Kids, Language & Brains

23Apr/17Off

From Use It & Lose It to Use It or Lose It

The point of the title is to track the evolution of scientific thinking about the human brain and how it has changed. Prior to the 1970's scientists generally believed the brain was fixed and resistant to modification.  The analogy with the computer worked then because the brain was considered to be machine-like, a machine destined to show the wear and tear of time leading to inevitable deterioration.  Since then, the thinking has changed dramatically and the computer/machine model has been displaced by a view of the brain as an organism capable of self-healing. Scientists have learned that not only does the brain's circuitry change with experience and activity, when a body part ceases sending sensory input (as in stroke victims), the brain area formerly dedicated to that weakened part can be taken over to perform another function. Today the mainstream view in neuroscience is that brain circuits are constantly changing as we think, perceive, form memories or learn new skills as connections between cells change and strengthen.   It is this capacity to change and strengthen that helps us understand how the brain can be self-healing.  With Alzheimer's as one example, researchers have shown that mental and especially physical exercise can lower the risk of experiencing dementia.   Even having multiple copies of the genetic materials associated with the risk of Alzheimer's is not enough to produce the disease.  How we live matters.  And now, rather than waiting some six weeks following a patient's stroke to intervene and begin active treatment, physicians, realizing how the brain can rewire itself, act quickly to get their stroke patients into therapy/rehabilitation as soon as possible.     Norman Doidge, Brain in the News, February 2015.

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