Health Check newsletter: The brain’s amazing adaptability

By Clare Wilson
HippocampusScience History Images / Alamy
Hello, and welcome to this week’s Health Check, the weekly e-newsletter that provides you the well being and health information you possibly can actually belief. To obtain this free, weekly e-newsletter in your inbox, enroll right here.
I’m studying to play the ukulele, and whereas progress is gradual, it’s very satisfying after I memorise a sequence of finger actions and it turns into computerized. When that occurs, I can’t assist questioning what’s going on in my mind.
Some mild is shed on that query by some of the attention-grabbing science books I learn final 12 months: Livewired: The inside story of the ever-changing mind by neuroscientist David Eagleman. It is about neuroplasticity, how the mind continually remodels itself in response to altering calls for.
Eagleman is growing gadgets that assist individuals with disabilities make use of latest sorts of sensory data. One such know-how is a wristband for people who find themselves deaf, known as Buzz, which turns sounds right into a sample of vibrations on their wrists.
You may suppose this is able to really feel unusual, however Eagleman says individuals rapidly get used to it and begin to interpret the sensations as one thing akin to listening to. When I interviewed him in May final 12 months, Eagleman mentioned: “When we discuss to individuals about this, we are saying: ‘Do you’re feeling a buzzing in your wrist and also you suppose, ‘Oh, that should be a canine barking?’’ They say: ‘No, I’m simply listening to the canine.’”
Now, a distinct group has developed the same system to assist people who find themselves blind. Users put on goggles with a digicam that turns details about their environment right into a sample of vibrations on a five-by-five grid worn on an armband.
The builders say individuals have been in a position to navigate round obstacles on their first try.
It’s humorous, as a result of a thought experiment in consciousness science is about how unattainable it’s for individuals to know what it’s prefer to be a bat, whose principal sense for experiencing the world, echolocation, is so completely different to imaginative and prescient. The outcomes for these new applied sciences counsel that, for all we all know, “seeing” by echolocation could also be a really comparable expertise to human sight. In truth, some people who find themselves blind do study to get round by means of echolocation, by clicking with their mouths.
It is early days for these concepts, however I hope they develop into helpful aids for people who find themselves deaf or blind. If they do, it’s possible that the longer somebody makes use of one, the extra their mind will adapt to the brand new sensations, due to neuroplasticity.
What mechanisms are concerned? Two a long time in the past, there was nice pleasure over the concept that an necessary one may very well be the expansion of latest mind cells. There was hope that this may very well be harnessed in therapies for stroke or Alzheimer’s illness, as an example, or that we may stimulate the method with “brain-training” apps. Then the concept that new mind cells can develop after adolescence turned extra contentious, as New Scientist explored on this lengthy learn from 2012.
But there are many different ways in which brains can rewire themselves. Existing mind cells can type outgrowths and make new connections with one another, known as synapses, and lots of different molecular adjustments can occur inside mind cells that make {an electrical} impulse in another (or much less) more likely to prompt one other in its neighbour.
There might be different bizarre issues happening within the mind that we don’t learn about. Its adaptability continues to shock medical doctors and researchers.
Take the case of a 6-year-old boy who wanted half his mind eliminated as a last-ditch remedy for extreme epilepsy, as Eagleman describes in Livewired. Straight after the surgical procedure, the boy couldn’t stroll or discuss and was incontinent; after three months, he was nearly again to regular, minus his seizures.
Post-mortem examinations of individuals’s brains present that you would be able to even see the distinction between the mind of a live performance violinist and a non-musician with the bare eye, if you recognize the place to look.
Professional violinists develop a small bulge on a ridge of their motor cortex, part of the mind that controls motion – generally known as the omega signal – that’s presumably made up of additional mind cells, outgrowths, synapses, and extra.
I could have some method to go on the ukulele earlier than I attain that degree – however I’m doing my greatest to make my motor cortex bulge simply a bit of.
Covid-19 information
Sotrovimab is an antibody remedy that’s given as an infusionice_blue/Shutterstock
Need for pace
As the UK phases out covid-19 restrictions, people who find themselves extraordinarily weak have a brand new weapon in opposition to the virus: antiviral medication and antibodies. But they should be rushed to individuals at high pace. Meanwhile, within the US, an antibody remedy that provides six months safety in opposition to covid-19 is in brief provide – and which means it goes to those that can struggle for it hardest.
BA.2 variant
Why the most recent type of omicron might be nothing to fret about.
How far more contagious may the coronavirus evolve to be?
Other well being tales

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Vitamin D dietary supplements minimize the chance of auto-immune illnesses, in one of many only a few randomised trials of nutritional vitamins in wholesome individuals to have proven a profit.

For the primary time, a robotic has carried out keyhole surgical procedure with nearly no human assist – though it was being examined on pigs.

From the archive
It is an age-old query: are we formed extra by nature or nurture? Robert Plomin, a geneticist at King’s College London, has spent his profession teasing aside the contributions of DNA and environmental components to numerous human traits, from body weight to character and educational success. Environment is undoubtedly a key affect on nearly each side of our lives. But Plomin argues that genetics performs a extra necessary and measurable position, even to the extent that our parenting and education don’t matter that a lot.

That’s all for now. My plug this week is for our subsequent on-line occasion: “Brain Power: Everything you might want to know for a wholesome, completely satisfied mind”. It is on Thursday 3 February at 6.00pm GMT.
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