The History of Neuroplasticity
The Brain That Changes Itself is a fascinating history of the concept of neuroplasticity and the researchers and clinicians who championed it.
The book begins with an introduction to the work of Paul Bach-Y-Rita, an influential pioneer in the understanding of neuroplasticity. This concept means that the brain can change in structure or function in response to experience. Bach-Y-Rita discovered that if one part of the brain is damaged such as from a stroke or Traumatic Brain Injury, another part can sometimes take over in what’s known as “sensory substitution.” This view is in contrast to an older concept known as localization, which theorized that certain parts of the brain have a fixed, unchangeable function.
The Brain That Changes Itself continues the history of neuroplasticity by next focusing on the works of Barbara Arrowsmith, who had severe learning disabilities that she overcame with cognitive exercises she developed for herself to overcome these difficulties. These were the basis of the Arrowsmith School and programs that she founded.
Doidge then introduces Michael Merzenich, the “driving force behind scores of neuroplastic innovations and practical innovations” such as Fast ForWord, a series of plasticity-based computer programs. Merzenich’s research theorized that “neurons in brain amaps develop strong connections to one another when they are activated at the same moment in time, a concept usually described as “neurons that fire together wire together.” This saying has now been updated to “neurons that fire apart wire apart” and “neurons out of sync fail to link.”
Edward Taub is the next researcher in the book who is relevant to our readers. Taub developed constraint-induced (CI) movement therapy, which has shown promise for those with movement disorders brought on by conditions such as strokes, Parkinson’s, cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis. Taub theorizes that those with brain damage from these conditions are suffering from learned nonuse, which masks the ability to recover. CI, his contribution to neuroplasticity, constrains the use of the good limb to force the affected one to move.
Jeffrey M. Schwartz is the next researcher described by Doidge. Schwartz’s work entailed the use of PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scans to demonstrate that talk therapy can change the brain. He developed a treatment for “OCD brain lock” that includes exposure and response prevention behavioral therapy as well as doing a new activity for 15-30 minutes when a compulsion strikes.
Doidge also writes about other fascinating subjects such as addiction, pain from phantom limbs and Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS). In addition, he peppers tantalizing anecdotes from people that have seen miraculous improvements in their brain’s function as well as other researchers helping to make these miracles happen.
This book is an inspiring read for parents of children with any of the following conditions:
Norman Doidge, MD, FRCP (C) is a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, researcher, author, essayist and poet.
For thirty years he was on faculty at the University of Toronto’s Department of Psychiatry, and Research Faculty at Columbia University’s Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research, Department of Psychiatry, Columbia University, in New York.
Currently, he is a Training and Supervising Analyst (a trainer of psychoanalysts) at the Toronto Institute of Psychoanalysis. He is the author of two New York Times Bestsellers. He lives in Toronto. You can find out more about him and his work at https://normandoidge.com/
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