The Brain's Way of Healing
Norman Doige, M. D., Viking, 409 pp., $34.95.
Reviewed by Larry French
It is the age of miracles. The blind can see, the deaf can hear, lo, the lame and the halt can walk. These revelations of biblical proportion are outlined in Dr. Norman Doige's new book on the plasticity of the human brain—the follow-up to his pioneering work The Brain that Changes Itself.
Thanks to the discovery of the neuroplasticity of the brain, Doige shows how it can "change its own functioning in response to activity and mental experience." The brain is not hard-wired as we once believed, reaching a level of peak performance in our adult years, then destined to inevitable decline. Rather, as learning occurs—at any age—connections among nerve cells increase and genes that change neural structure are switched on. Educators confronted with students "born with mental limitations or learning disorders," profound dyslexics, people with autism, or victims of cerebral palsy can take comfort in Doige's verification of what they have often suspected—that with the right therapies, near- miraculous progress can be made in even the most seemingly hopeless cases.
As we age, we are confronted with the dark challenge of strokes, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's disease. Light therapy—lasers directed at the affected areas of the brain—is helping victims recover from strokes and traumatic brain injury. For me, the most striking therapy described by Doige is that for strokes, Parkinson's, and Multiple Sclerosis outlined in the chapter, "A device that resets the brain." Scientists at the University of Wisconsin in Madison have developed an electronic device called a Portable Neuromodulation Stimulator, shaped like a wide stick of chewing gum, that is placed on the tongue. The device fires electronic impulses onto the tongue, activating its sensory neurons and travelling to a part of the brain stem called the pons. Victims of degenerative diseases have their brain circuits rewired and make dramatic recoveries. The device is now being tested with encouraging results in the treatment of sleeping disorders, epilepsy, and even the dread Alzheimer's.
Toronto, Doige points out, has the privilege of housing the Listening Centre, founded by Paul Madaule, a dyslexic adult cured by the techniques of Alfred Tomatis. The Tomatis method uses a synthesis of the music of Mozart, specially modified, combined with recordings of the mother's voice, also modified, to rewire the brains of language-challenged persons, dyslexics, people with autism, and victims of attention deficit and sensory processing disorders. The victim essentially experiences anew hearing as if in the womb, and in doing so rebuilds the circuits of the brain affected by the disorder. As autism rates are skyrocketing (2010 general rates are one in 68, for boys, one in 42), listening therapy offers hope to thousands of parents and children.
Brain researchers are discovering that brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is what permits the formation of new connections between brain cells essential to learning. Educators and retirees take note—exercise is a key producer of BDNF, and thus aids learning while retarding cognitive decline. As for this senior, I am signing up for the Posit Science computer brain exercises that help perception, attention, and memory function. Never too late, as someone once said.