Hope to Harness Brain’s Power to Repair Itself

Posted in GUMC Stories

What makes us laugh or cry? How do we solve a problem? How do we recall what we’ve learned? How do we breathe and blink without giving it a thought? What triggers dreams and sleep? How, basically, do we go about the fundamentals of living life?

The human brain is in charge of every breath, thought, and action: it is the boss of the body, commander of the central nervous system, arbiter of virtually everything we do.

“With apologies to any philosophers in the audience, the brain is three pounds of biological tissue between the ears that enables the mind,” Georgetown University Professor Darlene Howard, PhD, summarized for a rapt audience of 110 community members at the Dec. 13 installment of Georgetown University Medical Center’s popular education series, Doctors Speak Out.

Howard, a member of the Center for Brain Plasticity and Recovery, was joined on the Doctors Speak Out panel by cognitive neuroscientist Elissa Newport, PhD, the Center’s director, and physician researcher Peter Turkeltaub, MD, PhD, also a member of the Center.

The Center for Brain Plasticity and Recovery, a Georgetown University and MedStar National Rehabilitation Network collaboration, focuses on the study of biological processes underlying the brain’s ability to learn, develop, and recover from injury. The Center aims to find ways to restore cognitive, sensory, and motor function caused by neurological damage and disease.

Howard is a psychologist and is project director of the cognitive aging lab at Georgetown. She has spent 40 years investigating which cognitive functions (remembering what you had for breakfast) and which neural systems (neurons and other architectural components that make up the gray, sponge-like brain) decline and which are spared in the natural course of aging.

“What’s really neat, and has only become clear in the last 10 or so years, is the aging brain compensates: older brains do tasks differently than younger brains,” rather than ceasing to do the tasks, she said.

The lively panel discussion and half-hour question-and-answer session, titled “Brain Waves: Exploring Our Inner Capabilities” was moderated by PBS NewsHour’s science correspondent Jennifer Marder.

Unlocking the mysteries of the brain is viewed by many scientists and physicians as a final frontier in biomedical research, key to solving some of humankind’s most confounding and deadly medical issues. Many of these are age-related including stroke and Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, conditions whose numbers are swelling as the nation’s estimated 72 million baby boomers march steadily toward old age.

Scientific research on the brain, swiftly translated into treatments and cures, also may speed recovery among younger patients who suffer more frequently from traumatic brain injuries – from war and violent accidents — and other conditions resulting from damage to the brain.

Prospects have never appeared brighter for unlocking the remaining mysteries of the brain: until recently, scientists could only thoroughly examine brains after patients died. But swift and cutting-edge advancements in behavioral science and neuroimaging techniques such as functional magnetic resonance Imaging (fMRI) and diffusion tensor imaging, among others, now make the functioning brain visible, literally.

Through the Center for Brain Plasticity and Recovery, researchers are working to develop a unique neurological research nexus enabling a multidisciplinary approach to study neural plasticity in genetic, cellular, and cognitive domains and to use these findings to restore cognitive, sensory, and motor function after stroke and other damage to the brain.

Newport’s approach is the notion that older brains, once thought to be relatively inflexible, still may possess the nimbleness long associated with young brains. Newport, who has spent her career studying language acquisition, told the audience that, perhaps aided by novel treatments still in the future, older brains, too, can be guided back toward their youthful flexibility. This approach could help patients whose brains have suffered damage regain their ability to use other parts of the brain to heal.

“The brain is altered by the way you move through the world,” Newport, a professor of neurology, told the audience. Scientists call this ability to stretch, reorganize, repair and absorb knowledge plasticity, which is abundant in young brains.

Comparatively, adult brains appear more rigid and less adaptable, she said, which is why children are adept at learning second languages, while adults struggle. Yet adults can learn a second tongue, demonstrating plasticity in parts of their brains.

Newport explained that learning is an alteration in neural circuits. In young children, functions lost from damaged parts of the brain can be shifted to different neural networks, and language and motor skills can be reacquired in healthy areas of the brain. To understand how to improve recovery in adults with brain diseases or disorders, scientists can study how such recovery happens naturally in children, a major aim of the Center.

By harnessing the brain’s ability to repair itself, function can be restored to patients with brain disorders, enhancing recovery from Alzheimer’s, other dementias, stroke, Parkinson’s, and other diseases that primarily afflict the elderly.

Turkeltaub is conducting studies in stroke patients suffering from aphasia – the inability to form words and sentences – to regain some speech skills by “firing off electric currents that inhibit or enhance brain plasticity, coaxing the brain into rewiring.

“We enhance certain connections and inhibit others, giving new meaning to the catch phrase ‘neurons that fire together, wire together,’” the researcher explained.

“There is some brain adaptation after stroke, with new connections and rewiring possible. Our research provides the opportunity to make the brain more able to adapt, more plastic to recover,” Turkeltaub said. “Ultimately to get people back to work and back to the lives they were leading.”

By Victoria Churchville, GUMC Advancement

(Published Dec. 19, 2012)