A ‘cure’ for Parkinson’s, blindness, autism? The miracle of ‘brain plasticity’

One of many miraculous design features of  the human body and mind is  brain plasticity. Of course,  that doesn’t mean to say the brain is made of plastic. Clearly that’s not the case. Plasticity means ‘the quality of being easily shaped or molded’, or in biological terms, the ‘adaptability of an organism to changes in its environment or differences between its various habitats’. These connection changes are what neurologists and psychiatrists call ‘neuroplasticity’. 

It proves that no matter your age,  physical or mental health, lasting functional changes in the brain can and do occur when you learn new things or memorise new information.  It also means that old dogs can learn new tricks. The science on brain plasticity is compelling. It has spawned a range of different sound, light, and movement therapies, and gadgets. Here, US psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Norman Doidge looks at  positive changes brain plasticity has achieved in people including those with Parkinson’s, autism, blindness. – Marika Sboros

By Manuela Hoelterhoff

brain plasticity

Bloomberg Business – An 80-year-old woman with Parkinson’s pops a small neurostimulator on her tongue and two weeks later starts walking. Soon she’s balancing on a table, painting the ceiling.

Thanks to listening therapy, an autistic 3-year-old stops screaming and starts talking. A modified mix of Mozart, Gregorian chant and his mother’s voice stimulated dormant brain circuits.

The radical therapies that transform lives of little hope are based on the concept of ‘brain plasticity’. They are vividly described by Dr Norman Doidge, a US psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, in his remarkable The Brain’s Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity.

Parkinson’s, dyslexia, multiple sclerosis, and cerebral palsy are some of the diseases responding well to natural, non-surgical treatments. The risk of getting dementia is decreased by 60% using those therapies, according to Doidge.

Sound, light, movement and gadgets like the portable neuromodulation stimulators known as PoNS all play a role in healing people derailed by disease or accidents and driven nuts by pain and tons of medication.

Brain changes

The eloquent Doidge turns their stories into limned cameos, while often looking around the modern world with the horror so many of us share. Think of hospital rooms with their ghastly lighting and sealed windows: Why have we forgotten Florence Nightingale who bathed her patients in sun and air?

Doidge is on the faculty of the University of Toronto’s Department of Psychiatry. We spoke on the telephone.

Hoelterhoff: What’s happened since your first book, The Brain That Changes Itself? Eight years have passed.

Doidge: The biggest change is a deeper understanding of how we can use the senses noninvasively to speak the language of the brain — to change the structure and function of brain circuits in extremely challenging neurological conditions.

H:You describe a doctor with chronic pain who cures himself by visualisation. Can an ordinary person do this?

D: Yes. Dr Moskowitz knew that there’s not one pain centre in the brain, there are about a dozen and most of these centers don’t just process pain, they process something else. One area that regulates pain is also involved in processing mental imagery. Moskowitz knew that when we go from feeling acute pain to chronic pain, about 20% of that pain and imagery map is hijacked for pain processing.

When we’re not in pain, none of the pain areas fires up in the brain. When we’re in acute pain, these areas fire like pinpricks. When it’s in chronic pain, these same areas are firing like huge supernovas.

So how did he stop the pain? He forced himself to visualise imagery whenever he was in pain. It didn’t matter what he imagined, as long he engaged that map for imagery instead of pain. For the first two weeks, he only had a few seconds of time when he wasn’t in pain. It took several months to have significant pain-free periods and by the end of the year, he was completely pain-free and off all medication.

H: I found a picture of the PoNS. So this little gadget works because there are so many touch receptors on the tongue?

D: Yes, at least 15,000. The tongue is a huge information highway to the brain.

So I have to explain what is happening in these diseases to explain how they work. People often think that neurons are on or off. That’s what students are taught in school. But actually, that’s not quite accurate. The only time your neurons are completely off is when they’re dead. And normally, when they’re “off” it means they’re firing at a slow rate.

When someone has brain damage, some of the neurons are dead, but a lot of them are just sick and firing at an unusual rate and a lot of them are healthy neurons that are getting input that’s coming at an unusual rate, so they don’t function either.

So a person’s general functioning can be very, very compromised. So the idea is to stimulate them to fire correctly. We used to think if a person had lost 90% of their ability to move because of some kind of brain damage or stroke, that 90% of the neurons in the area are dead.

But the problem is often that there’s a lot of firing that is out of sync. And this goes not only for conditions like epilepsy, it includes Parkinson’s, traumatic brain injury, MS and a number of the conditions that the PoNS helps.

It’s allowing the brain stem, which is a major regulator of activity, to modulate itself and reset. And you can see really dramatic quick improvement.

I’m not claiming that this device cures MS or Parkinson’s, but rather it radically improves functioning and daily life.

H: How widely used is it?

D: It has been used in hundreds of people and the US military is studying it extensively for all the brain injuries. There’s also a study going on of MS in Montreal.

Another interesting device — the electronic ear — helps the severely dyslectic and autistic. Many autistic children are hypersensitive to sounds and human speech. They frequently cover their ears because they’re in so much pain.

One reason is that the normal human ear has within it a zoom, an auditory zoom, which is like a zoom lens in a camera. When you walk into a party, you hear booming, buzzing confusion and then slowly, your auditory zoom focuses you in on human speech and conversations.

In many of these children the zoom malfunctions. They end up hearing very low frequencies that are very distressing. Like the menacing low frequencies we hear in movies, when predators appear, as when the shark comes on in Jaws.

Autistic children are experiencing that anxiety in an ongoing way. And so the electronic ear basically takes music, modifies it so that it goes back and forth very, very gently between the lower and the higher frequencies to develop the circuitry for the auditory zoom.

And when that happens, you see remarkable things. The boy I describe doesn’t cover his ears anymore. He reestablished eye contact with his mother within a few days. He hugs his father for the first time in his life. His language development proceeded and he’s getting A’s in high school. I mean this is a boy who was supposed to be institutionalised.

H: Are any of these therapies well-known?

D: Not at all, though the music interventions are known in parts of France. The view we had of the brain was that its circuitry was fixed and hard-wired. So no one imagined these changes could occur.

We met a blind man who regains his sight. I was stunned. He had something called uveitis, an autoimmune disease which attacked both his eyes. Five surgeries failed to restore his vision, and he was on multiple medications, including steroids that made him feel like he was poisoned.

The scientific breakthroughs that facilitated his recovery were several. I show throughout the book that when circuitry is not used, it tends to go dormant.

He learned to subtly move his eyes and decrease the tension in his eyes, which was very high because of all the pain and suffering he underwent. And that was enough stimulation to boot up some of the dormant circuitry.

That may be the most amazing story of all. It may seem like a miraculous recovery, but now we have the science to explain it. – Bloomberg