Autism and Eating Disorders

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

This week I’d like to talk about a very common issue, particularly for women with autism- eating disorders.

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As discussed previously, mental health issues are quite prevalent among the autistic population. Because of this, many autists can go un-diagnosed as co-morbid mental health issues often mask the root autism diagnosis. This is particularly true of eating disorders for female autists where doctors will diagnose an eating disorder, but due to social masking tendencies will often overlook their autistic traits.

In fact this should really be one of the first things that doctors should assess when patients present with eating disorders as numerous studies have shown that there is a higher prevalence rate of autism in patients diagnosed with eating disorders (up to 20%). Evidence indicates that patients presenting with anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder (BED) have greater numbers of autistic traits than the general population.

Autists will often not benefit from conventional treatment for disordered eating so it is critical that it is identified early.

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So why are eating disorders so prevalent for those on the spectrum?

The reasons are varied, but tend to be either psychological or sensory related:

Psychological:

Some people on the spectrum develop eating disorders as a means to fit in, to attain the kind of figures that they see in magazines and perceive to be “perfect” or “normal”. Others develop eating disorders as a means of control, where the routine and rigidity can be a source of comfort to an anxious mind running on overdrive (interestingly this may have a scientific basis as starvation decreases levels of serotonin, which is heavily involved in anxiety and is often elevated in autism). Moreover, if exercise or particular foods become specialist interests, an autist may obsess and inadvertently develop a disorder as a result.

In some cases an eating disorder may be a simple matter of mind blindness where an autist simply does not understand that their eating behaviours are abnormal or dangerous.

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Sensory:

Sensory issues are commonplace for autists both with and without an eating disorder. An autist may be sensitive to different tastes, textures and smells which can make for a very restrictive diet depending on the severity. In some cases, eating may be so stressful that they may not eat very much at all to avoid an unpleasant sensory event.

For further information about autism and eating disorders you can check out the link below for advice and support:

https://www.bodywhys.ie/understanding-eating-disorders/key-issues/autism-eating-disorders/

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 🙂

Enjoy the weekend!

Aoife

Autism and Mental Health

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Did you know– autistic children have higher levels of depressive symptoms and are 28 times more likely to have thoughts of suicide than their neurotypical counterparts? 😲

bitmoji1256098968In recent years our awareness of and willingness to tackle mental health issues has increased significantly, however, the autistic community is often forgotten in our discussions.

Mental health issues such as OCD, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, ADD, psychosis, personality disorders and bipolar disorder are frequently co-morbid with ASD diagnoses, but aside from OCD and anxiety, you will rarely hear about these other issues in relation to autism. In fact, such mental health issues can even obscure ASD diagnoses in higher functioning autists as clinicians often diagnose the co-morbid condition without seeing the underlying ASD.

This is a particularly big issue for women on the spectrum as experts have found that we tend to exhibit greater depressive symptoms and higher anxiety levels than our male counterparts as we tend to internalize and ‘mask‘ our struggles. Moreover due to differences between male and female presentation of ASD’s and male bias in the development of the diagnostic criteria, women with autism are often misdiagnosed as having mental health issues, but the root ASD continues to evade.

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But are there any scientific reasons why mental health issues are so prevalent among autists?

A recently published study has suggested that perhaps the gut may influence an autists mental health. As gastrointestinal issues are often co-morbid with an ASD diagnosis, and as the microbes that live in the gut can have an influence on the brain and behaviours, it has been proposed that perhaps a “dysbiosis” or imbalance in gut microbes may have an influence on an autists mental health 😲

Interestingly studies have also identified an overlap between the genes that cause schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and autism wherein certain points on these genes encode proteins that are involved in the formation and strength of synapses (which act as chemical bridges between neurons) suggesting that these disorders may act through a similar neurological pathway. Moreover, dysregulation of neurotransmitters (biochemical messengers in the brain) has also been implicated in depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, ADHD and autism (as we have discussed in multiple previous posts) indicating further neurological overlaps.

In short, it seems that the biological basis of both autism and mental health issues are intertwined, which could explain why so often the two walk hand in hand.

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Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 🙂

Until next time!

Aoife

 

 

Autism and the Dentist

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

This week I’m going to discuss an important issue for many people on the spectrum- going to the dentist.

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I know- no one ever really enjoys going to the dentist (except maybe Bill Murray in ‘Little Shop of Horrors‘! 😛 ), but for autists in particular, visits to the dentist can be quite traumatic. For many, the invasion of space can be an issue, for others, a trip to the dentist can aggravate sensory sensitivities (the sensation of brushing, the taste of toothpaste, the smell of latex gloves etc).

Thankfully I have never had any major issues with going to the dentist (aside from one unpleasant incident where the anesthetic didn’t take and I felt the drill hit a nerve…), nevertheless it wouldn’t be one of my favourite activities. The high pitched squeal of the tools, the scraping sensation against my teeth, the needles (shudder!)- it’s not the most pleasant of experiences inside my head! There’s a lot of fist clenching! 😛

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So how might we navigate an autists difficulties at the dentist?

Here are just a few tips and tricks that might benefit parents, dentists and autists alike:

  • Inquire if your dentist is autism friendly– Have they had autistic patients before? Do they have any special tools or techniques to make the visit more comfortable? Do they take any sensory interventions such as dimming the lights, providing sunglasses or minimizing any loud noises that may startle the child?
  • Prepare for a dental visit– Help to desensitize an autist to the experience by story-boarding a trip to the dentist with them so that they know what to expect. When it comes to anxiety, the fear of the unknown is often greater than the reality of the experience. Why not inquire if your dentist will allow you to visit the surgery/send pictures to desensitize your child to the environment and meet the staff before coming in for the real thing? 🙂
  • Wear noise cancelling headphones– whilst this may not be as effective as in other situations given that the tools are operating so close to the ears, nevertheless this may help to take the edge off any noise related issues.
  • Weighted blanket– A weighted blanket sitting on your lap could be quite beneficial in calming an autist. As I’ve discussed previously, the deep pressure stimulation can calm the mind and put the autist at ease. X-ray jackets can also be used to substitute for a weighted blanket. Comforters such as soft toys or other sensory items that autists use to ‘stim‘ can also be useful to help put them at ease.
  • Communication is key– as I’ve said above, the unknown is often one of the more unsettling aspects of a dental visit for an autist. Talk them through each step, show them what you are planning to do to their teeth, allow them to see and feel the tools- testing a motion on the hand can be useful to desensitize an autist prior to the oral exam.
  • Rewards and Bribery– what child doesn’t love a good bribe to motivate them to get through their dental appointment?! There’s a lot to be said for the power and promise of a treat (I may have even bribed myself with a trip to the cinema to motivate me to get this post finished on time! 😂)
  • Sedation– though not the best of options, this can sometimes be the only way for particularly anxious autists or those with gagging issues to get through a visit to the dentist.

I’ve also found this useful video about visiting the dentist if you want to check it out:

You can also find more information in the following link:

https://www.autismspeaks.org/sites/default/files/documents/dentalguide.pdf

So there we have it Earthlings! I hope you’ve found this post useful 🙂

Dental care isn’t always the easiest for an autist, but remember, prevention is always best- so get try to find a toothpaste that you like, pick the right toothbrush (soft bristles can be helpful) and take care of those pearly whites! 🙂

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Aoife

Autism Management- Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Today I’d like to briefly examine one of the most commonly recommended therapies for autism management- cognitive behavioural therapy or CBT.

So let’s all lean back in our chez long as we dive in! 🙂

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First off, what exactly is CBT?

Originally designed as a treatment for depression, CBT is a form of psycho-social intervention (i.e. counselling/psychotherapy) that is widely used to help improve mental health. Unlike other forms of therapy, CBT focuses on developing coping strategies to target our problems and to change unhelpful patterns in emotions, attitudes, negative behaviours,  and thought patterns.

In other words- CBT aims to change negative ways of thinking or cognitions in order to improve behaviour.

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As a result, CBT is widely used to treat anxiety, depression, eating disorders, OCD and a range of other psychological issues- many of which are co-morbid with an ASD diagnosis. It’s thought that CBT can be a particularly useful tool to treat anxiety and to help develop emotional recognition in autists.

CBT was personally recommended to me following my initial diagnosis in order help me to better understand autism and to conquer my social anxiety.

So what did I make of it?

Well, being honest (as we aspies must be 😛 😉 ), my opinions are slightly mixed regarding CBT. Whilst initially I found it helpful as it taught me a lot about autism and the reasons behind my behaviours, after a time, I felt that I didn’t really need it- especially given that I was in my twenties and had already overcome many of the challenges associated with ASD’s. In many ways, simply knowing and understanding Asperger’s Syndrome was enough to assuage much of the mental anguish I had inflicted on myself for being different 🙂

Nevertheless, I did find it beneficial to have a neutral party to talk to in those first initial months post diagnosis. It’s quite a lot to take on board, so it was nice to have that outlet to help guide me through the fog.

All in all, I felt that perhaps CBT may be better suited for a younger person with autism in helping them to develop lifelong coping mechanisms that will enable them to thrive. Had I better understood myself earlier in life through CBT intervention, many things could have been so much simpler 🙂

So if you think CBT may help you or your child, why not give it a try- get out your phone, book an appointment and take a seat on that couch (it’s surprisingly comfy 😉 )

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Enjoy the weekend everyone! 🙂

Aoife

Bullying and Autism

Greetings Earthlings 🙂

Bullying- neurotypical and neurodiverse alike, we’ve  all been there at some point, but did you know that autistic people are bullied nearly five times as often as their neurotypical peers?

Studies have estimated that as many as 46% of people with autism have been bullied at some point in their life versus 10% of the general population.

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Our issues with social awkwardness and interpretation, hypersensitivity, literal thinking, poor motor skills and trusting nature can make autists quite vulnerable to bullies. Sometimes we aren’t even aware that we are being targeting and so the bullying goes unreported.

Navigating school as an un-diagnosed teenager was particularly challenging. My literal thinking meant that I was often unaware that I was being made fun of, simple things said in attempts to fit in were turned into taunts, my expressions of individualism were ridiculed- and I just couldn’t understand why.

When I finally started to realize what was going on, it was devastating. I felt like such a fool that I shoved my emotions down and tried to pretend that I was fine.

Buuuuuttttt there’s only so long you can continue to ignore a full septic tank for before chaos erupts…

Once your peers have seen you have a meltdown, some people will do anything to trigger another one.

So I trudged along quietly everyday blaming myself for the teasing I endured:

Why was I so naiive?

Why did I say that?

Why did I lose it? 

Why can’t I be normal?

I sat back and allowed the storm clouds to gather overhead every time I reached the school doors.

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It wasn’t until I burned out and hit breaking point that I realized I had to find a better way through, began to talk and learned, not just to cope, but to thrive 🙂

So what advice would I give to someone on the spectrum who find themselves in the midst of a bullying situation?

Well, as the bullying game has intensified with the spread of social media since my schooldays (rural Ireland had quite limited access to high speed internet in the noughties), this is a tough one to advise, but here are some of my top tips:

  • Ignore the bullies– An obvious one that’s easier said than done, I know (I pretended to ignore for years- it can take quite a bit of practice to truly let words glide off your back), but when you react or meltdown- that’s what fuels them. My reactions made bullies push my buttons all the harder. If you feel a meltdown coming on, take a moment to go somewhere quiet, get some fresh air and take a deep breath.  Bathroom stalls were a personal favourite of mine to give me some time to regroup (unless someone had been smoking in there… this added further sensory fuel to the fire! 😛 )
  • Find an outlet for your emotions- We autists experience and process our emotions in very different ways. If you shove things down, the end result will not be pleasant. So run, dance, go on a four hour killing spree on your PlayStation (something that I wouldn’t know anything about… 😛 )- do whatever works for you to deal with your frustrations. I know it’s hard, but finding an outlet will help to quell the dragon inside.
  • Try to think before you act/speak– Again this is quite challenging when you don’t have a filter or struggle with impulsivity, but sometimes what may seem like the most simple of sentiments to you can be twisted and misconstrued by bullies. An innocent comment I once passed about the family dog led to years of jeering and implied bestiality…! I still put my foot in it every now and again, but I’ve gradually learned to pause more to assess if my comments will sink or float.
  • Be careful what you post on social media- The online world can be a dangerous, unregulated one. We live so much of our lives online we forget that our peers are always watching. As with your thoughts, take a moment to think through your posts. Something as simple as a picture or throwaway comment could land you in bother both on and offline (a simple lack of an appropriate emoji once caused a rift with a friend). Remember- it’s also perfectly ok to abstain or take some time away from social media. It may seem like social suicide, but we all need time away from our screens- people disable their accounts every day for lots of reasons so don’t worry about what they’ll think at school. Your sanity is far more important 🙂
  • Talk to someone– If you’re being targeted, tell a teacher, confide in a friend or talk to your parents so something can be done. But bear in mind, they can’t always  intervene. Teasing is a natural part of life as much as it may hurt (something that the autistic mind really struggles to comprehend), and not everything can be prevented. What may seem a devastating comment to your mind may mean nothing to an outsider. Intervention aside, by simply talking to someone about how you’re feeling, this will make the load so much easier to bear. Don’t let the quicksand claim you- ask for help!bitmoji2141702869

At the end of it all, just remember what my Biology teacher once taught me- “Whoever said that your school days are the best days of your life lied- college days are the best days of your life!”

So don’t get disheartened Earthlings! It may be hard to see it through the swirling fog in the crystal ball, but life does get so much better (…once you get past the bills, taxes and work-day traffic jams! 😛 😉 ).

Aoife

Autism and Anxiety

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Did you know: People with autism are five times more likely to suffer from an anxiety disorder?

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Autists are highly strung individuals. Our brains move faster than 10 speeding trains as we process the world around us; so naturally, we have a greater capacity for worrying. Imagine you are in the car approaching a straight road- you would just drive straight on without much further thought right?

In the autistic mind, you’re thinking about future bends that may (or may never) pop up, the condition of the road, idiot drivers you may encounter, stray animals or pedestrians, road works and diversions. What if I get lost? What will I do about parking? What if I get caught behind a tractor (a legitimate reason for being late for anything in Ireland! 😛 )?

What if this, what if that!

We over-analyse every single aspect of the most routine of ventures, twisting ourselves into anxious knots about an array of ‘what ifs‘ that may never come to pass.

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In my experience, social anxiety can be quite an issue. Most of the time, everything is hunky dory when I’m socializing- I listen, I engage, I laugh, no problem at all.

Buuuttt sometimes, if I’m in a particular group or struggling to get to grips with the topic of conversation, I feel so awkward that I start to get anxious.

“Am I talking enough? Am I saying the right things? Oh no that came out wrong! Aggggghhh!!!”

Annnnnd then I sort of slip back into my shell… 😛

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Most of the time, it won’t get much worse than this, but other times…I start to burn up, I can feel the sweats, my mind starts going into overdrive “Oh God everyone is staring!! They think I’m a saddo! What is wrong with me?”

My chest tightens up and it can be difficult to breathe.

Taking deep breaths usually helps to calm me down long enough to snap out of it…but sometimes it all starts to crumble in on top of you an then….

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MELTDOWN!!!! (^^^usually the flight instinct kicks in for me!)

Other times, anxiety has been known to wreak havoc with my digestive system. I once threw up on my own shoes from the stress of minding a drunken friend (who ironically did not get sick! 😛 )

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But I did get some new shoes following my gastric excursions, and some entertaining stories out of it! 😛 Oftentimes my anxiety incubates into productivity to force me to get things done so every anxious cloud has a silver lining! 😉

So what does the scientific community make of our anxious antics?

Remember how I’ve discussed Alexithymia in previous posts (Discussion-Emotions and EmpathyAutism and Music)? Researchers believe that our struggles to correctly identify and understand our emotions (and those of others) to be one of the driving forces behind anxiety disorders in the autistic community. A desire for emotional acceptance and an intolerance for uncertainty are also considered key players in the anxiety debate.

In addition to this, a number of biological factors have been identified in the development of anxiety. Some people are thought to have a higher biological response to stress for example- something that is quite likely in the case of autism, as we are known to have higher levels of stress hormones.

Dysregulation of levels of certain neurotransmitters in the brain are also thought to contribute to anxiety such as GABA, dopamine, serotonin and adrenaline. As I’ve discussed in numerous posts- many of these bad boys are indeed dysregulated in the autistic brain. Changes in activity levels within the amygdala or “fear centre” of the brain may also contribute to anxiety- and yes, you’ve guessed it! Similar changes in the amygdala have been linked to a number of autistic issues (skin sensitivity, sound sensitivity). 

So it all links back to a few simple physiological changes in our brain! 🙂

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Hope you enjoyed this weeks post Earthlings! 🙂

Have a wonderful weekend! 😀

Aoife

 

Repetitive Behaviours- Skin Picking

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Today I’m going to give you an insight into a particular form of repetitive behaviour- skin picking.

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Ok- I know it sounds disgusting, but it is common for those with autism! The statistics are limited, but as many as 14.8% of autists exhibit this type of behaviour.

Skin picking, also known as neurotic excoriation or dermatotillomania  (I really do like the sound of these terms! 😀 ), is characterized by excessive rubbing, scratching, digging, squeezing and gouging of healthy skin. In chronic cases, the urge to pick and scratch can lead to scarring, tissue damage and infection.

If I were you though I probably wouldn’t look the condition up…some of the pictures of these chronic cases are disgusting!

In my own experience, I have a mild tendency towards skin picking. I prod and poke at bites and burns, pick at cuts and scabs etc., but squeezing my skin would be my biggest issue- I find it so addictive and it can be quite hard to stop! I also have a particular tendency to press hard against injured skin, like pinching an infected finger or pressing a sore toe against a hard surface- for some odd reason I find it comforting! It hurts, but I feel better about the injury after doing it. I suppose it must link back to the calming sensation of deep pressure stimulation or something!

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Now before we call the men in the white coats, let’s see if there’s a physiological reason for all of this! 😛

Research suggests that the dopamine pathway may play a particular role in this behaviour.

Dopamine is involved in reward motivated behaviours in the brain. Drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine activate dopamine, which is thought to contribute to the sensation of skin crawling and subsequent picking often experienced by addicts. So experts believe that dopamine dysfunction may be at play in this behaviour.

As I’ve discussed in other posts (sleep, ADHD, curiosity, inside the autistic brain etc.) dopamine is often dysregulated in the case of autism, so it stands to reason that this neurotransmitter may play an important role in skin picking behaviour in ASD’s.

Other experts point to a psychological reason for the behaviour as there is a strong link between skin picking and co-morbid psychiatric diseases. Skin picking is thought to act as a form of  communication in times of stress in the case of autism and is believed by some to act as a sensory outlet for sensory stimulation and or soothing.

Furthermore, as I’ve previously discussed, we autists tend to have more sensitive skin than the average person, this too could influence our tendency towards picking and scratching our skin.

Ah- so I’m not crazy after all! 😉

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But is there anything we can do to manage it?

Dermatologists and physicians find this one particularly difficult to treat and often seek drug and behavioural interventions to counter skin picking.

For me personally, this is difficult to advise as the reasons for picking differ from person to person, annnnnnd I tend to indulge the behaviour rather than avoid it 😛

However, I have been making conscious attempts to reduce the frequency in recent years to help protect my skin, and to avoid looking like a weirdo in public! Don’t want people thinking I have fleas if I persistently keep scratching myself!

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The best advice that I can give is to keep your hands busy- if they’re occupied, you won’t pick! Gaming and crafting I find can be useful to keep my hands from wandering 🙂

So there we are Earthlings! 🙂 Hope I didn’t disgust you all with this post! 😛

Enjoy the weekend everyone! 🙂

Aoife

 

Can animals have autism?

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Today I’d like to explore something I’ve been wondering about a lot recently: can animals be autistic?

We’ve often been told how closely related human and animal genomes are, but what about our brains?

I often look at my German Shepherd and see a lot of autistic traits in him- he has ADHD and anxiety, behaves inappropriately, thinks creatively (he once buried a bone in a mattress) and never really grew out of his puppy brain despite recently turning 6!

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^^^Not my dog, but similarly bonkers! 😛 😉

Naturally, I could be imagining it (as a scientist it’s hard not to over analyse), but what does the evidence have to say?

In clinical research, there are a number of animal models which have been genetically bred to exhibit autistic traits including rats, fruit flys, monkeys and most commonly mice. These animals will have mutations in genes that have been linked to autism which causes them to exhibit some common autistic traits. In the mouse model for example, mice show signs of repetitive behaviours, deficits in social interaction and reciprocation, memory deficits and increased aggression.

But what about in nature?

There is very little evidence to suggest that animals can be autistic, however, a recent study by veterinary behaviorists in the USA has indicated that there is evidence of canine autism! 

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I know!

Maybe I should get my dog diagnosed… 😉

In fact, vets have considered the possibility of autism like symptoms in dogs since 1966!!

The 2015 study examined tail chasing behaviours in bull terriers in addition to running DNA analysis.  These researchers found that tail chasing was associated with trance-like behaviour and random outbursts of aggression in these dogs. In addition to this, tail chasing was more common in males than females- just like human ASD’s. This group also suggested that the physical features of these bull terriers (long face, high-arched palate, and large ears) could be indicative of Fragile X Syndrome-  a genetic condition where 15-60% of this population are additionally diagnosed with autism.

This study is not definitive, but it does open us up to the possibility that autism may naturally exist in the animal kingdom.

As autism can be difficult enough to diagnose in humans, you never know- other animals could quite possibly have autism, we’ve just never considered it! 🙂

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Aoife

Autism and Music

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Today I’m going to be exploring the benefits of music for people with autism.

We all know that feeling we get when we listen to our favourite songs- the rush, the rippling chills, the feeling that the music is physically running up and down your spine.

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But what if I told you that music can do so much more than just entertain us?

Research has shown that music therapy can greatly benefit people with autism by helping to improve social behaviours and interactions, focus and attention, coordination and spatial awareness in addition to reducing stress and anxiety. Music therapists aim to improve the wellbeing of their patients through music by encouraging singing, listening to, moving to and discussing music among other actions.

So how does music benefit the brain in this way?

The simple act of learning to play an instrument can greatly improve brain processing, fine motor skills and non-verbal reasoning skills. Interestingly, physical changes are taking place in your brain when you learn to play an instrument. As children grow up, the outer layer of the brain (the cortex) can grow thinner in certain regions which can lead to such issues as anxiety, depression and attention difficulties. Evidence suggests that learning to play an instrument however thickens the cortex in areas associated with emotional processing, executive functioning, and impulse control– functions that are affected in many people on the spectrum.

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Studies have also shown that the vibration of music can help to stimulate and improve brain and muscle function in patients with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s!

Recent evidence suggests that dopamine plays a role in the brains response to music. As I’ve discussed in previous posts, dopamine regulates emotions and mood. Researchers have found that music encourages dopamine release and positive mood changes, whereas noise exposure negatively impacts mood. As dopamine levels are out of sync in people with autism, music could really help our brains to better control mood swings and improve emotional processing.

In my own life, music has been highly beneficial to help process my emotions.

I have had a lifelong passion for music. The riffs, the vocals, the lyrics- there’s nothing quite like it! Music has always held a special place in my heart, but especially the lyrics from my favourite songs.

As I’ve discussed previously, many autists struggle to identify and/or describe what they are feeling, a condition known as alexithymia (from the Greek meaning “no words for mood“). Many years ago, long before my diagnosis, in times of strife I found myself intensely drawn to music. The lyrics soothed my soul and calmed my mind allowing me to process the storm of emotion passing through. Whenever I could not make sense of my emotions, I could always find a song that would verbalize my struggles, and after a time, everything became a little clearer 🙂

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There we have it Earthlings! We’ve all felt the power of music, and the science shows it’s potential.

So grab your ipod and dust off your guitar this bank holiday weekend- your brain will thank you! 😉

Aoife

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