I am doing some writing about how trauma changes an infant’s developing brain.  Heavy developmental neuroscience in there.  But, maybe I can keep this in my chapter titled Dry Ice and Fire Ants.  The chapter is specifically about how the heat of the arousal in the brain from a trauma trigger of the  ‘GO’ branch of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) kicks in during trauma only to be frozen out by the ‘STOP’ branch’s energy conservation response.  Both responses can severely damage infant brain and nervous system development in environments of chronic abuse and trauma in early caregiving relationships.

Is this memory accurate?  I have no idea, but it’s always stayed just like this.  I wish I could find a classmate from around 1960 – 1962 that could confirm or deny the validity of this one:



I have childhood associations to both dry ice and fire ants.  My fire ant memory originated when I was five before our family joined my father in Alaska.  Supposedly, according to my psychotic mother, I “let” my two-year-old sister sit on a fire ant hill because I was so irresponsible when she asked me to watch my sister (I doubt that she had), or maybe because I hated her.  (This story is in the first book of the Mildred’s Mountain series containing Mother’s letters in Suburbia to Alaska.)  Because I was beaten over the remaining years of my childhood for this supposed ‘crime’ I had committed I clearly remember those fire ants. 

Dry ice belongs to an Eagle River Elementary School memory from the day a fireman came to talk to us at one of our many school assemblies.   All the children filed into the auditorium just as he finished setting up his display on the stage.  Dressed in his full fireman outfit this speaker was the most impressive yet.  He got my fullest attention.  Especially when he got to the part of his talk when he waved a carrot slowly through the air in front of him like a magician would brandish a magic wand (although I had never seen either) and then laid it very carefully in the center of a block of dry ice smoking in a pan sitting on a table beside him.  Next he put on his gigantic leather fireman gloves and made a big show of picking up a second block of dry ice that had been smoking away in another pan and set it carefully down on top of the carrot.

I then became very distracted from thinking about the carrot as Mr. Fireman gave a big speech about the importance of having a fire extinguisher in every household.  Although I didn’t really even know what such a thing was, I sure knew we didn’t have one.  But I soon learned that’s why the fireman came.  To teach us about fire extinguishers.  Both the good and the bad of them.

There he was, bellowing across the heads of all we little kids as he made sure we understood that “NEVER NEVER EVER EVER put your finger in the way of a fire extinguisher in use!”   Roar!  Hiss!  SWOOSH!  He aimed white spray into a garbage can while he told us that if he took his gloves off and put his finger into that spray it would FREEZE SOLID. And then if he touched anything it would break into a million pieces. 

A finger?  A million pieces?  Grim.  Very very grim.  I was suitably scared before he even got to the next part of his demonstration.  He put his fire extinguisher down, reached over to lift the top block of dry ice off of the carrot, and put it back in its pan.    Then with his very large glove hands, he managed to pick up the carrot and hold it high in the air over his head.  “Watch this very carefully children,” he said to us with words slow and definite.  Pausing for emphasis and then pausing a little more.  We were hushed.  Silence.  Then CRACK!  He dropped the carrot to the stage floor and yes indeed it disappeared into a million shattered pieces.  “That would be your finger!” 

But actually the words in this title are exactly backwards from the way I should have written them.  I just liked the sound of those words the way I wrote them.  I liked the imagery of the ice smoking and melting followed by tiny ants scrambling off to do whatever fire ants do – assuming they are not under attack from a fire extinguisher.

 As I progress through this chapter I will write about heat before cold.  GO!  Before STOP!  Fire ants before dry ice.   The topic of this chapter is about what is very likely to happen inside the rapidly developing right brain hemisphere and the developing nervous system of an infant in its first and second year of life if it is exposed to repeated patterns of trauma through neglect and abuse.

Most of us probably know more about how Burger King makes French fries than we know about how our brain operates or how our attachment interactions with our primary caregivers during our infancy give our brain the information it needs to build itself in cooperation with our earliest environment. We cannot talk about what goes right and what goes wrong during these most rapid, most critical early brain-building periods of our development without being able to use some basic words to describe these processes.  While many of these words might not be familiar to us, we can learn them – because we must.  We cannot learn about how early traumatic stress damages an infant’s growing brain without this information.


Programmed cell death (PCD), happens through an orderly pattern of events carried out by cellular machinery intrinsic to cells.  Cell death by suicide is called apoptosis.  (There is no consensus about how to pronounce apoptosis:  some say APE oh TOE sis; some say  uh POP tuh sis.  I prefer A POP TOSIS, like bad popcorn breath.)  This process is as necessary for proper development as mitosis is.  (Cells having a nucleus of genetic material contained in a membrane envelope go through mitosis as part of the cell division.  Mitosis divides chromosomes into two roughly identical sets in two separate nuclei that will end up in duplicate, or sister cells.)

Apoptosis reabsorbs a tadpole’s tail before the frog hops out; removes the tissue between a fetus’ fingers and toes; causes the inner lining of the uterus to slough off at the start of menstruation; eliminates T-cells that might otherwise cause an autoimmune attack on the body.  In this book the apoptosis of interest has to do with how this process enables the formation of the proper connections (synapses) between neurons (nerve cells) in the brain by eliminating surplus cells.  (The human adult brain has approximately 100 billion neurons.)

Nerve cells or neurons have specialized projections called dendrites and axons, which do not exist as a part of any other cells in the body.  Dendrites bring information to the cell body and axons take information away from it.  Information from one neuron flows to another neuron across a synapse which is a structure in the nervous system (of which the brain is a part) that permits a neuron to pass an electrical or chemical signal to another cell (neural or otherwise) across a small gap separating neurons. 

Neurons can be classified by the direction in which they send information.  (1) Sensory (or afferent) neurons send information from sensory receptors (e.g., in skin, eyes, nose, tongue, ears) TOWARD the central nervous system.  (2) Motor (or efferent) neurons send information AWAY from the central nervous system to muscles or glands.  (3) Interneurons send information between sensory neurons and motor neurons and are mostly located in the central nervous system.  (Please visit this website for a visual about neurons:  http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/synapse.html.)

Apoptosis that is triggered by signals inside of a cell follows what is known as the intrinsic or mitochondrial pathway to destruction.  Mitochondria are a cell’s power producers.  They are tiny organelles with an inner and an outer membrane that act like a digestive system that takes nutrients in, breaks them down, and creates forms of energy that a cell can use.  The fluid inside of the mitochondria is called the matrix. 

In a healthy cell, the outer membranes of its mitochondria display the protein Bcl-2 on their surface.  Bcl-2 is protective and inhibits programmed cell death (apoptosis).  If a cell is hurt on the inside this causes a related protein, Bax, to migrate to the surface of the mitochondrion where it inhibits the protective effect of Bcl-2.  A process is then put into motion that executes this cell.


This is nowhere near done yet – will be a piece of work……….


Please click here to read or to Leave a Comment »


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s