Documenting the Coming Singularity

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Making an Old Brain Young

Technology Review - December 1, 2008, by Emily Singer

Scientists are developing new ways to manipulate the brain's normal plasticity.

New ways to manipulate neural plasticity--the brain's ability to rewire itself--could make adult brains as facile as young ones, at least in part. Drugs that target these mechanisms might eventually help treat neurological disorders as diverse as Alzheimer's, stroke, schizophrenia, and autism. But first scientists will need to figure out how to harness this rewiring capacity without damaging vital neural circuitry.

"Once we understand the mechanisms behind plasticity, we can design therapies to tap into it more specifically," says Joshua Sanes, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School.

The brain experiences a "critical period" of heightened malleability during development, when outside experiences--such as sights and sounds--are necessary for different brain systems to develop normally. Infants and toddlers between the ages of one and three need regular visual stimuli, for example, in order for their visual systems to form the appropriate neural circuits. If one eye is impaired during this time, such as with lazy eye (also called amblyopia), vision may be permanently faulty.

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