Newport Leads New Brain Center

Some plastic things are more, well, “plastic” than other plastic things. Take nylon, which flows, bending freely. Polycarbonate – the stuff in eyeglasses — not so much. Now think of the human brain, and its ability to alter the neural networks allotted to it. The nerve cells in young brains are more like nylon, able to form connections easily and supple enough to use neurons to do tasks not originally assigned to them. Connections within adult brains are comparatively inflexible. Or so most scientists have believed.

But not Elissa Newport, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Neurology at Georgetown University Medical Center. She suspects that adult brains are more plastic than that, and that neurons could be even more like nylon in the right circumstances — aided, perhaps, with the help of novel treatments. Newport, who joined GUMC July 1, directs the new Center for Brain Plasticity and Recovery Borne of a multi-year strategic planning process, at GUMC, the Center, a collaboration between Georgetown and MedStar National Rehabilitation Network, is dedicated to gauging the plasticity of brains that have suffered a disease and disorder and understanding if, and how, they can regain their ability to use other parts of the brain to heal.

Newport is ideally suited for her new task. With a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania, she has devoted her career to studying human language acquisition. She did this work on the faculties of the University of California at San Diego, the University of Illinois, and since, 1988, at the University of Rochester. At Rochester, she served as chair of the Department of Brain & Cognitive Sciences for 12 years. Her work has been funded continuously by the National Institutes of Health, which recently honored her with the Claude Pepper Award of Excellence, and the National Science Foundation, among other organizations and foundations.

The awards and the naming of chairs and fellows in societies runs deep in Newport’s curriculum vitae, such as the fact that she has been elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences, as well as a fellow in the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, American Philosophical Society, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Edward Healton, M.D., M.P.H, chair of the Department of Neurology at GUMC says the recruitment of Newport to Georgetown highlights the University’s unified dedication to creating a world-class neuroscience program.

“Newport is a prominent neuroscientist, nationally recognized for her contributions to the field, and we’re pleased to have her as a valuable member for the neurology department, and as director of the Center for Brain Plasticity,” Healton says.

The Sky is the Limit

Wikipedia’s page on Newport cited her as creator of one of the best known hypotheses of language acquisition — the “less is more” hypothesis. Children are better able to learn languages than adults because their brains are so plastic, she says. They start with fewer cognitive resources than do adults, which allow them to progressively learn a complex computational system as they mature. Adults, on the other hand, try to analyze the complex nature of language through neural networks that are already pretty well set in polycarbonate, so to speak.

“People who learn a second language later in life are generally not as successful compared to children who learn an additional language early, due to the plasticity of the adult brain,” she says.

Yet the plasticity is there in adult brains — or they would never be able to learn a second language at all. “Some parts of the brain continue to be plastic throughout life,” Newport says. “My interest in language has always been one that focuses on the larger question: what are the basic mechanisms that underlie learning, development, and brain plasticity over time?”

From a disease standpoint, stroke is a good model for studying how we might stimulate the brain to become more plastic for the purpose of recovery, she says. “You have sudden damage to a previously healthy brain, and when it ends the brain tries to recover — which it can only do if neural pathways are still moldable, changeable.”

That’s why Newport and the Center of Brain Plasticity is using stroke as the first model disease in which to study neuroplasticity. Other neural disorders will follow, such as traumatic brain injury, multiple sclerosis, and dementias such as Alzheimer’s disease — disorders that are increasingly common as the U.S. population ages.

“With a milder stroke, everyone recovers to some degree. Even more dramatic recovery occurs in the rare baby who suffers a stroke at birth. “These strokes are often large, affecting one-third to almost one-half of their brains, yet kids recover surprisingly well,” Newport says. “If the language areas of the left hemisphere are absent, they can acquire language using the right hemisphere. The functions lost in damaged parts of the brain can be shifted over to different neural networks. Language can be relearned, as can some motor skills, and so on,” she says. “Learning is an alteration in neural circuits. Healthy areas of the brain reorganize themselves, restoring balance. One of the best clues we have toward stimulating increased recovery in adults is looking at how it happens naturally in children.”

Even before coming to GUMC, Newport had been studying language recovery after childhood brain injuries, but, without the right patient populations and clinical colleagues, she could only go so far. Now, she feels the sky is truly the limit.

“There are so many fine investigators studying brain recovery at the basic level and clinically, here at the medical center, the medical school and at MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital, our collaborator and critical to the success of the Center,” she says. Alexander Dromerick, M.D., a professor of rehabilitation medicine and associate medical director for research at MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital, is the Center’s co-director and one of Newport’s new collaborators in this work.

Newport envisions that she and her colleagues will try to find ways to restore and expand neuroplasticity to help adults recover from a wide-ranging assortment of brain ailments. “More and more scientists are thinking about ways to increase the flexibility of neural circuits in adulthood, even to reopen critical periods for the formation of new connections. But these techniques have so far only been studied in the lab.

“Our goal will be to preserve and restore cognitive and neurological function in patients who have suffered from what otherwise could be devastating brain disorders,” Newport says. “It won’t be easy, but together, at the Center, we have unmatched opportunities to ask, and answer, all the right questions.”

The Center for Brain Plasticity is a strategic priority for the Medical Center and part of the University’s $1.5 billion fundraising campaign, For Generations to Come. 

By Renee Twombly, GUMC Communications
(Published July 12, 2012)