His first book popularized the idea that the brain is actually a dynamic, adaptive organ with incredible potential to change. Now, Dr. Norman Doidge is sharing incredible stories of recovery from the sci-fi-like frontier of energy-based therapies. Sarah MacWhirter talks with the author of The Brain’s Way of Healing to better understand the science of neuroplasticity
Chances are you know someone struggling with Parkinson’s disease, who lost their life to multiple sclerosis, who has been irreparably harmed by concussion or is trapped within the confines of autism spectrum disorder. Or perhaps you’ve watched someone lose their eyesight, seen the damaging effects of dyslexia, helped a child keep their ADHD under control. A new book by bestselling author Dr. Norman Doidge offers almost breathtaking hope to those wishing for a less invasive, virtually side-effect-free way to combat these and other neurological-based conditions.
IN THEIR OWN WORDS
Jeri Lake, of Champaign, Ill, on beating traumatic brain injury
The traumatic brain injury I sustained in a cycling accident in 2005 turned life upside-down, leaving me barely able to walk. When problems continued past the first year, doctors told me I would not be returning to work. Traditional rehabilitation helped, but five years later I still had very poor balance, problems with memory, speech and slowed cognition, loss of depth perception. Noise and light overwhelmed me, making a simple trip to the grocery unmanageable. I felt locked in the cage of my mind; my thoughts foggy, my physical abilities gone.
I first put the PoNS device in my mouth in September, 2010. That very first therapy session restored my balance and felt like a miracle. Within days I could see in 3-D again and was out running and soon biking. I now think of the PoNS as the key to my “cage.” It unlocked the still present potential of my brain to grow, recover and reflect, to lead a full life.
It was Doidge, a psychiatrist and faculty member of both the University of Toronto and Columbia University’s Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research, who introduced the lay reader to the revolutionary idea that the brain is not fixed, that it is neuroplastic with the adaptive ability to reorganize itself, in The Brain That Changes Itself. In its wake, his inbox was flooded with e-mails from people debilitated by disease or injury who weren’t supposed to get better but did.
He set out to meet their doctors, to learn about the energy-based treatments they used to influence the brain, and found himself immersed in a world of light, sound and movement therapy.
He met the patients whose lives had been brought back from devastation through the application of these treatments: the blind man who could see, the severely autistic child who had learned to speak, the Parkinson’s patient whose recovery was so complete some questioned the original diagnosis.
In his latest work, The Brain’s Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity, Doidge shares their stories, explaining how light, sound, mild electrical stimulation and even something as simple as “controlled” walking has helped tame what he calls the noisy brain – one in which disease or damage has caused neurons to misfire. These interventions, influenced by Eastern ideas of energy but in accord with Western science, use energy to influence these misfiring neurons, much as a conductor encourages an unruly orchestra to play in sync. And when the noisy brain is resynchronized, a person’s function improves – significantly and swiftly.
We sat down with Doidge to discuss this energy-based approach to healing, and the shift it will require in how we think about disease and treatment.
Jan Sandin, of Redwood City, Calif., on overcoming chronic pain
How I got my life back: Working as a registered nurse after raising three children fulfilled me. In just a few seconds that changed. Manoeuvring a heavy patient to bed, I herniated my lumbar discs. Surgery was not an option. Sitting, standing, walking, lying down was a nightmare of constant, chronic pain. I tried every remedy including injections, physical therapy and continuous morphine. I became a recluse. I saw no hope and no longer wanted to live.
Dr. [Michael] Moskowitz, my pain-management physician, told me about his new approach involving visualization to rewire the brain. For the next month I visualized for 10-12 hours a day. Gradually, I improved and at the end of the month the pain was gone. I was ecstatic. Over the next two years, I went off all medications. My brain fog disappeared. I caught up on 10 years of missed reading. The spinal damage is still there, but not the pain. The miracle of neuroplasticity has given me back a life worth living and I enjoy every moment.
Just how revolutionary is the work you’re describing?
We live in a time when machines are very important and impressive, and there is a tendency to project that onto the brain – and to think of it as a “hard-wired” computer. Of course this is a fabulous error because the brain is animate and machines are inanimate. … The brain can often heal and restore lost functions because it can form, unform and reform electrical circuits very rapidly in many cases. That’s not just something it can do, it’s what it’s frequently doing.
What is the role of energy in helping the brain adapt?
Inside the brain, although we see things and smell things and hear things, there are no images, there are no odours, there are no sounds. There’s just patterns of electrical energy. That’s how the nerves communicate.
Electrical signalling is the lingua franca, spoken by all the neurons throughout the brain. That’s how communication happens across vast expanses of cortical real estate.
Now, each of our senses converts one form of energy, and the information that energy carries, into another form of energy. The retina converts light energy into electrical energy signals and the cochlea converts sound energy into electrical signals and so on. And so our brains, through our senses and through our bodies, have a direct and natural access to the outside world. And just as thoughts can restructure brain circuitry, so can patterns of energy.
Can we use this approach to better deal with chronic pain?
When you feel pain you often can’t pay attention, you’re emotionally disregulated, maybe hypersensitive to light, can’t do complex visual problems. And that’s because there are areas of the brain that process both attention and pain, emotion and pain, and even visual images and pain. In chronic pain, the processing of pain hijacks those brain areas so you can’t perform the other functions. Because the brain is plastic, when it is stimulated in an ongoing way, say, by a pinched nerve, the pain map for the hurt area grows in size, and becomes better at processing pain, alas. Chronic pain is plasticity gone wild.
The Rosens, of Oakville, on life beyond autism
Jordan Rosen’s mother, Darlene: “Your son might have to be institutionalized.” That was the sentence that scared me the most. At 18 months, Jordan’s behaviour changed. He stopped all eye contact, playing, stopped having a relationship with us, started covering his ears, biting others, tantruming much of the day. At 3 he still didn’t speak. Two doctors diagnosed autism, and a psychiatrist from the Clarke Institute [of Psychiatry] confirmed that diagnosis. But no one offered any help. Paul Madaule, from the Listening Centre, was the only person to say that there was hope.
Jordan: Instead of being institutionalized, I received treatment at the Listening Centre, went to school, and graduated Dalhousie University with a degree in business management and globalization. Friends are very important to me, as is my family. It is hard to remember those early years, but when I watch the movie that shows my temper tantrums on the Listening Centre’s website, I now feel sorry for my parents. But I also feel grateful to them and Paul Madaule, for starting my treatment when I was 3. I guess what I am saying is, I am grateful for my life.
I describe cases where people, the moment they experience a twinge of pain, force themselves to visualize something. And if they were relentless and did this over a period of months, they slowly lowered their chronic pain. They liberated the hijacked parts of their brain maps from processing the pain signals so that they could process the other signals they were meant to process.
It’s possible to wean people off opioids, but only if you have something else to offer them, and that’s where neuroplastic interventions come in.
We all know how important walking is in terms of staving off Alzheimer’s and dementia. We know it, but are we taking it seriously enough? Should all Canadians have a dog?
Well then we’d have to deal with the cat people! It would probably help. … There are many reasons why we’re not taking that seriously. One of them has to do with the model of the brain. The mainstream view of Alzheimer’s has been focused on the chemistry and the genetics of it, but part of the neglect has to do with the fact that we have had a machine-like model of the brain – and the only change machines undergo is that they degenerate over time. Use it and lose it. The best that we thought we could do with this aging machine was to find some chemicals to prop up the failing system.
Discovering that the brain is neuroplastic means you have another avenue to cultivate brain circuitry, and what’s so good about walking is it triggers neurotrophic growth factors and some new neurons. Walking can be helpful for a number of degenerative conditions, as I show in the book, but it’s really about exercise in general (and it doesn’t have to be brutal cross-fitness).
What’s not in the book, what did you find that people wouldn’t be ready for?
They’re really not ready for it so I cannot answer that question … there are some things.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Dr. Norman Doidge documents numerous neuroplastic treatments in his new book. Here are four:
For information on the neuroplastic approach to chronic pain, visit Dr. Michael Moskowitz and Dr. Marla Golden’s website: neuroplastix.com.
For more on functional integration, go to feldenkraiscentre.com or call 416-970-7572.
The conditions: Stroke, cerebral palsy, children born with brain damage or missing part of the brain.
- The treatment: Functional integration lessons, in which a practitioner uses touch and tiny movements to help a patient’s brain differentiate brain maps for different parts of the body, and thereby gain or regain control over those body parts.
- How it works: Many people with strokes or cerebral palsy develop “spastic” rigid limbs that can’t move. Without that movement, their sensory-motor brain maps wither and lose refinement. Using touch therapy and very simple movements to help create awareness of body parts, even many severely disabled children can refine their maps and start moving. In one case, a girl missing a third of her cerebellum – expected to have profound retardation, be incontinent, immobile and in need of lifelong institutionalization – who received functional movement therapy is now in her early 30s with two graduate degrees, a business and a happy marriage.
LOOKING FOR TREATMENT?
For traumatic brain injury, stroke, migraine, tinnitus and tissue damage. Meditech Laser Rehabilitation Centre. Run by Dr. Fred Kahn, a world-leader in low intensity laser therapy. torontopainrelief.com; 416-251-1055
For developmental delays, autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, learning disabilities and sensory processing disorders. The Listening Centre. Co-founded by Dr. Alfred Tomatis and Paul Madaule. listeningcentre.com; 416-588-4136
The PoNS device
For a variety of conditions. While the lead centre for PoNS research is the Tactile Communication and Neurorehabilitation Laboratory in Wisconsin, in Canada, Alain Ptito and Leonard Gabriel are leading a study of the PoNS device out of the Montreal Neurological Institute. tcnl.bme.wisc.edu; mcgill.ca/neuro/home
For some kinds of concussion, pain, tinnitus. A gentle, body-based way to improve brain conductivity post-trauma, with licensed practitioners across Canada. matrixrepatterning.com
The condition: Parkinson’s disease. A movement disorder whose classic symptoms include shuffling gait, tremors, rigidity, difficulty initiating new movements and a weakened sense of balance.
- The treatment: Conscious walking, with almost meditative-like concentration on each separate, minute aspect of taking a step – the shifting of weight, straightening, bending, launching, swinging, placing and landing. This “conscious performance” is next applied to actions affected by tremors (such as picking up a glass).
- How it works: In Parkinson’s, a part of the brain that normally makes complex movements automatic, the substantia nigra, is not working well. With focused and conscious thought about movement, the Parkinson’s patient teaches another part of the brain to control action that was previously controlled by the unconscious brain automatically. By learning to perform an action in a slightly different way, the patient is engaging a different, unaffected part of the brain, in the frontal lobes. Once moving again, the patient, if they walk and rest, can trigger neurotrophic growth factors which, over time, contribute to the healing of brain circuits.
The conditions: Multiple sclerosis, stroke, Parkinson’s disease, traumatic brain injury.
- The treatment: Electrical stimulation of the top of the tongue, using a Portable Neuromodulation Stimulator (PoNS), to fire up the brain stem.
- How it works: The tongue, Doidge explains, is arguably the royal road to the brain stem, an area hugely responsible for regulating the autonomic nervous system, breathing, much sensory input, even aspects of the immune system. Like other parts of the brain, the stem can also suffer from “noisy brain” with misfiring circuits and disregulated functions. The PoNS gives enough stimulation to sensory neurons to fire their own electrical signals to the brain stem and allow neuromodulation to rapidly occur.
The conditions: Attention deficit disorder, autistic spectrum, sensory integration disorder.
- The treatment: Using music and voice with changing frequencies to stimulate dormant brain circuits.
- How it works: When we hear a sound, the ear converts the information in the patterns of sound energy into patterns of electrical energy. Our neurons begin firing in sync, and we can thus shape their circuitry. Many children with autism are hypersensitive to sound because the normal ear-to-brain circuit, which has an “auditory zoom” that allows it to hone in on human speech frequencies and screen out low, often threatening sounds, doesn’t work properly. Trapped in a fight-or-flight state, they cover their ears, scream and can’t engage socially. Listening therapy trains that “auditory zoom circuit” so children can hear speech better and socially connect.
Editor's note: An incorrect phone number was published for the Feldenkrais Centre in the original version of this article. This version has been corrected.