Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Neuroplasticity: Once "fringe" and now "cutting edge" - but career almost ruined

In Britain's Guardian, Ian Sample reviews Norman Doidge's new book, The Brain That Changes Itself, commenting ("Our flexible friend", Tuesday April 07 2009):
What was regarded as fringe science 40 years ago is currently at the cutting edge of neuroscience. With the right training, scientists now know the brain can reshape itself to work around dead and damaged areas, often with dramatic benefits. Therapies that exploit the brain's power to adapt have helped people overcome damage caused by strokes, depression, anxiety and learning disabilities, and may one day replace drugs for some of these conditions. Some studies suggest therapies that tap into the brain's neuroplasticity are already making a big difference. Children with language difficulties have been shown to make significant progress using computer training tools that are the equivalent of cerebral cross-training. Work is underway to investigate whether it is possible to stave off a loss of brain plasticity in older age, which might help to address memory problems linked to Alzheimer's disease. Some psychoanalysts are adopting techniques to help people overcome relationship troubles, obsessions, worries and bad habits.

The idea of brain plasticity has been discovered and forgotten many times over the centuries. The ancient Greeks accepted the idea, with Socrates believing that people could train their brains the way gymnasts train their bodies. Around the time of Galileo, the idea fell out of favour, as scientists began to see the world mechanistically, with each object, organ and even parts of an organ being attributed well-defined, unchanging roles. It was these ideas that led to the notion of our brains being "hardwired", an idea that today is steadily being overturned.
It's good to see this message getting out - but the discoveries were not without cost.

Doidge tells the story of a scientist whose career was nearly wrecked by the all-too-typical hostile science establishment, as he was trying to determine the facts: "A Christmas tale: Neuroscientist discovers hope for stroke victims - and science establishment's hostility".

Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose

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