Brain Plasticity & Brain Fitness with Dr. Michael MerzenichA few days ago, we hosted a Q&A session on Facebook about brain plasticity and brain fitness with Posit Science founder Dr. Michael Merzenich. For those who missed the discussion and prefer to read it in transcript form, I’ve re-posted it here.

Question: I would love to know what Dr. Merzenich thinks about brain plasticity and its response to chronic pain. Medications have been the go-to for pain but they are not very effective. Brain Plasticity seems like a more useful treatment for chronic pain.

Dr. Merzenich’s Answer: Pain ‘grows’ plastically in brains. That’s why it can endure long after the physical course of pain has been resolved. We are pursuing several strategies designed to treat it, by specific forms of training — for example, by weakening the pain by strengthening the power of innocuous inputs from the same body region.

Follow-Up Response: Thank you Dr. Merzenich! I work at a Chronic Pain Management clinic and the physical and cognitive training we implement appear to aid the patients more than any medications can as I’m sure it aids in training the brain to properly deal with pain.

Question: Who’s a good candidate for brain training?

Dr. Merzenich’s Answer: EVERY brain is subject to positive change. Unless you’re the only person on the planet who is actually neurologically perfect! Seriously, almost all of our human abilities are subject to improvement and further refinement through brain training. If you have personal limitations, this is almost certainly a potential source of real help for you!

Question: What kind of food or excercises favor positive brain plasticity?

Dr. Merzenich’s Answer: Your question is difficult to answer. We know that a daily bout of physical exercise has positive neurological impacts. Most of the benefit appears to come from the first 10-20 minutes of exercise. Every well-ordered life should try to incorporate this into their day! We have just completed study in which patients have been working at Brain Fitness Program exercises WHILE physically exercising. Their benefits were greater than when they sat at their computers and completed training in the usual way. AND OF COURSE eating right matters!

Posit Science Response: You might enjoy two resources: First, we did a Q&A on brain foods a couple of weeks ago, and collected all the questions and responses on our blog here. Also, we have a cookbook with 50 brain-healthy recipes, each with descriptions of the brain-healthy ingredients.

Follow-Up Response: What exercises were done during this study?

Dr. Merzenich’s Follow-Up: There are a number of studies. MY RECOMMENDATION: Brisk walking, without an I-Pod or other distractor, really drinking in the world you’re walking through, and paying attention while you walk to the feelings coming back from your body. Think of engaging your MIND to reconstruct in detail the physical environment in which you’re moving, while you’re engaging your BODY. That gives you two bangs for your buck.

Question: How does long term depression and anxiety symptoms affect brain plasticity?

Dr. Merzenich’s Answer: Alas, they frustrate it. On the other hand, it does not take much to increase the baseline level of brightness or alertness to recover the brain’s capacity to correct itself. This is what happens, for example, when you take an SSRI or undergo good psychotherapy. In both cases, it ‘wakes you (your brain) up’ enough to live life again, and self-correct those processes that have driven you into that hole!

Question: Hello. I have depression, anxiety, and short-term memory issues due to MS. What do you recommend for me to maintain and possibly improve functioning?

Dr. Merzenich’s Answer: You would very likely benefit from the use of the Brain Fitness Program AND InSight. That daily vigorous walk I just mentioned is another very good idea for you — when you can marshall up the energy for it. Also, keep up your good spirits! P.S. A study on benefits if the Brain Fitness Program to M.S. patients is in progress. Anecdotal reports say it can help a lot.

Follow-Up Response: Great, I was one of t he lucky people to get the Auditory program recently with your giveaway. Thank you for that. I will continue it. Since I am on a VERY limited income, unfortunately I cannot afford to get the InSight program. Thank you for the input.

Dr. Merzenich’s Follow-Up: I am delighted to hear that the BFP was put to such outstanding use! Keep up the good work with it!

Question: Regarding the program exercises I find the High and Low exercise to be a great warm up, however, I was caught off guard how quickly it progressed me (or how quickly the sounds became faster) and now I am afraid that I will soon “graduate” from this particular exercise and will no longer be able to access it during my class brain training. Being that positive reinforcements (lack of better words) or positive exercises, are beneficial to the brain why does a person graduate from such a positive exercise? And, would it be beneficial to somehow in the future incorporate some type of High/Low warm up for a shorter duration of time? The context that I am coming from is from receiving a significant head injury in 1988, and I now have a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology. I would appreciate your take of this, thank you very much.

Dr. Merzenich’s Answer: It is interesting that you perceive Hi & Low to ‘warm you up’, because among other benefits, that’s one of our targets! In the next version of these programs (to be played on your Internet browser), you’ll see that we ALWAYS have you begin with a warm-up. We have now shown that if you start each session be increasing your level of alertness/engagement, you learn MORE, FASTER.

Follow-Up Response: Thank you very much!

Question: My situation is that I don’t seem to progress and am extremely slow with multiple mistakes when working on High/Low in Brain Fitness. In all other programs I am doing all right. How important is the HIgh/Low and what does it mean if I struggle with this?

Dr. Merzenich’s Answer: Keep working at it. Improving on this ability, even a little, should pay off! It’s all about brain speed!

A little more about the value of Hi/Low exercises. As you get older or struggle for whatever reason, the brain slows down how it resolves successive little pieces of information as it flows in. That degrades the way that the brain resolves the fine details of what you see or hear. The result: More mistakes in following a conversation, in guiding your own fluent talking, in remembering what you just heard — among many others! Speeding your brain back up, and improving the details of recording what your brain is hearing or seeing is pretty darn important. Keep working on it!

Question: I recently read Dr. Norman Doidge’s “The Brain That Changes Itself” and was interested in the brain exercises used for assisting children with autism. I work in family services with children and the increase in autism spectral disorder diagnoses seems to be significant. it seems that you made progress with children with autism in changing certain behaviours using brain exercises and I’m wondering if you would class this as a possible cure? Also, what can we as workers do to assist our clients?

By assist, I mean are there certain games we can use or advise our client families to engage in with their children aside from the computer based exercises? our clients are often disadvantaged in many areas and these would need to be cheap and easy! Thanks for your time.

Dr. Merzenich’s Answer: Training programs that are now available are not really up to what is needed to drive the brain of an autistic child correctively, in all of the ways that could contribute help. Fast ForWord (Scientific Learning Corp) has been applied in tens of thousands of autistic kids, and can provide substantial benefit. It’s scientifically validated. However, it is largely limited to addressing problems in aural language ability, and can only be effectively applied in kids that already have significant language competencies. More severely impaired kids gain little from its use.

For an older kid or adult, our language and visual training programs (the Brain Fitness Program; InSight) could be expected to help!

Follow-Up Response: Thanks for your answers 🙂 I think we need to look at purchasing Fast ForWord!

Question: What about brain plasticity and recovery from conditions like borderline personality? I am dealing with a traumatized teen girl who is suffering from borderline. Are there specific brain exercises to help with skewed perception or emotion regulation? Mindfulness helps but a game she could play would be MUCH more likely for her to actually do. Would any of the Fast Forward work help her? She has access to those. (She’s in Africa – a war orphan. First language is English.)

Dr. Merzenich’s Answer: Cori, we have constructed and are applying (in experiments) programs designed to establish or re-build social cognition/control abilities in child and adult populations — e.g., in schizophrenics, autistics, social anxiety patients, etc. They are now undergoing testing at laboratories at several research universities. You’ll begin hearing about them over the next month or two or three.

Fast ForWord COULD potentially help because it might be expected to strengthen frontal cortex processes that contribute to her perceptual distortions. But I’d need to know more to be confident about its appicability.

Follow-Up Response: THANK YOU! We’ll try Fast ForWord right now because it’s what we have. Is there any particular type of exercise within Fast ForWord that we should focus on that strengthens frontal cortex processes? Fast ForWord has helped our young people so much, who missed their education due to war. We’re at www.strongheartfellowship.org – and we list you as one of our key inspirations. We love you!

Dr. Merzenich’s Follow-Up: It is wonderful to hear from someone who is on the front lines of helping! We know that the FFW-language programs (or, in the same way, the Posit BPF programs) drive changes in frontal cortex memory, identification of source/agency,… syntactic/prediction and impulse-control and other processes. We see those positive changes expressed both neurologically & behaviorally. It is difficult to attribute these gains to any specific exercises in the FFW or BFP exercise suites.

Second Follow-Up Response: Is there a specific reason that you suggest FFW COULD be helpful versus Brain Fitness?

Dr. Merzenich’s Second Follow-Up: For an individual younger than 23 or 24, I’d probably use the FFW teen program; for 25 or older, I’d probably apply the BFP.

Third Follow-Up Response: More info on FastForword please?

Posit Science Response: Fast ForWord is a brain training program for young people sold by Scientific Learning. You can learn all about it at http://www.scilearn.com/.

Question: I heard John Elder Robison talk about plasticity related to autism. He talked about how the autistic brain seems to be more plastic – so changes more quickly in certain environmental circumstances – but then takes longer to “recover” or bounce back when those circumstance revert back. Can you speak to this, and perhaps ways to train that capitalize on this?

Dr. Merzenich’s Answer: The more poorly organized the brain, the easier it is to change it, plastically. This is rather paradoxical. When a brain is highly reliable, it is also more connectionally stable. An autistic brain is operating highly non-selectively, and is subject to relatively rapid, large-scale plasticity. One of its problems is that it has limited reliability that can protect it from distortion that can arise as a PRODUCT of its exaggerated plasticity.

Question: Are any of your studies looking at social cognition/control being conducted at universities or centers on the east coast?

Dr. Merzenich’s Answer: I have to check with the scientist who is most closely involved in those studies to see if that information can be provided. Send an email to getsocial@positscience.com and we’ll continue this conversation.

Question: Has there been evidence of brain plasticity change after traumatic brain injury with brain scan SPECT evidence with senior with bipolar Level II with low grade mania?

Dr. Merzenich’s Answer: In any chronic illness, or following any brain injury, the brain makes plastic adjustments ‘to get the most out of’ its degraded or damaged machinery. They adjustments often result in a further exaggeration or amplification of loss.

Follow-Up Response: Can acupuncture help with the flow of energy to the brain in that adjustment period?

Dr. Merzenich’s Follow-Up: We simply do not know, to any scientific level of certainty. We know that it DOES have real neurological consequences. But beyond that…..