Tag Archives: plasticity

Successful Aging

Oh dear, yet another large print book. I have nothing against the concept of large print, ideally this makes it easier to read for people with vision issues. However, I wish the publishers did a better job with layout and leading, the latter essentially being the spacing between lines. Lines of large type clumped on a page does not, actually, make for easier reading (for me).

John W Rose, MD, and Rober L Kahn, PhD, compiled the results of a MacArthur Foundation Study on aging and the result is the 1998 book, Successful Aging. Given that this book was published 14 years ago, there was nothing new in it that I had not already seen in some other format.

There were, however, two items that did particularly strike me. The first was the wonderful optimism the authors exude in describing both the results of the long term study and what the findings could mean for the future. While they break down the study and discuss multiple aspects of aging, I think the book’s message can be summed up quite simply. To paraphrase Carol Dweck’s findings about mindsets, those with growth mindsets will find it easier to deal with aging and, as such, will likely have a positive impact on their own aging process. Those who have a fixed mindset will find that when the going gets tough, they may be less flexible in managing repercussions, which will likely have a less positive – and perhaps negative – impact on their own aging process.

The idea of mindsets holds true, as well, for younger peoples’ perceptions of older people. As a teacher, I have always believed that students rise or fall to the level of expectations held for them. Similarly, if younger people can have a positive mindset about older people and the process of aging, this is more likely to have a beneficial impact on their interactions with older people and on their own aging process.

Due to the date of the book, 1998, I tended to question some of the statistics the authors noted, especially regarding the prevalence of Alzheimer’s in the aging population. I am reasonably confident that the numbers of people with, and expected to exhibit some form of dementia or Alzheimer’s is far greater than what they forecast back in 1998. You can read more about the Latest Alzheimer’s Statistics in the United States in this article on the Texas Alzheimer’s Research and Care Consortium site. In any case, both resources note that dementia and Alzheimer’s are not part of the normal aging process.

Similar to what I have gleaned from other books on aging, and from attendance at various Learning & the Brain conferences, Rose and Kahn note there are several factors a person can engage with to help their brains and bodies age normally. Turns out we do have  some control over how we age, it’s not all in the genes.

  • engage in physical activity – good for the body and for the brain, as exercise helps stimulate BDNF, brain-derived neurotrophic factor
  • fertilize your social network – showing care for and an interest in others, and allowing them to do the same for you makes for a strong support system
  • believe that you can manage whatever comes your way – while this may not always be the case, having a “cup half full” approach to aging can help you handle the blips

According to research, focusing on the above three elements will help an individual age successfully. Essentially, this approach translates to preventive care, and preventive care can aid with (in the words of the authors) “avoiding disease, maintaining high cognitive and physical function, and engagement with life.” Alternatively,

Disability in older people results from three key factors: 1) the impact of disease, or more commonly, many diseases at once; 2) lifestyle factors, such as exercise and diet, which directly influence physical fitness and risk of disease; and 3) the biological changes that occur with advancing age – formally known as senescence.

For more on healthy aging, here are some of my prior posts plus an article by Elkhonon Goldberg.

Barbara Arrowsmith

In January 2008 I wrote a post about Barbara Arrowsmith entitled Plasticity and Education. I first heard about Barbara through reading Norman Doidge’s book The Brain That Changes Itself. To quote my piece from 2008, Barbara was born with an asymmetrical brain, which means that one side of her brain functioned astonishingly well and the other side functioned retardedly. Her experiences growing up led to her opening a school that made use of strategies she learned through experience and research. Here she is in her own words, talking about the book she has just written, The Woman Who Changed Her Brain: And Other Inspiring Stories of Pioneering Brain Transformation.

Last post – Music; this post – Dance

For me, they are linked – I hear music, I start to move. And if it’s a certain kind of music, my body starts to dance. The only thinking I do is split second, wondering if it is okay to start dancing in my current surroundings.

Music has an amazing impact on the brain, influencing neuronal impulses to cause movement. This Facebook wall post says it all. In fact, there are instances where dancing helps the brain to think.

Parkinson’s Disease – Dance for PD

I have been training, via Dance for PD, to teach dance to people with Parkinson’s. At some point, a person who has Parkinson’s winds up having difficulty controlling their movement. Their body parts function just fine, but the signal that is sent from their brain to their legs, for instance, gets lost in translation. The signal never arrives, or it arrives late or in a discombobulated form.

It turns out, though, that when someone with Parkinson’s participates in these Dance for PD dance classes, something magical happens. The music permeates their minds and provides rhythmic accompaniment for their movement signals to traverse from the brain to the body part. Feet and legs can move, indeed, dance, often gracefully and fluidly, facilitated by the music.

Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease

Very powerful it is, this dance! Especially in a social setting. Bringing people together to touch hands, figure out who leads, who follows, and how to create movement through music and footwork – all of this requires thought, concentration, focus and quick planning ahead. According to this article by Richard Powers, a dance instructor and presenter at Stanford University, dancing makes you smarterIt’s not just about the physical exercise provided by dance or the release of endorphins that ultimately makes a person feel good, it’s the social aspects that benefit cognition.

Frequent dancing apparently makes us smarter. A major study added to the growing evidence that stimulating one’s mind can ward off Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia, much as physical exercise can keep the body fit.

Fact is, when dancing with a partner, you have to pay attention and be one step (always figuratively and sometimes literally!) ahead of what they will do next. This causes your brain to build synapses and continually rewire itself the more you dance. All of this synaptical building is creating cognitive reserve, a mental buffer. The more neuronal connections you have, the better, so that if one portion of your brain malfunctions, the other portions of your brain can co-opt some of that cognitive reserve.

Dance is FUN and HEALTHY and SOCIAL and just plain GOOD FOR YOU!

Multi-whating?

[Updated January 19 and May 10 with some additions. Also, Happy Birthday a week and a day ago to Fred!]

I don’t usually listen to music while writing or reading, as the music distracts me. If there are words, I want to sing along, and no matter what, I tap my toes or swing my legs, and eventually my whole body gets into the act.

It is possible to retrain my brain so that I can focus on writing or reading while listening to music. However, then I would be multitasking, and research has led to the conclusion that the brain does not – and cannot – multitask.

(As an experiment, I’ve been listening to some wonderful recently-gifted-to-me music and writing this at the same time. However, the experiment doesn’t necessarily prove I can successfully multitask. It simply shows that with strong intent to concentrate, I can write while “turning off” my normal physical response to listening to music.)

NPR’s thirty minute Talk of the Nation, October 2008, is all about Bad At Multitasking? Blame Your Brain. The gist of the conversation is that while you can do more than one thing at a time, none of them are done well. With that said, it seems that younger folks who are growing up with technology (the digital natives, as coined by Marc Prensky), and who do many things at once while using that technology, are perhaps changing their brains as they engage in successful multitasking. Apparently, playing certain types of video games promote the ability to multitask within the brain. Of course, because neuroplasticity is a feature of our brains, the rest of us can also train our brains to become better at multitasking. However, regardless of the age of the person attempting to multitask, switching between two dissimilar tasks will be more successful than switching between two similar tasks, although this is influenced by “how hard and how confusable” the tasks are.

(More on my experiment – last night the music was playing while I wrote the above paragraph. Rereading it this morning, there was a glaring mistake in the last sentence, which I have since remedied. And updated on January 19 – I decided that my memory of the NPR report was inaccurate, so I went back and listened to the NPR report again and, sure enough, I had it right the first time, and wrote it wrong the second time. Sure proves John Medina’s points made below!)

The above conversation is part of an NPR series about multitasking. Please note that “brain research suggests cell phones and driving are a dangerous mix, even with a hands-free device.” If you drive and talk on a cell phone, please listen to the NPR 8:55 minute conversation below on Multitasking In The Car: Just Like Drunken Driving.

John Medina, author of brain rules, states in Rule #4:

We don’t pay attention to boring things.

It turns out that multitasking simply does not help our brains to pay attention. You can read more about what Medina has to say on this topic in his blog article The brain cannot multitask.  In particular, Medina states that “The best you can say is that people who appear to be good at multitasking actually have good working memories, capable of paying attention to several inputs one at a time.” He goes on to say that there is a consequence to multitasking, and this is proved by my editing discovery this morning.

Studies show that a person who is interrupted takes 50 percent longer to accomplish a task. Not only that, he or she makes up to 50 percent more errors.

(By the way, I turned off the music in order to listen to the NPR interviews and read the articles, but the music is back on now for the rest of this post.)

Here are three additional views on multitasking.

Learning & the Brain – Norman Doidge (neuroplasticity)

If you read Doidge’s book, The Brain that Changes Itself, then you didn’t need to be at the Learning & the Brain conference session. And if you were at the session, then you should still read the book because Doidge shares intriguing stories and, in my opinion, is a far more captivating writer than he is a presenter.

Having blogged extensively about the people and issues described in Doidge’s book, rather than recoup it all again, I refer you to the tag cloud for a look at my past posts. If you are not a regular reader of this blog, my recommendation is to begin with the earliest post, which describes Plasticity and will be at the bottom of the page.

You will discover in your reading of either the book or my posts that “brain plasticity occurs in response to the environment, the task at hand, and our thoughts and imaginings”.

And what took so long for plasticity to be acknowledged? Doidge says it is partially due to how the brain has been considered throughout history, which has been from a combination of natural and mechanical perspectives; to a lack of technology for adequately seeing changes as they happen in the brain; to poor prognosis, in the past, of those with brain dysfunctions, coupled with insufficient clinical evidence of recovery; and to the “plastic paradox” (see the third from last paragraph), whereby plasticity leads to rigidity, and therefore plasticity masks itself.

Doidge has done an admirable job of compiling in one place results of related research and development, and chronicling tales of perseverance. If you weren’t already in awe of your amazing brain, you will be after reading his book.

Learning & the Brain Conference, April 2008

Yesss! My grant application for full funding to attend April’s Learning & the Brain conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts was approved. Twice I have attended pre-conference workshops, but never the entire conference. This conference’s theme is Rewiring the Brain: Using Brain Plasticity to Enhance Learning & Help Overcome Learning Disorders. Given my recent posts about plasticity, you can imagine my excitement upon discovering that one of the opening keynote talks will be given by none other than Norman Doidge, author of The Brain That Changes Itself.

Another reason for my excitement is the Adult Brains – Learning & Training strand that will be running through a large number of the presentations, in addition to six sessions exclusively about this area. I have written innumerable posts about adult learning, and professional development, and am eager to attend as many of the related sessions as possible.

What a nice treat to find out in mid-winter. :-)

Plasticity: The Final Four

I am NOT referring to the NCCA’s final four games of the men’s college basketball championships, the opening rounds of which begin in March and are often referred to as March Madness! I AM referring to the final four chapters of Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain That Changes Itself. These chapters are jam packed with science and philosophy.

An entire chapter is devoted to imagination and its role in shaping our brains. Perhaps you are familiar with the act of visualization as a means for improving in sports. Feel free to check your knowledge of this built-in brain tool with ChannelOne’s Head Game or read this New York Times article, FITNESS; Visualization: Does It Provide an Edge? As Doidge has written, it turns out “Brain scans show that in action and imagination many of the same parts of the brain are activated. That is why visualizing can improve performance.”

The topic of memory takes up another chapter, which is infused with references to Freud. Written clearly, it provides an excellent discussion of his theories, in particular transference and dreams, which equate to a “plastic view of memory.”

Rejuvenation is a word that always conjures up a positive image. Just take in this definition of “the phenomenon of vitality and freshness being restored” and how can you go wrong! Renew, refresh, repair… A stem cell is a cell that can make exact copies of itself. The brain has neuronal stem cells, so called because they can specialize as either neurons or glial cells. Doidge describes seeing these cells through a highly detailed microscope, and what he has to say about them is refreshing: “…stem cells don’t have to specialize but can continue to divide, producing exact replicas of themselves, and they can go on doing this endlessly without any signs of aging. … This rejuvenating process is called neurogenesis,” and it goes on until the day that we die.” The simple-sounding keys to promoting neurogenesis include novelty, physical exercise, and learning (something new). Heck, that gives license to do all sorts of interesting things as we age, possibly making the latter portion of aging more fun than the first portion ;-)

Doidge’s last chapter introduces Betty Edwards and her book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. This is near and dear because in the summer of 2005 I took the one week Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain workshop taught by her son, Brain Bommeisler, in New York City. I am rather proud of my accomplishments, and invite you to see for yourself that it is possible to (re)learn to draw, which translates to learning something new later in life, which translates to brain plasticity.

Given how many entries I have posted about Doidge’s book, it will not surprise you to know that I found the content stimulating, refreshing, and exciting. The possibilities for what there is yet to learn about our brains, and the ways in which we will uncover that information, are indeed exhilarating.

Plasticity and the Brain: Merzenich and Taub

Michael Merzenich blogs at On the Brain, where he never seems to mince words as he gets right down to the subject at hand. PositScience: The Science with Dr. Merzenich is a 9 minute video during which Merzenich talks about the development of the brain, brain change, and plasticity.

His current company, PositScience, is focused on how to maintain plasticity and encourage brain change and growth for aging adults, with the goal of improving memory. If you are interested, there are a number of YouTube videos about this, including interviews with neuroscientists and users of the PositScience program.

[October 11, 2008 update – in going through my files I found a May, 6, 2007 NY Times article about Merezenich and his company, entitled Muscular Metaphor, which provides background on the company.]

Merezenich is another one of the neuroscientists featured in Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain That Changes Itself, and may best be known for his work on developing the cochlear implant.

What interests me most, though, are the findings of his research.

‘You cannot have plasticity in isolation … it’s an absolute impossibility.’ His experiments have shown that if one brain system changes, those systems connected to it change as well. The same ‘plastic rules’ – use it or lose it, or neurons that fire together wire together – apply throughout. Different areas of the brain wouldn’t be able to function together if that weren’t the case.

Within the same chapter, Doidge explains the brain chemistry that takes place during learning and unlearning, both of which take place as a function of plasticity. As you learn something, the neurons involved in the learning fire together and thus wire together. This is facilitated in cells by LTP (long-term potentiation), which is the chemical process of strengthening the synaptic connections. When the brain is poised for unlearning, the opposite takes place due to LTD (long-term depression), where the synaptic connections are weakened and disconnected.

Another neuroscientist who brightens the pages of Doidge’s book is Edward Taub. His research and innovation in stroke treatment pioneered CI (constraint induced) therapy, which exploits the brain’s plasticity. You can listen to Taub explain his work in an interview on The Brain Science Podcast, where there are also a number of links and references posted.

Taub’s research supported Merzenich’s findings that “when a brain map is not used, the brain can reorganize itself so that another mental function takes over that processing space.” In addition, with specific application to stroke patients and anyone who had some form of brain damage, “Not only could the brain respond to damage by having single neurons grow new branches within their own small sectors, but, the experiment showed, reorganization could occur across very large sectors.”

Hazaah!

Plasticity and Education: Barbara Arrowsmith

[UPDATE: CBC (Canadian Broadcast Corporation) broadcast Fixing My Brain, an interview with Barbara Arrowsmith, June 16, 2009. I found out about this piece thanks to a post by Jason Atwood at playthink, which took me back to a post I wrote for SharpBrains reviewing Doidge's book. A comment on that post included the link to the CBC piece. I love a good trail!]

Barbara Arrowsmith is another one of the amazing people who populate Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain That Changes Itself. Barbara was born with an asymmetrical brain, which means that one side of her brain functioned astonishingly well and the other side functioned retardedly. Even more amazing, though, is her perseverance, which led her to bust her chops and pursue college and graduate school, earning a degree in Education.

Arrowsmith’s keen interest in learning is based upon her own experience which, along with research that crossed her desk while a student, led her to develop methods for teaching students with learning disabilities. And this led to the creation, in 1980, of the Arrowsmith School located in Toronto, Canada. Barbara knew that it was possible to retrain the brain, for that is precisely what she had done for herself as she willed herself through school.

Here is a description of the Arrowsmith methodology from the school’s site:

The Arrowsmith Program is a program of intensive and graduated cognitive exercises that are designed to strengthen the underlying weak cognitive capacities that are the source of the learning disabilities. Each student’s program is based on a careful assessment to identify the specific learning difficulties.


I am a big fan of Mel Levine, a pediatrician, author, speaker, and founder of All Kinds of Minds. In my 26 years of teaching I have heard Levine speak three times, and later this week will be hearing him speak for a fourth time. In 2002 he published the book A Mind at a Time, which crystallized the work being done by All Kinds of Minds. Also in 2002, PBS (Public Broadcasting System) partnered with All Kinds of Minds to create the broadcast Misunderstood Minds, which focused on learning issues related to attention, reading, writing and mathematics.

When reading Doidge’s chapter about Barbara Arrowsmith, I couldn’t help but wonder what Mel Levine would make of her approach. Arrowsmith’s system seems to be a head-on assault of an individual’s learning difficulties by using intensive practice to retrain those parts of the brain that cause the difficulty. Levine, on the other hand, attacks learning difficulties by utilizing the individual’s strengths to tackle specific difficulties. It is not an issue of “fixing” the problem, but rather of finding ways around the problem. Arrowsmith and Levine have the same goal, to make it possible for the individual to learn, but different methods for getting there.

Plasticity and The Senses: Paul Bach-y-Rita

This October 2012 update reflects new links for the videos, as PBS is no longer hosting Wired Science programs.
In December 2007 the PBS Wired Science show included a piece about Bach-y-Rita’s research: Mixed Feelings. Here are some additional videos covering some of the same content: BrainPort Vision Through Tongue, BrainPort Balance Device.

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The first time I heard of Paul Bach-y-Rita was on a public television broadcast of a special show about the brain. The story of Paul Bach-y-Rita fills the first chapter of Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain That Changes Itself.

The stories of Bach-y-Rita – how his father recovered from a stroke and the impact this had on Bach-y-Rita’s career, the people with severe balancing issues who were essentially cured by his discoveries and innovations, and the people who had no vision who were able to begin to see – are compelling in and of themselves. They are very human stories, derived from the work of a man who was altruistically motivated.

A major contribution of Paul Bach-y-Rita’s to neuroscience was in thinking of the brain as “polysensory”, meaning that the sensory areas of the brain, rather than only processing information from just the senses that normally report to those areas, are actually able to process information from any of the senses. The stories referenced above, relating to balance and vision, rely heavily on the polysensory ability of the brain to take input from the tongue and route it to the areas of the brain dealing with balance or vision.

Amazing? Absolutely! His work is a reminder of how adaptable our brains are, and makes me wonder how many more hidden secrets are waiting to be revealed. You can read more about the science behind Bach-y-Rita’s efforts in these articles:

On Wisconsin Magazine: Balancing Act (Spring 2007)

Discover Magazine: Can You See With Your Tongue? (June 2003)

Discover Magazine: Artifical Sight (August 2001)

College of Engineering, University of Wisconsin-Madison: Tongue seen as portal to the brain (2001)

And on an unrelated note, F, Happy Birthday tomorrow!