Do you remember phrenology?
Phrenology was pseudo science that centered on the view that different parts of the brain had different functions. This is similar to what researchers believe today. However, the primary difference between phrenology and what researchers believe now is that phrenologists thought “researchers” could learn a significant amount about a person by the shape of the person’s skull. Today we know that the shape of the skull doesn’t determine what function the brain has, but we do know that different parts of the brain known as neurons are used for different functions.
Researchers today are now studying what the neurons are used for once one function is lost. If a person goes blind, for example, that function can be used to enhance the auditory portion of the brain so that the person may find things auditorily. The same is true in deaf people; the neurons in the brain normally dedicated to auditory functions can be used for other things.
The research seems to indicate it’s possible to either retrain or rewire the brain after certain functions and/or senses are lost. Studies like this may be groundbreaking for people in the near future. In addition, this research may lead to other kinds of brain research about the use of neurons and the developing of neurons for different functions.
Although my background is non-scientific, I’ve tried to understand a little about the workings of the brain, but have focused on slightly different things. Take physicist Stephen Hawking as an example. The noted physicist was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) when he was 21 years old. ALS is known as a neurodegenerative disease which affects motor control. When Stephen Hawking was initially diagnosed with ALS, he wasn’t expected to live past his 25th birthday. (At the time of this writing, he is 70 years old.)
No one seems to know why Stephen Hawking has been able to accomplish so much in his life or why he has lived for so long. Could Stephen Hawking’s incredible intelligence coupled with his inability to use the neurons responsible for motor control actually have increased or improved his ability to use his neurons in the frontal cortex?
No one seems to know.
Again, I don’t have enough of a background in neurology or the hard sciences to understand all of the implications of the research as reported in the New York Times, but do I definitely know enough to realize that the research is positive and hopeful for those who have lost their senses.