Your Plastic, Fantastic Brain!Posted: February 6, 2011
“Every man can, if he so desires, become the sculptor of his own brain”
Santiago Ramon y Cajal
One day, back in 2009, whilst trying to corral a spider into a cup for humane removal (geez, the things I remember) I was listening to a radio interview with Dr Norman Doidge. Doidge, I discovered, is a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, medical researcher, and author of the book The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. The interview was fascinating – so fascinating, in fact, that this laymen immediately went out and purchased Dr Doidge’s book.
The Brain That Changes Itself recounts, in lucid language, remarkable stories of healing and transformation from pioneers at the forefront of brain science, in the area called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is essentially the ability of our brains to change themselves. Neuro comes from the word neuron, the nerve cells in our brains and nervous system. Plastic means changeable, malleable… modifiable. The discovery of neuroplasticity, although still not accepted by some neuroscientists, sparked a scientific revolution in the 20th century: major breakthroughs have and are being made in the treatment of various disorders and disabilities, of both the physical and psychological kind. The real value of neuroplasticity comes from the idea that everything starts in the mind. As stated in the ‘Philosophy’ section of this blog, I have a passionate interest in this idea.
To understand how revolutionary the discovery of the plasticity of the brain is, we need to consider the history that preceded it. For 400 years, since René Descartes first postulated that the brain was a complex machine, the prevailing consensus regarding the human brain in Western science was that the brain indeed operated like a machine: that it was unchanging, fixed, with different “compartments” existing to perform specific functions. This idea, still adhered to by some scientists, is called Localizationism.
According to this idea, if a brain “compartment” were to fail, then the function that that compartment served would be irreparably lost. It was believed that, after childhood, the brain changed only once more, when it began its process of decline – a process assumed to be inevitable. And it was believed that damaged brain cells in childhood could never be replaced, and that people born with mental or intellectual impairments would be burdened with the same level of impairment for life. A fatalistic attitude towards the lot of people with mental and intellectual impairments reigned for many centuries – rehabilitation was often seen as impossible, not worth pursuing. The idea that the brain (and, subsequently, the body) could be improved through exercises was considered fanciful. Neuron manipulation was the stuff of science fiction.
But the neuroplastic revolution would change all of that. In the late 1960s to early 1970s, a band of brilliant, awesomely ballsy scientists made a series of discoveries that would challenge the status quo of localizationism. What they discovered was that the brain is not machinelike, hardwired to perform in a particular manner. Rather, the human brain continuously changes and reorganises itself. It changes its structure with each activity it performs. Furthermore, it changes to perfect its circuits over time, so that it is better suited to the tasks it performs. And in some instances, if certain ‘parts’ fail, other ‘parts’ may take over to perform the ‘lost’ function – and can be trained to do so.
This discovery was so important, for what it has meant for the rehabilitation of millions of people around the world afflicted with impairments, who may have previously been institutionalized, or just not given help. Having lived with stroke victims during their rehabilitation, I have seen the benefits of “brain training” that stimulates a person’s own brains ability to change and compensate for damage. The discovery of neuroplasticity also heralded a new era of innovation that continues today – new treatments of a variety of disorders and conditions, bridging the gap between science fiction and science fact. Treatments that work with the brains own ability to adapt and change itself.
In his book, Doidge describes some of these innovations, and uses the stories of various patients and their pioneering doctors and brain scientists to explain how neuroplasticity works and is being utilized – often in conjunction with technology – to rehabilitate people with conditions previously deemed incurable. Take the first story in the book, for example. Cheryl was a woman whose vestibular apparatus (i.e. the balance system, the sensory organ that allows us all to have balance at all times) was obliterated after a post-operative infection in 1997. For many years after, she lived with the almost unbearable sensation of falling, that, apart from being physically crippling, causing her to lose her job and prior life, destroyed her emotional health. She was unable to stand, anxious, afraid and alone, in the knowledge that the condition would be permanent.
Cheryl’s lot changed when she met Dr Bach-Y-Rita, one of those rare scientific geniuses and early pioneers of neuroplastic research. In 1969, Europe’s science journal Nature published an article about a vibrating chair Bach-Y-Rita invented that enabled people who had been blind from birth to see (I’d describe how it works here, but that would take too long. Read the book for that.) Essentially the chair was a tactile vision device. Rather than receiving visual information through their eyes, the blind people received the information through their skin. One sense was used to replace another. This is able to happen due to neuroplasticity. Dr Bach-Y-Rita had discovered that we see with our brains, not our eyes. In fact, we perceive and sense everything with our brains.
This discovery and subsequent work led many years later to Bach-Y-Rita devising the contraption that would liberate Cheryl from her nightmare condition. Cheryl’s saving grace was a helmet – a hat with an accelerometer in it, hooked up to a computer, that sent signals to a plastic strip placed on her tongue – balance signals that would replicate the balance system that Cheryl had lost. The invention was successful far beyond what they had expected. For not only was Cheryl able to balance and “be normal” when she had the helmet on, but for a period of time after it had been removed! And with each session with the helmet on (they increased the session times gradually) the length of time she was “normal” after a treatment increased also. It appeared her brain was being trained to balance itself – despite the physical balance apparatus in her inner ear still being damaged, her brain was finding and forging a new way to perform that task. Remarkably, after a year of treatment, she didn’t need to use the helmet at all – she was essentially cured.
As well as physical conditions, there is great potential for neuroplastic treatments to be used to correct and treat psychosomatic disorders, and there is a chapter on this as well. Doidge’s appendices, in which he speculates about the relationship between neuroplasticity, culture, and progress, were particular fascinating to me too. After reading the book I had a hundred more questions about the relationship between brain plasticity and perception, hypocrisy, ideolology, religion, spirituality, et cetera. I intend to explore these questions further in future posts.