Brain plasticity

Quick link: the Neurophilosophy blog has a post about a fascinating phenomenon: a woman who loses function of her vestibular system cannot balance herself calls herself a Wobbler. That is, until, science comes to the rescue! A doctor invents a pad of electrodes to put on her tongue to restore her sense of balance. And it works.

This is because the senses can be remapped to different parts of the brain. This was a ridiculous notion when a scientist first published a paper about blind subjects being able to see with their sense of touch, stimulated by sensors on the back of a chair. Ever since Paul Broca discovered that a part of the brain many dubbed the “language center,” scientists had believed that the brain was divided into distinct, unchangeable parts with distinct functions. Not anymore!

I think one of the most exciting fields right now is neuroscience–it’s weirder than any altmed practitioner, psychic, tarot card reader, or UFO-ologist could ever imagine. I would tag this with “awesome” right now, but I think the tag would soon be abused and overused. By me.

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Vy is a recent graduate working in a neuroscience lab with children and monkeys. She likes sewing, knitting, lifting weights, and reading in her free time. Especially reading about science!


  1. July 28, 2008 at 1:31 pm —

    It’s stories like this that I think of whenever someone tells me that science takes all the wonder out of the world. What could be more wonderful than this? The brain is so adaptable, and this creative doctor took advantage of that capacity it to give this patient her mobility back. I agree, an awesome tag is wholly appropriate.

  2. Resfirma
    July 28, 2008 at 2:26 pm —

    Nice job, Vy.

    I agree LBB!

    This is awesome. I’ve been “enjoying” an ongoing discussion with a theist. I provided the “God hates amputees” argument and didn’t hear from her for a while. Yesterday she sends me a note to tell me that instead of healing the amputee, God has provided the ability to make prosthetics.

    I asked if she was referring to a pirate hook and/or peg-leg, or was she referring to the new robotic arms that are being tested. She got a bit angry and I said, “You know, I haven’t seen instructions for either the low- or high-tech models in any of His holy books. Then our discussion was over.

    It does piss me off though. Science never gets the credit. We need a Sky Daddy soooo much…

  3. Dragonfire
    July 28, 2008 at 2:26 pm —

    Plasticity is a wonderful thing. I have a cochlear implant (read: bionic ear) which works only because of plasticity.

    It works by threading 16 pairs of electrical leads into the cochlear nerve and artificially stimulating it according to what is processed by the external processor. The brain has to learn to understand what the implant is saying. This can take anywhere from 6-18 months and can be very frustrating.

  4. Cassie
    July 28, 2008 at 2:38 pm —

    Cool article Vy,
    It warms my heart to see such amazing things being accomplished by science…

    … And I feel the need remind Resfirma that Spiderman and his daughter Spidergirl are much cooler then the Hulk.

  5. vreify
    July 28, 2008 at 2:47 pm —

    Resfirma: I was about to post a link to a robotic arm, too. But since you mentioned it here it is!

    Dragonfire: That’s amazing. This only cements the argument that we’re all going to become part-machine in the future. What is it like to have to “learn” what it’s saying? Is it like learning to listen to the different sounds of a foreign language?

  6. Joy Wang
    July 28, 2008 at 2:51 pm —

    That’s just totally awesome! I love reading about science because it’s always uncovering the most amazing stuff, especially in fields like neuroscience.

    True enough, Cassie, but fractals pwn all!

  7. Dragonfire
    July 28, 2008 at 3:04 pm —

    Even though I was only implanted 2 years ago, when I was 19, it feels like much longer. My brain’s acclimation was so gradual that I can’t really say what it was like. I’m sure that having a little hearing left in the other ear helped keep things sounding relatively normal.

    All I know is that when it was activated, peoples voices sounded like Daleks or classic Cylons with laryngitis.

    The most frustrating thing is that you cannot conciously learn to understand this, it is something your brain has to learn on an autonomic level. There is no aural equivilent to the ‘you are now breathing manually’ trick.

    As for the foreign language example, I’m not too sure. Being hearing impaired (started at 60dB when born, degenerated to around 100dB by college) forgein languages were very hard for me, as it is almost impossible to lip read them. Along with the fact that I think too much in english due to antidyslexia training this made it very hard to do so.

    Right now my brain has done a rather good job at using the cochlear to get the majority of sound while using what little hearing I have left in my left ear to give it a more human sound.

  8. Resfirma
    July 28, 2008 at 3:28 pm —

    Yep! That’s the one I was thinking about.

    I love robots. My favorite two years of my otherwise Dilbert-like career were in a research and development robotics lab. You had to be careful with my robotic arm, it weighed 300 pounds and could hurt a person… similar to what might happen to certain over-rated spider-like comic book heroes should Hulk decide to SMASH. But I digress…

    Personally, I’m waiting for my Google implant so I can look stuff up with a single thought!

  9. July 28, 2008 at 7:20 pm —

    Science is ridiculously awesome. Also, when it comes to the competition between brains and computers, that’s where we win: the capacity of the software to adjust the hardware to changing conditions.

    P.S. Don’t you people know the last word on hypothetical fights? No matter who is fighting who, when or where it happens, Batman wins.

  10. Cassie
    July 28, 2008 at 8:10 pm —

    Hulk to slow! :mrgreen:

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