Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


A Decade after The Decade of the Brain – Educational and Clinical Implications of Neuroplasticity

(Editor’s Note: In 1990, Con­gressCerebrumFeb2010_feat des­ig­nat­ed the 1990s the “Decade of the Brain.” Pres­i­dent George H. W. Bush pro­claimed, “A new era of dis­cov­ery is dawn­ing in brain research.” Dur­ing the ensu­ing decade, sci­en­tists great­ly advanced our under­stand­ing of the brain. The edi­tors of Cere­brum asked the direc­tors of sev­en brain-relat­ed insti­tutes at the Nation­al Insti­tutes of Health (NIH) to iden­ti­fy the biggest advances, great­est dis­ap­point­ments, and missed oppor­tu­ni­ties of brain research in the past decade—the decade after the “Decade of the Brain.” They also asked them what looks most promis­ing for the com­ing decade, the 2010s. Experts focused on research that might change how doc­tors diag­nose and treat human brain dis­or­ders.)

Neu­ro­science is at a his­toric turn­ing point. Today, a full decade after the “Decade of the Brain,” a con­tin­u­ous stream of advances is shat­ter­ing long-held notions about how the human brain works and what hap­pens when it doesn’t. These advances are also reshap­ing the land­scapes of oth­er fields, from psy­chol­o­gy to eco­nom­ics, edu­ca­tion and the law.

Until the Decade of the Brain, sci­en­tists believed that, once devel­op­ment was over, the adult brain under­went very few changes. This per­cep­tion con­tributed to polar­iz­ing per­spec­tives on whether genet­ics or envi­ron­ment deter­mines a person’s tem­pera­ment and per­son­al­i­ty, apti­tudes, and vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty to men­tal dis­or­ders. But dur­ing the past two decades, neu­ro­sci­en­tists have steadi­ly built the case that the human brain, even when ful­ly mature, is far more plastic—changing and malleable—than we orig­i­nal­ly thought.1 It turns out that the brain (at all ages) is high­ly respon­sive to envi­ron­men­tal stim­uli and that con­nec­tions between neu­rons are dynam­ic and can rapid­ly change with­in min­utes of stim­u­la­tion.

Neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty is mod­u­lat­ed in part by genet­ic fac­tors and in part by dynam­ic, epi­ge­net­ic changes that influ­ence the expres­sion of genes with­out chang­ing the DNA sequence. Epi­ge­net­ic process­es are of par­tic­u­lar clin­i­cal inter­est because their exter­nal trig­gers (such as ear­ly parental care, diet, drug abuse and stress) can affect a person’s vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty to many dis­eases, includ­ing psy­chi­atric dis­or­ders. In addi­tion, in con­trast to genet­ic sequence dif­fer­ences, epi­ge­net­ic alter­ations are poten­tial­ly reversible, and thus amenable to pub­lic health pol­i­cy inter­ven­tions.

It also has become increas­ing­ly clear that the human brain is par­tic­u­lar­ly sen­si­tive to social stim­uli, which like­ly has accel­er­at­ed the rate of human brain evo­lu­tion. Humans have evolved a com­plex neu­ronal cir­cuit­ry in large areas in the brain to process com­plex social infor­ma­tion (such as pre­dict­ing oth­ers’ reac­tions and emo­tions) and to respond appro­pri­ate­ly. New research has revealed that social stim­uli (such as par­ent­ing style and ear­ly-life stress) can epi­ge­net­i­cal­ly mod­i­fy the expres­sion of genes that influ­ence brain mor­phol­o­gy and func­tion includ­ing the sen­si­tiv­i­ty of an indi­vid­ual to stress­ful stimuli.2 In the future, this knowl­edge will enable us to tai­lor per­son­al­ized pre­ven­tion inter­ven­tions that are based on infor­ma­tion on how genet­ics and epi­ge­net­ics affect brain func­tion and behav­ior. For exam­ple, a recent study showed that a pre­ven­tion inter­ven­tion based on improv­ing par­ent­ing style reduced the risk for sub­stance use dis­or­ders only in ado­les­cents with a par­tic­u­lar vari­ant of a gene that recy­cles the chem­i­cal sero­tonin back into the neu­rons, which is a vari­ant that results in greater sen­si­tiv­i­ty to social adversity.3

In the com­ing decade, insights about what under­lies neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty, com­bined with tech­no­log­i­cal advances that allow us to “see” with greater pre­ci­sion the human brain in action, are bound to rev­o­lu­tion­ize the way we view learn­ing and the meth­ods we use to edu­cate young peo­ple. New research will also show us how to help peo­ple over­come or com­pen­sate for many of the deficits asso­ci­at­ed with drug abuse, addic­tion and oth­er men­tal disorders.4

For exam­ple, sci­en­tists are using imag­ing tech­nolo­gies in neu­ro­feed­back pro­grams that train peo­ple to vol­un­tar­i­ly recal­i­brate their neur­al activ­i­ty in spe­cif­ic areas of the brain, allow­ing them to gain unprece­dent­ed con­trol over, for exam­ple, pain perception5 or emo­tion­al processing.6 Dur­ing drug addic­tion treat­ment, this approach could great­ly reduce the risk of relapse by enabling a patient to con­trol the pow­er­ful crav­ings trig­gered by a host of cues (e.g., peo­ple, things, places) that have become tight­ly linked, in the brain of the user, to the drug expe­ri­ence.

Oth­er promis­ing advances stem from ongo­ing research and devel­op­ment of direct com­mu­ni­ca­tion path­ways between a brain and exter­nal com­put­er devices, the so called brain-com­put­er inter­faces (BCI). In a recent study, one ver­sion of BCI appeared to help par­a­lyzed stroke vic­tims regain some move­ment control.7 In the next decade, forms of BCI might help peo­ple with a vari­ety of neu­ropsy­chi­atric con­di­tions that have proved resis­tant to tra­di­tion­al treat­ments. For exam­ple, ear­ly evi­dence sug­gests that BCI train­ing could ben­e­fit patients with epilep­sy or atten­tion-deficit/hy­per­ac­tiv­i­ty dis­or­der (ADHD) that is unre­spon­sive to drugs.8

As we build on these rapid advances in neu­ro­science research, we must keep a watch­ful eye on their vast social and polit­i­cal impli­ca­tions. For exam­ple, neu­rol­o­gists have start­ed to uncov­er the mol­e­c­u­lar com­po­nents and neur­al cir­cuit­ry that under­lie the learn­ing process.9 We also are learn­ing how to use tran­scra­nial mag­net­ic stim­u­la­tion (TMS), a non­in­va­sive method to mod­u­late the activ­i­ty with­in a neur­al cir­cuit, more effectively.10 Should we use this knowl­edge to bet­ter edu­cate young peo­ple and teach new skills to seniors, or should we use these tools only to treat peo­ple with neu­ropsy­chi­atric dis­or­ders? As we begin to under­stand how par­ent­ing styles affect the devel­op­ment and func­tion of the brain, how far should we go to pro­tect chil­dren from the long-term and dele­te­ri­ous effects of bad par­ent­ing?

Recent progress in brain research and asso­ci­at­ed fields has been impres­sive, and we are sure to wit­ness fur­ther accel­er­a­tion in the pace of neu­ro­sci­en­tif­ic dis­cov­ery in the next cou­ple of decades. Indeed, we are enter­ing a new era in which our tech­nolo­gies are begin­ning to affect our lives in pro­found ways. We are bound to recast our rela­tion­ship with our brains and, in the process, to redraw the bound­aries of human evo­lu­tion.

(Note: ref­er­ences are avail­able below)

Headshot_Volkow_thmbNora D. Volkow, M.D., became direc­tor of the Nation­al Insti­tute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) in May 2003. Her work has been instru­men­tal in demon­strat­ing that drug addic­tion is a dis­ease of the human brain. As a research psy­chi­a­trist and sci­en­tist, Dr. Volkow pio­neered the use of brain imag­ing to inves­ti­gate the tox­ic effects of drugs and their addic­tive prop­er­ties. She also has made impor­tant con­tri­bu­tions to the neu­ro­bi­ol­o­gy of obe­si­ty, ADHD, and the behav­ioral changes that occur with aging. Arti­cle is repub­lished with per­mis­sion from the Dana Foun­da­tion.

A Decade after The Decade of the Brain’ series, at Cere­brum

Thurs­day, Feb. 18: Nora D. Volkow, M.D., Nation­al Insti­tute on Drug Abuse

Fri­day, Feb. 19: Thomas R. Insel, M.D., Nation­al Insti­tute of Men­tal Health

Mon­day, Feb. 22: Sto­ry Lan­dis, Ph.D., Nation­al Insti­tute of Neu­ro­log­i­cal Dis­or­ders and Stroke

Tues­day, Feb. 23: Ken­neth R. War­ren, Ph.D., Nation­al Insti­tute on Alco­hol Abuse and Alco­holism

Wednes­day, Feb. 24: Paul A. Siev­ing, M.D., Ph.D., Nation­al Eye Insti­tute

Thurs­day, Feb. 25: James F. Bat­tey Jr., M.D., Ph.D., Nation­al Insti­tute on Deaf­ness and Oth­er Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Dis­or­ders

Fri­day, Feb. 26: Richard J. Hodes, M.D., Nation­al Insti­tute on Aging


1.  A. Holt­maat and K. Svo­bo­da, “Expe­ri­ence-Depen­dent Struc­tur­al Synap­tic Plas­tic­i­ty in the Mam­malian Brain,” Nature Reviews Neu­ro­science 10, no. 9 (2009): 647–658; M. Butz, F. Wor­got­ter, and A. van Ooyen, “Activ­i­ty-Depen­dent Struc­tur­al Plas­tic­i­ty,” Brain Research Reviews 60, no. 2 (2009): 287–305.

2. I. C. Weaver, N. Cer­voni, F. A. Cham­pagne, A. C. D’Alessio, S. Shar­ma, J. R. Seckl, S. Dymov, M. Szyf, and M. J. Meaney, “Epi­ge­net­ic Pro­gram­ming by Mater­nal Behav­ior,” Nature Neu­ro­science 7, no. 8 (2004): 847–854.

3. G. H. Brody, S. R. Beach, R. A. Philib­ert, Y. F. Chen, M. K. Lei, V. M. Mur­ry, and A. C. Brown, “Par­ent­ing Mod­er­ates a Genet­ic Vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty Fac­tor in Lon­gi­tu­di­nal Increas­es in Youths’ Sub­stance Use,” Jour­nal of Con­sult­ing and Clin­i­cal Psy­chol­o­gy 77, no. 1 (2009): 1–11.

4. N. D. Volkow, L. Chang, G. J. Wang, J. S. Fowler, D. Franceschi, M. Sedler, S. J. Gat­ley, E. Miller, R. Hitze­mann, Y. S. Ding, and J. Logan, “Loss of Dopamine Trans­porters in Metham­phet­a­mine Abusers Recov­ers with Pro­tract­ed Absti­nence,” Jour­nal of Neu­ro­science 21, no. 23 (2001): 9414–9418.

5. R. C. deCharms, F. Mae­da, G. H. Glover, D. Lud­low, J. M. Pauly, D. Sone­ji, J. D. Gabrieli, and S. C. Mack­ey, “Con­trol over Brain Acti­va­tion and Pain Learned by Using Real-time Func­tion­al MRI,” Pro­ceed­ings of the Nation­al Acad­e­my of Sci­ences USA 102, no. 51 (2005): 18626–18631; S. J. John­ston, S. G. Boehm, D. Healy, R. Goebel, and D. E. Lin­den, “Neu­ro­feed­back: A Promis­ing Tool for the Self-reg­u­la­tion of Emo­tion Net­works,” Neu­roim­age 49, no. 1 (2009): 1066–1072.

6. S. John­ston, S. Boehm, D. Healy, R. Goebel, and D. Lin­den, “Neu­ro­feed­back: A promis­ing tool for the self-reg­u­la­tion of emo­tion net­works,” Neu­roim­age 49 (2009):1066–1072.

7. E. Buch, C. Weber, L. G. Cohen, C. Braun, M. A. Dimyan, T. Ard, J. Mellinger, A. Caria, S. Soekadar, A. Fourkas, and N. Bir­baumer, “Think to Move: a Neu­ro­mag­net­ic Brain-Com­put­er Inter­face (BCI) Sys­tem for Chron­ic Stroke,” Stroke 39, no. 3 (2008): 910–917.

8. N. Bir­baumer, A. Ramos Mur­guial­day, C. Weber, and P. Mon­toya, “Neu­ro­feed­back and Brain-Com­put­er Inter­face Clin­i­cal Appli­ca­tions,” Inter­na­tion­al Review of Neu­ro­bi­ol­o­gy 86 (2009): 107–117.

9. C. A. Miller, S. L. Camp­bell, and J. D. Sweatt, “DNA Methy­la­tion and His­tone Acety­la­tion Work in Con­cert to Reg­u­late Mem­o­ry For­ma­tion and Synap­tic Plas­tic­i­ty,” Neu­ro­bi­ol­o­gy of Learn­ing and Mem­o­ry 89, no. 4 (2008): 599–603.

10. C. A. Dock­ery, R. Hueck­el-Weng, N. Bir­baumer, and C. Plew­nia, “Enhance­ment of Plan­ning Abil­i­ty by Tran­scra­nial Direct Cur­rent Stim­u­la­tion,” Jour­nal of Neu­ro­science 29, no. 22 (2009): 7271–7277.

Leave a Reply...

Loading Facebook Comments ...

One Response

  1. Real­ly inter­est­ing infor­ma­tion — I hap­pened to stum­ble upon this site this a.m. and I’ll sure­ly be back. I did psych nurs­ing for a num­ber of years and I’ve always been inter­est­ed in this field! Stephanie

Leave a Reply

Categories: Cognitive Neuroscience, Health & Wellness

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Watch All Recordings Now (40+ Speakers, 12+ Hours)

About SharpBrains

As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters and more, SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking health and performance applications of brain science.

Follow us and Engage via…

RSS Feed

Search for anything brain-related in our article archives