It’s not so long ago that scientists and laypeople thought that the malleability of the brain was over once adulthood was reached. Santiago Ramón y Cajal, for example, wrote in 1913 that by adulthood nerve paths were fixed, ended and immutable. He said that nerve cells could die but not be regenerated. This vision implied not only that adults had limited possibilities of learning and changing. It also implied that when someone had had severe brain injury this should be accepted as a sad given. Recovery was not considered possible because brain structure were fixed and brain cells (neurons) could not be regenerated. That was then. And this is now. Much progress has been made. 

 

In 1958 Pedro Bach-y-Rita suffered a stroke which paralyzed him on one side and which took away his speech. Doctors  said that recovery would be impossible. Pedro’s son George, a psychiatrist, refused to accept this and designed a training program which eventually made it possible for Pedro to lead a normal life. After Pedro’s death an autospy revealed that  the stroke had severely damaged large parts of his brain and that this damage had not been repaired.

 

Pedro’s other son, Paul Bach-y-Rita, moved, not long after his medicine study, to the United States where he would become a professor. He would become one the most important pioneers in the field of neuroplasticity.  As one of the first researchers he suggested that sensory substitution was possible, in other words that sensory information of one kind could be transformed into sensory information of another kind. For a long time he wasn’t taken seriously and he was ridiculed. Now, views on the malleability of the brain have changed a lot. It is now clear that brains have a huge plasticity and that sensory subtitution is not only a nice theoretical idea but that this principle has wodnerful practical applications. This video shows how that works and shows some examples.

 

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