to process information more quickly and have better impulse control. It also retrains the brain's ability to listen and receive auditory signals so that the child can learn to focus on the desired sounds while ignoring others in his surroundings. With ADHD, the ear is oversensitive to certain frequencies of sound and the children are unable to discriminate between sounds. They themselves become louder and louder, to drown out the environment. These are the children who cover their ears during school sing-alongs, and who lose it in the malls when they go shopping. Auditory retraining allows them to begin to discriminate between sounds, and become listeners.

Sometimes children have been robbed of the ability to hear and process specific frequencies because of chronic ear infections, severe allergies, or lots of very loud concerts. These developmental insults affect the way they process sensory information. The ear becomes unresponsive and must be stimulated in order to be able to tune into the desired sound. Attention, focus, learning, and language abilities can be improved by retraining the brain to listen using different frequencies, so that whatever is available is working at maximum capacity.

Some children cannot abide having tags in their clothes, and always have to have the tags cut out before they will wear garments. Some children cannot stand to be touched, because they find that light touch is painful--but they are perfectly OK with being hugged very hard, or wrapped in a blanket. Some children cover their ears when they go into an echoing mall--or simply melt down.

"We use specific sensory exercises and music therapies to restore the normal functioning of the sensory nerves which clearly were dysfunctional," Reese explained. "We enable the brain to make more connections, and with exercises, we let it know where to make those new connections." Reese and colleagues developed a patented system called BrainAdvantage.

Martha Grout, MD, MD(H), has a family practice in Scottsdale, Arizona; she is the first to incorporate the BrainAdvantage system in a clinic setting. "After about half the number of sessions used for EEG-feedback training systems, we see permanent gains in brain function," she said. "In 20 sessions or less, we restore function to the brain, and enable the children finally to catch up in school. They may require some tutoring to catch up, but at least now they have the ability to do the work. We are able to give parents a way to restore their child's health naturally and bring forth the person who got lost when the body's functions got confused."

Grout combines the BrainAdvantage technique with a full diagnostic workup to look at issues like food sensitivities and heavy metals.

"If we tell our children they are broken and require a pill to fix them, chances are good that they will consider themselves to be broken people, victims all their lives," Grout said. "If, on the other hand, we tell them that they are having trouble because they are missing some pieces of the puzzle, and here is how they can find those missing pieces, then we are enabling them to understand that they are not victims, and that there is something they can do to help themselves."

Grout has also made use of the BrainAdvantage integrated set of technologies for traumatic brain injury, PTSD, and loss of memory.

Mary Budinger is an Emmy--award winning journalist who writes about complementary and alternative medicine. She is the coauthor of An Alphabet of Good Health in a Sick World (2010).


(1.) Bloom B, Dey AN, Freeman G. Summary Health Statistics for U.S. Children: National Health Interview Survey, 2005. National Center for Health Statistics. Vital Health Stat 10(231). 2006. Available at:

(2.) Breggin P. Psychostimulants in the treatment of children diagnosed with ADHD: risks and mechanisms of action. Int J Risk Sat Med. 1993;12:3-35. IOS Press.

(3.) Baughman FA. The ADHD Fraud: How Psychiatry Makes, "Patients" Out of Normal Children. Trafford Publishing; 2005.

(4.) Landrigan PJ, Sonawane B, Drollaer D, Early environmental origins of neurodegenerative disease in later life. Env Health Perspect. 2005;113;9:1230-1233.

(5.) Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. Tobacco Smoke and lead exposure linked to one-third of ADHD cases [online news release]. October 5, 2006.

(6.) American Academy of Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus. Proceedings; April 12-16, 2000.
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Author:Budinger, Mary
Publication:Townsend Letter
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2011
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