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Vestibular System

During the first fifteen months of life, all learning is centered around the development of the vestibular system. Coordination, balance, movement in space, integration of vision and movement—all rely on optimal functioning of the vestibular system. The vestibular system also maintains our arousal state through its connection to the reticular activating system (RAS), which keeps us alert and responsive to sensory stimuli. The RAS acts as a screening devise for incoming information, helping us determine what is important. Vestibular and RAS damage lead to sensory integration problems for ADD children affecting one (or sometimes all three) of the brain’s dimensions: laterality, centering, and focus.

Damage to (and underdevelopment of) the vestibular system, as is the case with ADD, causes learning difficulties. Research by Frank and Harold Levinson shows that 94%-97% of children with dyslexia and learning disabilities demonstrated cerebellar and/or vestibular dysfunction. All of the children in the study had ear infections, allergies, or trauma (such as being “shaken”) as infants, causing trauma to the cerebellar/vestibular system. Yeast overgrowth can cause or increase this damage (see inset). Antibiotics given for infections affect memory and attention. Antibiotics kill off the body’s natural flora allowing yeast to increase in the system. When we add a diet that is typically high in sugar and complex carbohydrates, even more yeast is produced. Yeast is damaging especially to a child’s delicate system because it increases alcohol and cortisol in their system. At the same time it decreases fatty acids that produce T-lymphocytes so fewer are in their system. T-lymphocytes help the body resist allergies and infection setting the whole cycle of infection and antibiotic treatment into motion again.

ADD children are more sensitive to food and environmental allergens and chemicals. Alcohol adversely affects the brain’s frontal lobes that control emotions, motor activity, focused attention, the ability to think before acting, and to stay alert—which we know are common problems for these children. Alcohol prevents nerve net growth, and correct growth and function of this part of the brain.

Increased cortisol, which is produced under stress, decreases the ability to attend, learn and remember. Since these children are continually under stress in the learning environment due to their learning differences, high alcohol and cortisol levels are a continuous problem creating further learning and health impairments.

Research by Frank and Harold Levinson shows that ear and respiratory infections combined with high sugar/carbohydrate diets left children more sensitive to florescent lights and prone to photophobia (and other fears).

Yeast overgrowth can occur in the ADD child because of difficulties in their digestion system. Therefore, even when they do not have infections or allergies, they can still incur damage to the frontal lobes from yeast overgrowth. Digestive difficulties can cause poor absorption of nutrients leaving these children deficient in zinc, calcium, magnesium, iron, fatty acids, and lecithin.

The vestibular system may deteriorate as a result of keeping the head still for long periods of time (e.g., watching television), which is implicated in acquired dyslexic symptomology. Studies show that viral infections (i.e. measles, influenza) in the second trimester, prior to birth, can lead to vestibular damage that contributes to autism, hyperactivity, mental retardation, and schizophrenia.

Damage in these incidences can show up in unbalanced activation of muscles controlling the eye, which can cause the child to overshoot or undershoot optimal positioning on the page during reading. When concentrating so hard to move the eyes correctly during reading, the dyslexic or right–brained dominant learner (especially with vestibular damage), can lose the ability to comprehend or retain information from the reading. The reading task itself becomes exhausting. A defective waking state in the cerebrum, which leads to hypo- or hyper-vigilance, along with difficulty maintaining attention, concentration, or focus, is another sign of a damaged vestibular system. In this case, the child is unable to maintain focused attention, and fluctuates in –and–out of consciousness.

In the ADD child, stress and semicircular canal damage can cause low or erratic RAS function. They fluctuate in–and–out of wakefulness, particularly if they have no stimulation through movement. Much of their hyperactive movement is actually a means to stimulate and repair the damaged vestibular system, and maintain attention. He may have a tendency to lose his balance easily and have playground accidents. He will often violate another’s personal space without realizing it, manifesting an incomplete understanding of spatial relationships in the environment.

Holding still is difficult, but running is enjoyable since it is similar to a propelled fall and doesn’t require as much balance as standing. I can remember running as a means to “charge up” my brain and allow better attention in school. At recess I constantly ran. Swimming and riding a bike are good because the body is supported. Squirming movement while at a desk is usual because the child’s neck and back muscles are not adequately trained to hold their body upright against gravity.

Without encouragement and full freedom to move and practice balance while they are young, there usually isn’t enough vestibular activation to help repair the damage. In the absence of stimulation and new nerve-net development in the vestibular system, problems from middle ear trauma are heightened. This is more likely when children spend long hours watching TV or playing video games.

To remain alert, children with vestibular damage must wiggle, move, and continually turn their heads. This is often why these children are identified ADD. Parents and teachers become frustrated with their constant movement. In the classroom, when asked to sit still, the next strategy the child employs (to activate his balance system in order to pay attention) is to tilt back their chair and rock it back and forth on two legs. The teacher, of course, will demand that they “sit up correctly and pay attention.” However, this is a dilemma for these children. If they keep their body and head still, it reduces the activation of their brain, and thus prohibits them from doing what the teacher wants them to do—pay attention and learn. And to further complicate things, these are the children who are asked to stay in at recess to complete work—when the most important thing for them is to get outside and move.

Through movement, the damaged vestibular system can be circumvented, as new nerve nets are developed and myelinated. Research supports the benefits of cerebellar/vestibular stimulation on the cognitive growth of infants. This research has shown that gross motor and cognitive retardation in deaf children can be eliminated by stimulating the semicircular canal system through movement. Studies show that first graders who had exercise periods, which stimulated the cerebellar/vestibular system, have more academic success. Further studies show reduced attentional disorders and improved reading in children with similar movement periods.

Parents and teachers can initiate healing of the vestibular system, increase attention, and improve learning by using Brain Gym with their children at home and in school everyday. The “Cross-Crawl” (Brain Gym) done slowly as the head is moved, is most effective. The “Elephant” also helps with this while at the same time involving the core muscles of the torso, and strengthening hand/eye coordination. “Brain Buttons” focuses attention to the core muscles in relation to the vestibular system and the visual areas of the brain within the occipital (back) lobes. The simple act of placing the hand over the navel helps balance and focuses attention on the gravitational center of the body.

Because of its cross-lateral and balanced fine motor movements, Brain Gym arouses large portions of the motor cortex and frontal eye field area of the frontal lobes (which are highly impacted in ADD). Consistent, frequent activation of these areas through Brain Gym movements affects nerve-net growth into the rest of the frontal lobe including the pre-motor and superior pre-frontal cortex. All of these things assist the child to become less impulsive: self-talk, executive planning, and control behavior.