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Hello Brain • Brain Health
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The woman who built herself a better brain

The woman who built herself a better brain

The old theory of the unchanging brain said that people born with brain or mental limitations or who suffered injury or stroke later in life would be limited or damaged forever. This was rooted in the idea that the brain was a wonderful machine, but with specific parts for different functions that could be broken but not fixed. Picture that complex machine inside your head, and then rip up that picture up. The brain is not a machine. The brain is alive; like a grand old oak, it can continue growing new branches and roots so long as it lives. 

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And it can change itself. In his book The Brain that Changes Itself, scientist Norman Doidge describes the remarkable story of Barbara Cohen, who had a confusing mix of learning disabilities but was brilliant in other ways. She had trouble with symbols and how they related to each other – she could not unravel the mysteries of telling time from a clock with numbers and hands. When she was 28 – as a graduate student working in developmental disabilities – she read about a discovery in California. Rats there living in stimulating environments had brains that were heavier and had better blood supply than other rats. For Barbara, this was her eureka moment. Mental stimulation could change the brain. She set about trying to tell time on hundreds of cards picturing clock faces, then checking answers on the back.  By focusing on her brain’s weakest ability – relating a number of symbols to each other – she finally started getting answers right. At the end of weeks of exhausting training, she could read clocks. But she also noticed improvements in her other difficulties in relating symbols and began for the first time to grasp maths and grammar. Her brain had changed.

Delighted by her success, she designed exercises for her other disabilities. Like a weakened muscle, parts of her brain flexed and grew new connections. She finally understood what people were saying in real time. She later opened the Arrowsmith School in Toronto, Canada, and began to develop brain exercises to help children with learning issues. Here, children stretched and challenged their brain; studying Persian letters gave visual memory a workout and improved shape recognition, for example.  

Back in the lab, scientists found that mental training or life in enriched environments boosts brain weight in rats by 5% in their cerebral cortex and up to 9% in areas that the training directly flexes. Trained or stimulated neurons (brain cells) sprout 25% more branches and increase their size, number of connections and blood supply. And these changes can occur late in life.  So the brain is not some convoluted machine, or a fixed “you,” but a living flexible friend that you can bend and shape to your needs. Just like the woman who figured out how to build herself a new brain. Illustration: Neuroplasticity

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