Brain Plasticity – tricking the brain to heal the body

The Brain's Way of Healing: stories of remarkable recoveries and discoveries -  Norman Doidge   The Brain, Neuropsychology, Medicine,

Neurons that fire together, wire together – those that fire apart, wire apart” is the formula Doidge  uses to describe how brain plasticity works. It seems that the physical relationship between the senses and the brain is not something that is fixed from birth, but it is instead something that follows pathways that electrochemically interact and change the physicality of the brain-body relationship. The implications are huge since it means that the relationship can be tricked by uncanny human ingenuity. It means that there are non-invasive ways of healing. 

In this LSE podcast, Doidge follows up on his “The Brain That Changes Itself” to describe how relatively non-invasive techniques can heal diagnoses previously thought to be incurable or irreversible – including autism, learning disorders and attention deficit, MS and Parkinson’s and even dementia. These are early days and brain plasticity is not a cure-all, but there is progress and there will undoubtedly be more progress. All you need is brains to imagine, resources to validate/improve and minds that are open/curious.  

Dowlphin first came across and was blown away by “The Brain That Changes Itself” after hearing Doidge at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in 2008. Doidge uses the metaphor of plasticine to describe minimally invasive techniques to trick the brain into changing how messages are received and how they are delivered to nerves, thereby reviving functions that had been thought to have been lost forever.

Thus, people with eyesight loss can be made to “see” by tricking the brain to receive messages from electrodes on a “reader” patch on their back or tongue, where the electrodes receive signals from the digital pixels of a camera attached to a pair of glasses and send signals to the malleable “plastic” brain. Or the phantom pain felt often associated with a missing limb can be lessened by tricking the brain into thinking that the limb is not missing. And orgasm can in some cases be bought on by ……[self-censored].

Dowlphin was unable to find a podcast of the original 2008 SFF talk in any archive, but was able to find links to the two ABC Radio National “All in the Mind” interviews below. 

The Power of Plasticity – Part 1

The Power of Plasticity – Part 2

Viewing the brain as a muscle dependent on neuronal activity, Doidge advises diversifying and firing the neuronal activity by not only exercising the brain with challenges, but by also developing new pathways by changing activities. Some of the changes are as simple as changing which shoes you put on first. Other advice is to learn a new language, play a new instrument, experiment with your life.

And then of course, don’t stick to your “favourite” unless you want your brain to wilt – for if the signals travel along the same neuronal pathways, the pathway will harden and lose its resilience. Dowlphin suspects that the same is true for economies and societies – if they don’t experiment and change because they become beholden to powerful vested interests based on past glories, they are likely to become sclerotic relative to societies and economies that risk, refresh and nourish the future).

Dowlphin did not find The Brain’s Way of Healing as “mind-blowing” as The Brain That Changes Itself but that may be as much due to the fact that the mind had already been “blow”. For anyone unaware of the concept of neuroplasticity, this podcast is likely to be as mind-blowing as that 2008 revelation.

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