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Michael Merzenich: Brain Plasticity offers Hope for Everyone

What­ev­er you strug­gle with in a sense as it stems from your neu­rol­o­gy, the inher­ent plas­tic­i­ty of the brain gives you a basis for improve­ment. This is a way under­uti­lized and under-appre­ci­at­ed resource that well all have.” Dr. Michael Merzenich on the Brain Sci­ence Pod­cast #54, 2/13/09.

Recent­ly there has been grow­ing con­tro­ver­sy about the effec­tive­ness of com­put­er-based cog­ni­tive train­ing pro­grams. As a co-founder of Posit Sci­ence, Inc. Dr. Michael Merzenich is a staunch defend­er of the meth­ods his com­pa­ny uses to val­i­date the pro­grams that they have devel­oped. But for the pur­pos­es of this essay, I want to share some of the key ideas we dis­cussed dur­ing his recent inter­view on the Brain Sci­ence Pod­cast.

First of all, I asked him to dis­cuss some of the high­lights of his long career. Since he was one of the first neu­ro­sci­en­tists to embrace the con­cepts of neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty I was curi­ous about how this came about. While he did have some expo­sure to the ani­mal evi­dence as a grad­u­ate stu­dent, it was actu­al­ly his expe­ri­ence with the inven­tion of the cochlear implant that con­vinced Dr. Merzenich of the real-world, prac­ti­cal impli­ca­tions of brain plas­tic­i­ty. The qual­i­ty of the sig­nal pro­vid­ed by a cochlear implant is rather poor com­pared to that pro­duced in nor­mal hear­ing, but over a peri­od of months implant recip­i­ents are able to progress to the point of being able to dis­cern speech that sounds “almost nor­mal.” This is a prac­ti­cal exam­ple of brain plas­tic­i­ty.

You can learn more about this if you lis­ten to the inter­view, but I men­tion it here because it pro­vides an impor­tant point of con­ti­nu­ity between Dr. Merzenich’s ear­ly work with mon­keys and the work he went on to do with both Sci­en­tif­ic Learn­ing, Inc. and Posit Sci­ence. Real­iz­ing that mon­keys’ abil­i­ty to under­stand speech was plas­tic lead to much of Dr. Merzenich’s lat­er work. If you have been to the Posit Sci­ence web­site you know that their first pro­gram for old­er peo­ple is based on hear­ing. While I am sure the debate will con­tin­ue about the effec­tive­ness of this pro­gram, the sci­ence is inter­est­ing. We tend to be obsessed with mem­o­ry, and how it seems to be less effi­cient as we get old­er. So you might won­der where hear­ing fits in. Dr. Merzenich’s research indi­cates that as peo­ple get old­er their abil­i­ty to com­pre­hend rapid speech goes down. The key idea is that if you can improve hear­ing com­pre­hen­sion, mem­o­ry improves. This is because of the well-known fact that rich­er sig­nals leave stronger mem­o­ries.

A sim­i­lar phe­nom­e­non has been observed with vision. As peo­ple get old­er they tend to spend more time focused direct­ly in front of them­selves and less time sam­pling their sur­round­ings. Not only does this mean that they lit­er­al­ly see less of what is going on around them, it means their mem­o­ries are impov­er­ished. Thus, Posit Sci­ence’s new Insight pro­gram is based on train­ing peo­ple to regain the habit of fre­quent­ly scan­ning the periph­ery that comes nat­u­ral­ly when one is young.

I would hope that in addi­tion to exam­in­ing these pro­grams for effi­ca­cy, more researchers will build on the basic con­cepts to devel­op oth­er pro­grams.

While it is impor­tant to devel­op effec­tive pro­grams for cog­ni­tive fit­ness and improve­ment, Dr. Merzenich and I both think it is equal­ly impor­tant that peo­ple embrace lifestyles that will uti­lize the brain plas­tic­i­ty that every­one has. When I asked him for advice he empha­sized the impor­tance of phys­i­cal activ­i­ty and the impor­tance of “remain­ing engaged in life.” If you want your brain to stay “sharp” you have to keep chal­leng­ing it. Avoid the temp­ta­tion to take the easy way out by inten­tion­al­ly try­ing things you aren’t already good at. “I am too old to learn …” is no longer a valid excuse!

Links:

- Brain Sci­ence Pod­cast #54: show notes to Episode 54 of the Brain Sci­ence Pod­cast with Dr. Michael Merzenich.

- Link to Audio File of Dr. Merzenich’s Inter­view

Gin­ger Camp­bell, MD grad­u­at­ed from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Alaba­ma School of Med­i­cine. She also has a Mas­ter’s Degree in Bio­med­ical Engi­neer­ing and spent sev­er­al years teach­ing at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Alaba­ma in Birm­ing­ham. Dr. Camp­bell has been prac­tic­ing emer­gency med­i­cine since 1992. She start­ed the Brain Sci­ence Pod­cast in 2006. Her goal is to help gen­er­al audi­ences under­stand how recent dis­cov­er­ies in neu­ro­science are unrav­el­ing the mys­ter­ies of how our brains make us who we are.

Pre­vi­ous posts by Dr. Gin­ger Camp­bell, high­light­ing select­ed pod­casts:

On Being Cer­tain: Believ­ing You Are Right Even When You’re Not.

Brain Sci­ence: “Brain Rules” Pod­cast.

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2 Responses

  1. Gary Dashney says:

    Great arti­cle. I read a book called The Mind & The Brain by Dr. Jef­frey Schwartz. In it he chron­i­cles the his­to­ry of brain plas­tic­i­ty. So of course the work by Dr. Merzenich was detailed as well as the oth­er pio­neers in neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty research. Incred­i­bly fas­ci­nat­ing the dis­cov­ery of our brains plas­tic­i­ty — and what hope it brings to us as we age!!

  2. Amber says:

    Inter­est­ing arti­cle! This reminds me of a book I read by Nor­man Doidge (I think it was called “The Brain that Changes Itself”). He talked about how this con­cept can apply to kids with learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties as well, which I found quite inter­est­ing. It’s excit­ing to hear that our brains are so capa­ble of change!

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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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