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The Brain That Changes ItselfReview - The Brain That Changes Itself
Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science
by Norman Doidge
Viking, 2007
Review by Roy Sugarman, Ph.D.
Sep 25th 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 39)

Thanks to Pavlo Rakic, we have spent decades with the idea of a brain that is given a full complement of neurons by about age 2, and matures at puberty, some concepts that remain in many of my colleagues and student's minds still. I still find texts and people who assert that we only use 25% of our brains, a hangover from Penfield and colleagues' electrode probe studies more than half a century ago.

The field has fortunately changed and burgeoned, and this book is one of the flood of the 'brain is mutable' works that have emerged since we began to appreciate stem cells, brain derived neurotrophic factors, COMT alleles and so on.  It is accepted today that the brain can be boosted, or at least improved, by application of certain interventions.

Many of the people in the field are also keen on commercial spin-offs, brain gyms now populate the internet.  The field is neatly divided into two: charlatans and evidence based practitioners, with more of the first by definition. A recent visitor to my office showed us a reproduced Chapter Three from this book, and proudly proclaimed: "That's us!" He falls in the latter group, and many in the field of brain improvement are now realizing that they have to provide  an evidence base or die in the liquidator's court as savvy clients surfing the net are interested in the science of bang-for-your-buck as much as boost your brain.

The Alliance for Aging Research in Washington DC is offering free cognitive testing, and advice on brain improvement in the elderly, and other aging advocates are no longer accepting decline in brain with aging as 'normal' in all aspects.  Lea Williams, a professor at Sydney University, has recently received a major USA award in psychosomatic medicine, for helping bring integrative neuroscience to the fore in aging and other fields.  If its hurt, we now know we can make inroads into fixing it, at least partially.

It's a Yellow Brick Road into which a psychiatrist from Columbia University and Toronto University puts his well narrated true stories about the changing brain.

In the style of Oliver Sachs, Doidge examines the concept of neuroplasticity, a capacity for the brain to rewire itself.

He does so by using the life stories and wisdom of people in his book, telling their stories of how they changed their brains.

Cheryl is a woman with balance problems, severe and disabling, under the care of a team which includes Paul Bach-y-Rita. By using a tongue stimulator and a computer, she is capable of being retrained to read signals from other areas and her brain thus adapts to the alternative to osteoliths and vestibular apparatus.  Not for long did the effects last, perhaps 3 hours, but her brain did better and better.  Some in my world believe about 1000 iterations might be needed, but at 3 a day, one year is not long in rehabilitation terms.  It's not that she gets a new apparatus, but rather a new sense in her brain.

Another woman believes she is 'retarded' with object-agent relationships skewed in her brain. Despite amazing prowess in other brain function, she is deficit in others, given her learning problems. As have many of us, Barbara reads and is inspired by Luria's "The man with the shattered brain", the story of a young soldier with a bullet injury to the association areas of the left side of the cortex. Mark Rosenzweig's work also inspires her, and together with Joshua Cohen, whom she marries, they found the Arrowsmith School in Toronto to rehabilitate the brains of adults and children alike.

Michael Merzenich is visited by the author, described as the world's leading researcher on brain plasticity, and an exponent of exactly how that process works. Penfield gets a mention here, but in more positive terms than I did above, as does Hubel and Wiesel who discovered plasticity back in the 60's. Actually, he went back to the earliest work, that of Brown and Sherrington, who discovered in 1912 that there was no point to point relationship between the brain's motor map and a given movement, something not seen then for what it was.  Bad habits thus can invade a brain map, termed competitive plasticity, and are hard to break hence the 1000 times rule. Joined by Bill Jenkins, Merzenich continues with his work, moving into the field of autism and brain derived neurotrophic factor.  The man who came to my office the other day, with Merzenich, now works with Posit Science, a commercial application for healthy aging in seniors, amongst other things, by enlarging brain maps.

The book continues with chapters on sexual attraction and love, namely 'sexual plasticity' each time we form a new relationship, or more ominously, the reshaping of the brain when engaged with pornography, to the extent of addiction, and infringement on everyday sexuality, as brain maps change.  Walter J Freeman's work is commented on here, as does Flannagan's nailing his penis to a block of wood.  I leave that chapter there....

Stroke victims learn to move and speak again, obsessive brains learn to regulate differently, and pain is described as the dark side of neuroplasticity (Ramachandran, no surprises there..). The power of imagination is also explored, with Pascual-Leone's work on TMS described, and in the next chapter, similar ideas are expanded into psychoanalysis as a 'neuroplastic therapy' with references to Kandel's work in earning his Nobel Prize, and referring back to Bach-y-Rita. This last is titled "Turning our ghosts into ancestors" which wins my prize for best title in the book. Nottebohm is also given a mention here, for his work on the neuroplasticity of songbirds, a most intriguing finding.  These birds add 1% to their cortexes each day, in order to sing a new song, each day.

A woman is born with only one side to her brain, with Dr Jordan Grafman trying to work out how that brain works. 

There are two additional chapters, one looking at how culture modifies the brain, as Luria suggested when he said that 'culture ties the knots' in the cortex.  London Taxi Drivers, Sea-Gypsies, meditation teachers, all are endowed with special skills attained by brain modification.  The second appendix examines ideas about progress in the future.

It's a great book, written to read, and read easily. Some books are just a cut above the rest for many reasons, this covers all of them: informative, written to page-turn, easy to understand, the ideas well chosen. Anyone can do this one, and it is highly recommended just for the fun of it, as much as the science.

© 2007 Roy Sugarman

Roy Sugarman, Ph.D., Director of Clinical and Neuropsychological Services, Brain Resource Company, Ultimo, Australia


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