The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge, M.D.
Chapter 1: A Woman Perpetually Falling…Rescued by the Man Who Discovered the Plasticity of Our Senses
Doidge begins by telling of a lady (Cheryl Schiltz) who five years earlier (1997) suffered from a postoperative infection that was treated with the antibiotic, “gentamicin”. One of its side effects is loss of vestibular function. The doctor said that it would be permanent. Cheryl felt like she was continually falling.
We keep our balance due to the delicate vestibular system, which consists of three semicircular canals in the inner ear. One maintains balance with movement vertically, one horizontally and finally one forward and backward. There are tiny hairs in a fluid inside the canals. As we move these hairs move within the fluid. The brain interprets the information and as we move, we still see straight. Some think of this vestibular apparatus as one of our senses.
Paul Bach y Rita and his neuroplasticity team had developed a device that, they hoped, would allow her vestibular system to be restored. After some very short trials, she used the device for 20 minutes. In addition to those 20 minutes, she experienced 3 hours and 20 minutes of residual effect. That was an amazing result for Cheryl and the research team, however, experiencing lack of balance again was very hard for her. Over the next year, she used the device increasingly longer and now does not consider herself a “Wobbler” any longer.
Earlier, in 1969, Bach y Rita wrote an article for Nature, Europe’s premier science journal. On this occasion, he and his team had developed a device (tactile-vision) that allowed congenitally blind individuals to read, make out faces and shadow, and distinguish whether objects were closer or farther away. There were six subjects who were able to experience sight to some degree. While this device is long forgotten, it was one of the first demonstrations of using one sense to replace another.
This and other demonstrations would challenge the idea of earlier scientists that the brain was a machine. Also, challenged was the idea of localization — that is specific brain function was localized in one area only. Rejecting this idea, Bach y Rita set out to prove the mainstream idea as wrong.
Paul Bach y Rita has studied, researched and worked in a number of fields, following his quest wherever it took him. He says, “We see with our brains, not with our eyes. … our eyes merely sense changes in light energy, it is our brains that perceive and hence see.” P. 15 Because a blind man’s cane can help him “see”, Bach y Rita, believed that skin and touch receptors can substitute for a retina.
While in Germany in the early 1960s Bach y Rita began to doubt the concept of localization. His research demonstrated that the idea of ‘one function, one location’ was flawed. His tactile-vision machine further demonstrates that the brain, not a machine is the “miracle.” Indeed, we can say with King David in Psalm 139, “…we are fearfully and wonderfully made.”
In 1959, Paul’s brother George had been told that their father had suffered a severe stroke and would not regain mobility and speech. After trying rehabilitation programs, he set out to rehabilitate his father. Since he couldn’t walk, he decided he would begin where babies begin – crawling. He first taught his father to crawl. After a year of hard work, Pedro Bach y Rita was able to return to teaching at a University in New York. Thus, Paul understood that the brain could relearn.
By 2002, 33 years after Bach y Rita had written about his tactile-vision machine, scientists are using a smaller, modern version train the brain. With modern technology they can indeed see that the tactile images are being processed in their brain’s visual cortex. A modern neuroscientist, Mriganka, has surgically rewired the brain of a young ferret – using hearing and vision. P. 25 It is fascinating to read of the research that is being done… the discovery is that “...we are fearfully and wonderfully made.”