Finding your mind after you’ve lost it

How do the blind learn to see, the deaf learn to hear? – Plasticity is the word everyone is talking about.

 

The mind is the most complex thing in the universe. It can deal with intricate processes, overcome the hardest of challenges and all the while keep constant those unconscious properties we need for life. But what happens when aspects of our brain falter, making the easiest actions horrendously difficult?

In early brain studies, neuroscientists often thought that certain sense regions of the brain were fixed. Plasticity – the ability for the brain to adapt and change – was considered fiction. In the 20th century, researchers like Paul Bach-y-Rita became obsessed with the nature of plasticity, allowing for a more comprehensive understanding of the human mind.

The brain speaks in only one language – electrical signals. There are no smells or noises floating around – instead, we make contact with a stimulus, be it our favourite song, the taste of warm chocolate or seeing our arch-nemesis, via our sensory apparatus which act as receptors to the external environment. This is all conveyed in our brains by electrical signals being passed from neuron to neuron to a specific region.

But what happens when our receptors are damaged? Bach-y-Rita showed that when a blind person touched something, an electrical signal went to the touch centre as well as the sight centre. Plasticity, a word that was often frowned upon, was starting to raise eyebrows and it wasn’t long until further contributions were made.

Thanks to the knowledge we have gained from plasticity, things like the electronic ‘feeling’ glove were made for astronauts. It worked by having electrical sensors on the surface, which made performing delicate tasks in space a lot easier compared to using the thick gloves used previously. The glove was then adapted for leprosy sufferers who had lost all sensation in their hands. It sent electrical signals to a healthier part of the arm and was able to ‘trick’ the brain into thinking these were hand sensations. One of the most interesting inventions was a condom designed for spinal cord injury victims who had lost all feeling in their penises. As carnal satisfaction is just another brain sensation, the condom was able to pick up movement and relay an electrical impulse back to the region of the brain that processes sexual excitement and orgasms.

It was our generation that really put plasticity to the test. We learned that it was easier for the brain to adapt at a young age, which is why children are encouraged to learn foreign languages and wear glasses earlier in order to correct their eyesight.

When it comes to understanding the functions of the brain, plasticity is only the beginning. It is funny that we ever turned our noses up at the idea of plasticity, as it has helped neuroscientists gain a much better understanding of the human mind.

5 Comments

  1. Anon

    20 August, 2013 at 7:20 pm

    Come on Roar, was this really the best science-related article you could get written for you? It reads like a primary-aged child’s project. The language is poor and some of the science is misleading due to it’s over-simplicity (the mind is an organism?). I know it needs to be in lay language for everyone to understand but a sizeable chunk of the readers of this section will be looking for something more than the most dumbed down explanation of plasticity I could imagine. But that aside, the level of writing is far below what I’d expect to be published.

    “It worked by having electrical sensors on the surface that got transmitted to the skin on your hand” Does this even make sense? If it does, (and it doesn’t to someone who’s just finished a 2nd year neuroscience module) then the language is embarrassingly clumsy.
    There’s a poor amount of evidence towards anything – our generation? “We learned that it was easier…” Who did?

    And did anyone proof-read this? A 62-word sentence?
    “One of the most… Interesting ones” Apart from it’s immaturity this is grammatically wrong – but I could get over that if it was really necessary for the style, but all it reminds me of is how I used to write as a child. And ‘ones’ is a pronoun and should be referring back to something, but it doesn’t.

    I’m sorry if this is insulting to the author, but I don’t think the editors at Roar should have published something at this level, apparently without editing it a touch.

    • LC

      20 August, 2013 at 10:09 pm

      Have you ever considered this could be someone’s first attempt at producing work in this style, or for this kind of audience? Nobody gets everything right the first time round, but they certainly don’t get better at it through pure outright insults like this. Maybe analyse your definition of constructive criticism, and consider how -immature- shielding yourself behind anon is before making such a negative and harsh evaluation.

    • Ben Jackson

      21 August, 2013 at 12:02 am

      JH, your comment has been noted by the team. The article has received positive feedback from some because of its accessibility. Regarding your criticism of the way the article has been edited, we are student volunteers who don’t get things right all the time. I would encourage any King’s student who feels they can help with the development of the newspaper to get in touch with me at editor@roarnews.co.uk

    • SG

      28 August, 2013 at 8:14 pm

      If it’s that bad, and you think you can do better, why don’t you write the next article?

  2. Jessy Howard

    21 August, 2013 at 1:12 am

    Great article! Hard to find good clear science writing. Hope this encourages more science content for Roar!

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