May 29, 2007

The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science

There is a good review in the New York Times of the new book called "The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science" written by the Canadian psychiatrist Norman Doidge (who does work at Columbia University in NY). While this book is not specifically about schizophrenia - it provides hopeful stories and background information on the science of brain regeneration (called neuroplasticity) which provides hope for individuals and families that suffer from schizophrenia.

In the review, New York Times writer Abigail Zuger, M.D. reports that the book is a fascinating synopsis of the current revolution in neuroscience that straddles the gap between hard core brain science, and self-help books, while also noting that the age-old distinction between the brain and the mind is crumbling fast as the power of positive thinking finally gains scientific credibility.

The foundation of this of this brain sciences revolution is called "neuroplasticity" — the discovery that the human brain is changeable and modifiable not only in infancy, as scientists have long known, but well into old age.

As we've covered in past, news on neuroplasticity is relevant for schizophrenia treatment because it may be the basis of why cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is helpful in schizophrenia, and also why its valuable for parents to learn how to act as positive life coaches for children -- teaching them positive perspectives on the world, and how to cope with challenges in a positive way -- so as to lower the risk of mental illness. Its also positive news for people with schizophrenia because new research is leveraging this new understanding of the brain to test new approaches (such as software programs) to help people "program" their own brain for improved mental health (see this study at UC San Francisco Medical School, for example). In research we've seen presented that has not yet been published - its becoming increasingly clear that even a brain that is suffering from schizophrenia can benefit from this type of neuroplasticity research and the future is looking more bright than ever before.


In classical neuroscience, the adult brain was considered unchanging. As Dr. Zuger states "Every part had a specific purpose, none could be replaced or repaired, and the machine was destined to tick in unchanging rhythm until its gears corroded with age."

Now research and sophisticated experimental techniques suggest the brain is constantly changing and is apparently able to respond to injury with striking functional reorganization, and can at times actually think itself into a new anatomic configuration.

Dr. Doidge, a psychiatrist and award-winning science writer, conveys the accomplishments of these neuroscientists involved in these new studies as mind-bending, miracle-making, reality-busting stuff, with implications not only for individual patients with neurologic disease but for all human beings, not to mention human culture, human learning and human history.

For patients with brain injury, the revolution brings only good news, as Dr. Doidge describes in numerous examples. While the book doesn't cover schizophrenia specifically - it covers many other brain disorders and provides a hopeful and positive message for all individuals and families.

In one example described in the book, a surgeon in his 50s suffers an incapacitating stroke. He is one of the first patients to enroll in a rehabilitation clinic guided by principles of neuroplasticity: his good arm and hand are immobilized, and he is set cleaning tables. At first the task is impossible, then slowly the bad arm remembers its skills. He learns to write again, he plays tennis again: the functions of the brain areas killed in the stroke have transferred themselves to healthy regions.

Neuroplasticity may also explain some of the problems that we encounter in mental illness. The brain can think itself into ruts, with electrical habits as difficult to eradicate as if it were, in fact, the immutable machine of yore. Sometimes “roadblocks” can be created to help steer its activity back in the desired direction. Sometimes rewiring the circuits requires hard cerebral work instead; Dr. Doidge cites the success of one of his patients who received therapy.

And, of course, the implications for external re-engineering of the human brain suggest a warning, because if the brain is malleable it is also very vulnerable, "not only to its own mistakes but also to the ambitions and excesses of others, whether they are misguided parents, or despotic national leaders."

The book is available for purchase on Amazon: The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science

Author's Web site: The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge

Additional Reading:

A recommended book about “neuro-plasticity” By Dr. Merznich

Does exercise make kids smarter? - Neuroplasticity and Exercise

The Brain That Changes Itself - Review from Chicago Tribune

Source: NY Times Book Review by Abigail Zuger, MD


i THINK the reviewer draws more conclusions than are evidenced in the book.

Posted by: moonsparrow at May 29, 2007 09:27 PM

I haven't read the book, but I hope that nobody blames the person with schizophrenia for their brain not improving as much or showing the "neuroplasticity" that others may show.

Research is showing that for some people with schizophrenia, the genes regulating that "substrate" - the stuff our brain is based on - what even regulates that neuroplasticity - is itself "defective".

It may be that the very thing predisposing the brain to schizophrenia in some people (remember - this is actually so many different illnesses - with different genes and different triggers) is what also makes, in some people, the brain so hard to heal.

New research into fixing that underlying defect causing the lack of plasticity (such as research into glutamate and GABA receptors), may end up actually making the idea of "neuroplasticity" more attainable, and faster.


Posted by: Naomi at May 31, 2007 10:12 AM

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