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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!


- 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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