Time Out to Ponder

Last week our sixteen year old son asked me a food-for-thought question. If a brain could be transplanted from one person to another, would the first person’s tactile, kinesthetic memories be transferred to the second person. And if so, how would that impact the second person if, for instance, the first person was 6 foot tall and a skilled basketball player and soccer ball juggler, and the second person was 5 foot tall and not very coordinated.

We hypothesized that the plasticity of the brain would cause the newly implanted brain in the second person to rewire itself, keeping the physical proficiency intact but recalibrating for the change in physical proportion and size.

He then went on to wonder if a brain could be generated in a petri dish without an attached body being involved. He wasn’t talking about cloning an entire human, just generating a brain that could survive on its own. We didn’t get anywhere with a hypothesis for this because neither of us have sufficient background knowledge to guess at the possibilities, although it did remind me of Krang, one of the “bad guys” in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles television series as seen in the U.S. in the 1980s.

The conversation with my son remained with me not only because of the interesting questions posed, but because questions like this push the boundaries of known information, and that is what scientific researchers often do.

In Abigail Zuger’s May 29, 2007 column, The Brain: Malleable, Capable, Vulnerable, in the Health section of The New York Times, she reviews The Brain That Changes Itself – Stories of Personal Triumph From the Frontiers of Brain Science by Norman Doidge. And on the front page of the June 10, 2007, Sunday Business section of The Times, Stephanie Saul has an extensive article, Taking On Alzheimer’s, that discusses what Wyeth and other drug companies are doing in the search to create drugs that can stave off Alzheimer’s. Both these articles got me thinking again about my son’s questions.

Norman Doidge’s book is about the amazing abilities of the brain to rewire, readjust and relearn after having a slice of itself rendered unfunctional. This is the best of neuroplasticity and he shares stories that highlight the brain’s capacity for learning. (My comments are based on Zuger’s review and feedback from a friend who has read the book; I have not yet read the book but make no mistake, it is on my list!)

The intriguing aspect of the Alzheimer’s article is the research Wyeth is doing on rats. ”Something else extraordinary is going on at Wyeth. The company’s scientists not only can give rodents Alzheimer’s – they have also figured out how to take it away.” This is not the same as generating a brain in a petri dish, but it does make me think about the astonishing possibilities. You can hear Stephanie Saul discuss her article in the June 10, 2007 podcast on the Times web site.

So back to our son’s original queries. What do you think?

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