21 October 2012

Book Review: The Brain that Changes Itself

The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge reviews the history and the current state of a rather new paradigm in neuroscience. The book explores the concept of neuroplasticity: the capacity of the brain (neurons) to change at any point in time. It does so, by presenting scientists involved in these developments, their research and successful cases of patients treated under the principles of neuroplasticity.

The old common wisdom that the brain is a fixed entity after childhood is challenged; the machine metaphor is rendered obsolete. Through a series of studies and experiences during the last thirty years, evidence piled up showing that the brain was able to change, adapt and heal itself in ways beyond previous expectation.

Patients are treated by exploiting the very nature of the brain and its neural pathways: the association of neurons in the brain responsible for a particular response.  By creating new or modifying old pathways the behavior of the brain can be altered, and by repetition those pathways are enhanced and made permanent. Throughout the book, the author explores conditions like learning disorders, cognition and memory sharpness, or chronic pain to name a few. 

One interesting case is the presence of pain in amputated limbs, also called phantom limbs. The pain in phantom limbs has its source, commonly, in pain present already before amputation. Physiologically there is no direct access to the zone where the patient feels the pain, but the answer is in the brain and how it changes its sensory processing structures after amputation.

V. S. Ramachandran, a researcher at the Center for Brain and Cognition in University of California San Diego, has been involved in understanding the nature of pain. His interventions look more like a trick of magic than a medical procedure, showing that perception is more important for the brain than raw reality. 

To treat pain and other ailments in phantom limbs, he created an open box where the patient placed through one hole his functioning arm and was asked to imagine placing his phantom arm into the other hole. The box, using a set or mirrors, forms an image of the present arm where the missing one should be. This procedure --which was featured in one episode of the TV show House MD-- alleviated the pain and the patient reported being able to move his phantom limb. In a similar case, the pain went away only when the limbs were placed into the box. The patient had to train during several days to be able to completely recover by training his brain and modifying the neural pathways.

Norman Doidge gives a compelling narrative on the many advantages that neuroplasticity offers as a starting point in therapies. It also provides new and insightful views on the human nature; opening a window to understand ourselves as humans regarding how we learn and adapt though out our lives and not just through our childhood.


Disclaimer: I wrote this for a Coursera course on Writing for the Sciences with a limitation of about 500 words. It is published as submitted for the first writing assignment.


B. said...

Excelente! Feroz libro. Por ahí me recomendaron otro, pero lo voy a leer antes de dar ningún veredicto. ;)

Ignacio Vergara Kausel said...

Espero que a tu entrenamiento profesional mi review haya sido de un nivel decente.

"pero lo voy a leer antes de dar ningún veredicto. ;)" suena como rara esa sentencia. no sería mejor decir "pero lo voy a leer antes de dar veredicto alguno."?