A fascinating article appeared in ScientificAmerican.com yesterday, August 13, 2009. The title is, "Tasting the Light: Device Lets Blind "See" with Their Tongues." I encourage everyone to go to the website and read the article. It has deep implications for the future of Psychology, Psychiatry and the development of new techniques to help people recover from all types of disabilities, including strokes and mental illnesses. The key word involved in all of this is "Neuroplasticity."
Until very recently, it was believed that the brain was similar to a machine. Just like a machine (i.e. automobile engine, etc.) it was thought that the different parts of the brain has specific and specialized functions that could not be handled by other parts of the brain. For example, it was believed that the brain area called Broca's Area, controlled the mechanisms of speech. Therefore, if that area were to be damaged by a stroke, blow to the head or some other type of traumatic head injury, the individual would lose the ability to speak.
In the same way, it was thought that each of the sensory areas of the brain controlled each person's ability to see, hear, feel, taste, etc. The same principle of specialization would hold true for the brain's control of such things as walking, crawling, arm movement, etc. It was also believed that new brain cells could not grow once adulthood is reached and that the functions of the different parts of the brain were so fixed and programmed that they could not possibly change.
During the 1960's along came a Medical Doctor and Research genius by the strange sounding name of Paul Bach-Y-Rita. As a result of his studies, observations and experiences he hypothesized that the brain is amazingly flexible, adaptable and changeable. He further believed that it is not each of the sense organs that "see, hear, smell, taste, touch and allow for sense of balance" but it is the brain that does each of these things. Simply stated, we see with our brains and not with our eyes.
Even though scientists around the world were research that supported everything Bach-Y-Rita was stating, the medical establishment of the time was not ready to listen. Now, everything has changed thanks to this brilliant man. This is where the article from ScientificAmerican.com enters the picture.
Scientists have invented a computer mechanism the size of a cell phone to act as a conductor of visual sensations to the brain. In effect, this device helps the blind to regain some of their vision. In simple terms, here is how and why it works:
The surface of the human tongue contains thousands of sensory cells that allow us to taste. On the theory that both neurons (brain cells) can be retrained to so new things, it was thought that sensory cells could also be retrained. The new device ends with a "lollipop" type of mechanism that picks up signals from the small computer and sends them up to the brain for translation. What is so unique and fascination about this is that the signals are NOT for TASTE, but, instead, are for VISION!!. The visual images are carried along the sense cells normally used for tasting. These signals are sent to the brain. The damaged parts of the optic nerve or eyes are bypassed, allowing the brain to return to the work of vision. While people do not see perfectly, their site is improved enough to make a dramatic difference in their lives. This is what is meant by "Neuroplasticity."
This exciting research is not limited to people with visual problems. I enthusiastically recommend a wonderful book on this subject written by a Medical Doctor and Neurologist by the name of Norman Doidge, MD. The title of the book is The Brain That Changes Itself. It is available in paperback and is an exciting reading experience. In the book, Dr. Doidge describes the ways in which people with vastly different disabilities are returned to normal function through the use of neuroplasticity, or, the retraining of their brains. Among those who are being helped by stimulating the brain to learn new types of functions are those with different types of learning disabilities, even children with ADHD.
In addition to reading both the Scientific American article and Dr. Doidge's book, I recommend that everyone go to YouTube, use the search term "neuroplastic" and you will come across some exciting programs on this very exciting topic. One of them is a Discovery Channel program about a young girl who has the entire right hemisphere of her brain removed due to a crippling and unusual type of epileptic seizures. Post surgically, she is trained to stimulate the remaining left hemisphere to take on all of the functioning of the lobe that was removed. In sum she is returned to full and normal functioning.
There are lessons in this exciting research for all of us. All too frequently, I hear people bitterly complain about one or another type of emotional problem they have. More than only complaining, they state that their lives are hopeless and there is nothing they can do to make things better. What this research and its findings demonstrate is that we are amazingly adaptable and can learn Anything if we are determined to do so.
In my experience as a therapist, I worked with a number of people who wanted to return to school in order to get their college degrees. Repeated, I heard hopelessness and discouragement because they believed they could never learn math, algebra chemistry, etc. Over and again, with encouragement and patience, I gently urged these people back into school. Although terrified by their math, etc., classes, with hard work and tutoring they all, every last one of them, succeeded.
Through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy people learn how to change and adapt their thinking styles so that they feel far less depressed and anxious and this happens with or without medication.
We can learn anything, if we are determined to do so, including to feel better, less depressed, less anxious and less emotionally troubled. We can learn to relate to others better, to get different and more fulfilling jobs, if we are willing to take the risk to learn. When we learn we exercise and change our brains.
By the way, there are great varieties of self help techiques through which you can stimulate your brain to improve memory, overcome reading problems, improve attention and overcome depression and anxiety. The nice thing about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is that it is possible to purchase manuals on the subject and self train. Here, on our website, we have an excellent self help section that you can use to help yourself. All you need is to want to.
Your comments and experiences are welcome and encourage.
Allan N. Schwartz, PhD