The Brain That Changes Itself – by Norman Doidge

Intro:
“They were muddy in, muddy out,” says Merzenich. Improper hearing led to weaknesses in all the language tasks, so they were weak in vocabulary, comprehension, speech, reading, and writing. Because they spent so much energy decoding words, they tended to use shorter sentences and failed to exercise their memory for longer sentences. Their language processing was more childlike, or “delayed,” and they still needed practice distinguishing “da, da, da” and “ba, ba, ba.”

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Click Here to Get Your Free ChapterExtracts: “They were muddy in, muddy out,” says Merzenich. Improper hearing led to weaknesses in all the language tasks, so they were weak in vocabulary, comprehension, speech, reading, and writing. Because they spent so much energy decoding words, they tended to use shorter sentences and failed to exercise their memory for longer sentences. Their language processing was more childlike, or “delayed,” and they still needed practice distinguishing “da, da, da” and “ba, ba, ba.” Merzenich now became aware of the work of Paula Tallal at Rutgers, who had begun to analyze why children have trouble learning to read. Somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of preschool children have a language disability that makes it difficult for them to read, write, or even follow instructions. Sometimes these children are called dyslexic. Babies begin talking by practicing consonant-vowel combinations, cooing “da, da, da” and “ba, ba, ba.” In many languages their first words consist of such combinations. In English their first words are often “mama” and “dada,” “pee pee,” and so on.

Tallal’s research showed that children with language disabilities have auditory processing problems with common consonant-vowel combinations that are spoken quickly and are called “the fast parts of speech.” The children have trouble hearing them accurately and, as a result, reproducing them accurately. Merzenich believed that these children’s auditory cortex neurons were firing too slowly, so they couldn’t distinguish between two very similar sounds or be certain, if two sounds occurred close together, which was first and which was second. Often they didn’t hear the beginnings of syllables or the sound changes within syllables. Normally neurons, after they have processed a sound, are ready to fire again after about a 30-millisecond rest. Eighty percent of language-impaired children took at least three times that long, so that they lost large amounts of language information. When their neuron-firing patterns were examined, the signals weren’t clear.

Fast ForWord is the name of the training program they developed for language-impaired and learning disabled children. The program exercises every basic brain function involved in language from decoding sounds up to comprehension—a kind of cerebral cross-training. The program offers seven brain exercises. One teaches the children to improve their ability to distinguish short sounds from long. A cow flies across the computer screen, making a series of mooing sounds. The child has to catch the cow with the computer cursor and hold it by depressing the mouse button. Then suddenly the length of the moo sound changes subtly. At this point the child must release the cow and let it fly away. A child who releases it just after the sound changes scores points. In another game children learn to identify easily confused consonant-vowel combinations, such as “ba” and “da,” first at slower speeds than they occur in normal language, and then at increasingly faster speeds. Another game teaches the children to hear faster and faster frequency glides (sounds like “whooooop” that sweep up). Another teaches them to remember and match sounds. The “fast parts of speech” are used throughout the exercises but have been slowed down with the help of computers, so the language-disabled children can hear them and develop clear maps for them; then gradually, over the course of the exercises, they are sped up. Whenever a goal is achieved, something funny happens: the character in the animation eats the answer, gets indigestion, gets a funny look on its face, or makes some slapstick move that is unexpected enough to keep the child attentive. This “reward” is a crucial feature of the program, because each time the child is rewarded, his brain secretes such neurotransmitters as dopamine and acetylcholine, which help consolidate the map changes he has just made. (Dopamine reinforces the reward, and acetylcholine helps the brain “tune in” and sharpen memories.)

“Before he did Fast ForWord,” his mother recalls, “you’d put him at the computer, and he got very stressed out. With this program, though, he spent a hundred minutes (now 30 minutes – editor) a day for a solid eight weeks at the computer. He loved doing it and loved the scoring system because he could see himself going up, up, up,” says his mother. As he improved, he became able to perceive inflections in speech, got better at reading the emotions of others, and became a less anxious child. “So much changed for him. When he brought his midterms home, he said, ‘It is better than last year, Mommy.’ He began bringing home A and B marks on his papers most of the time—a noticeable difference…Now it’s ‘I can do this. This is my grade. I can make it better.’ I feel like I had my prayer answered, it’s done so much for him. It’s amazing.” A year later he continues to improve Because so many autistic children have language impairments, clinicians began to suggest the Fast ForWord program for them. They never anticipated what might happen.

Parents of autistic children who did Fast ForWord told Merzenich that their children became more connected socially. He began asking, were the children simply being trained to be more attentive listeners? And he was fascinated by the fact that with Fast ForWord both the language symptoms and the autistic symptoms seemed to be fading together. Could this mean that the language and autistic problems were different expressions of a common problem? Two studies of autistic children confirmed what Merzenich had been hearing. One, a language study, showed that Fast ForWord quickly moved autistic children from severe language impairment to the normal range. But another pilot study of one hundred autistic children showed that Fast ForWord had a significant impact on their autistic symptoms as well. Their attention spans improved. Their sense of humor improved. They became more connected to people. They developed better eye contact, began greeting people and addressing them by name, spoke with them, and said good-bye at the end of their encounters. It seemed the children were beginning to experience the world as filled with other human minds.

What is remarkable about the cortex in the critical period is that it is so plastic that its structure can be changed just by exposing it to new stimuli. That sensitivity allows babies and very young children in the critical period of language development to pick up new sounds and words effortlessly, simply by hearing their parents speak; mere exposure causes their brain maps to wire in the changes. After the critical period older children and adults can, of course, learn languages, but they really have to work to pay attention. What if it were possible to reopen critical-period plasticity, so that adults could pick up languages the way children do, just by being exposed to them? Merzenich had already shown that plasticity extends into adulthood, and that with work—by paying close attention—we can rewire our brains. But now he was asking, could the critical period of effortless learning be extended?

Merzenich continues to challenge the view that we are stuck with the brain we have at birth. The Merzenich brain is structured by its constant collaboration with the world, and it is not only the parts of the brain most exposed to the world, such as our senses, that are shaped by experience. Plastic change, caused by our experience, travels deep into the brain and ultimately even into our genes, molding them as well—a topic to which we shall return ndoidge

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Changes in Brain Function



I have been very interested in how modern brain imaging technologies can teach us things about how children learn and how they struggle to learn and so that’s how I’ve been interested for a while. And then I learned in reading the scientific literature about the work of Tallal and Merzenich that underlies Fast ForWord and scientific learning. I was so impressed by their neuron scientific approach that they had taken to developing this program. I thought it would have been natural to see how the program actually alters children’s brains to go through it.

We looked at these children before they did Fast ForWord. They did Fast ForWord and then we looked at their brain again afterwards and tried to see if they were any changes in brain functions.

The two biggest things that we are following;

First, some part of the brain that children are normally engaged to read were not activated to start within the poor readers and those were now activated, so we saw some part of the brain become normalized to show the activity expecting good readers.

The second, we saw which was perhaps less expected was that many other part of the brain, there are not typically engaged in reading were also turned on as a consequence of the training program.

We are terribly excited by the interaction between education and science. Education is such a struggle in this country and so important for the children. And many scientific methods have not yet been unleashed, you know in a way that is useful for education.

And so that is one of the most exciting things about Fast ForWord, it’s that it’s trying to bridge the gap between science and education. Have education inform the science and science inform the education.

Phonics Bulletin - Fast ForWord

Magazine Article on Research Available

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John D. E. Gabrieli, Ph.D.
Grover Hermann Professor in Health Sciences and Technology and Cognitive Neuroscience

Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences
Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology

Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience

We seek to understand the organization of memory, thought, and emotion in the human brain. We want to discover how the healthy brain supports human capacities, such as hippocampal support for declarative memory, amygdala support for emotional memory, and prefrontal cortical support for working memory. We also study how experience alters functional brain organization (brain plasticity). We aim to understand principles of brain organization that are consistent across individuals, and those that vary across people due to age, personality, and other dimensions of individuality. Therefore, we examine brain-behavior relations across the life span, from children through the elderly. We are also interested in learning how disadvantageous variations in brain structure and function underlie diseases and disorders, and have studied developmental disorders (dyslexia, ADHD, autism), age-related disorders (Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease), and psychiatric disorders (depression, social phobia, schizophrenia). Further, we want to understand how potential behavioral or pharmacologic treatments alter brain function when they are therapeutically effective.

Our primary methods are brain imaging (functional and structural), and the experimental behavioral study of patients with brain injuries. The majority of our studies involve functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), but we also employ other brain measures as needed to address scientific questions, including diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), MRI structural volumes, and voxel-based morphometry (VBM).

Much of our research occurs in the Martinos Imaging Center at the McGovern Institute, MIT, which is affiliated with the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging . The Martinos centers are a collaboration among the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology (HST), the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, Massachusetts General Hospital , and Harvard Medical School . Our affiliations with these outstanding research institutions promote the opportunity for cutting-edge basic cognitive neuroscience research and translation from basic science to clinical application.

The Ability to Learn

Merzenich



Dr. Merzenich is the brain behind Fast ForWord and the author of Soft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life. For nearly five decades, he has been a leading pioneer in brain plasticity research.

Dr. Merzenich has published more than 150 articles in leading peer-reviewed journals (such as Science and Nature), received numerous awards and prizes (including the Russ Prize, Ipsen Prize, Zülch Prize, Thomas Alva Edison Patent Award and Purkinje Medal), and been granted nearly 100 patents for his work. He and his work have been highlighted in hundreds of books about the brain, learning, rehabilitation, and plasticity.


 

Mike Merzenich, Norman Doidge, Fast ForWord

The Brain That Changes Itself – Norman Doidge interviews Mike Merzenich.

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What if it were possible to reopen critical-period plasticity, so that adults could pick up languages the way children do, just by being exposed to them? Merzenich had already shown that plasticity extends into adulthood, and that with work—by paying close attention—we can rewire our brains. But now he was asking, could the critical period of effortless learning be extended?

 

 

 

Dr. Michael MerzenichMike has been a pioneer and a leader in demonstrating that the brain function and wiring is sensitive to neural activity. His basic work has elucidated mechanisms underlying this plasticity, and his translational work has illuminated the possible ways medicine can intervene to ameliorate brain disorders… his work has revolutionized the way we view the brain’s plasticity and his latest work in mental disorders illustrates his sincere dedication to alleviate human suffering.” – Dr. John Rubenstein, MD, PhD, distinguished professor in Child Psychiatry at UCSF

Dr. Merzenich’s work is also often covered in the popular press, including the New York Times, the Wall Street JournalTimeWired, Forbes,Discover, and Newsweek. He has appeared extensively on television. He is the scientific consultant and provided the brain assessments and brain training exercises for the Discovery Channel show “Hack My Brain” (which aired in Australia as “Redesign My Brain.”) His work has also been featured on four PBS specials: “The Brain Fitness Program,” “Brain Fitness 2: Sight and Sound,” “The New Science of Learning,” and “Brain Fitness Frontiers.”

Dr. Merzenich earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Portland and his PhD at Johns Hopkins. He completed a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Wisconsin in Madison before becoming a professor at the University of California, San Francisco. In 2007, he retired from his long career at UCSF as Francis A. Sooy Professor and Co-Director of the Keck Center for Integrative Neuroscience. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1999 and the Institute of Medicine in 2008.

In the late 1980s, Dr. Merzenich was on the team that invented the cochlear implant, now distributed by market leader Advanced Bionics. In 1996, Dr. Merzenich was the founding CEO of Scientific Learning Corporation (Nasdaq: SCIL), which markets and distributes software that applies principles of brain plasticity to assist children with language learning and reading.

To learn more about Dr. Merzenich’s work, we recommend his book Soft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change your Life.

Soft Wired, Brain Plasticity,

“Soft-Wired is one of the most important books on health and aging ever written…

 

 

 

“Soft-Wired is the most authoritative, useful and entertaining book on the subject of brain plasticity. Written by the scientist who launched the field, this book stands above them all.” — Sandra Blakeslee, New York Times science writer