“Dr. Merzenich is the brain behind BrainHQ and the author of Soft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life. For nearly five decades, he has been a leading pioneer in brain plasticity research. As co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Posit Science, Michael Merzenich heads the company’s science team.
Dr. Merzenich has published more than 150 articles in leading peer-reviewed journals (such as Science and Nature), and received numerous awards and prizes (including the Russ Prize, Ipsen Prize, Zülch Prize, Thomas Alva Edison Patent Award and Purkinje Medal). He has been granted nearly 100 patents, and he and his work have been highlighted in hundreds of books about the brain, learning, rehabilitation, and plasticity. In 2016, Dr. Merzenich was awarded one of the world’s top neuroscience prizes, the Kavli Prize, for his achievements in the field of brain plasticity.” (From BrainHQ)
The following has been paraphrased from an interview with Prof. Michael Merzenich on July 5th, 2018.
(Click above to listen to the full audio version or click here for a downloadable version)
(Editor’s note: I do not necessarily endorse the products mentioned. I’d also like to remind readers to critically examine all claims made.)
How do you see new technologies like artificial intelligence and virtual reality impacting platforms like BrainHQ?
On the backend, using information that we gather from an individual, we can use artificial intelligence to provide further insight into an individual’s neurology. Also AI can be useful to gain insight into populations of people that we are treating.
As for virtual reality, it can be used to further enhance cognitive tasks, but it can also be used to poison the mind because it immerses users in environments that are not real. One of the fundamental problems of modern life is too often being carried away from the real world and not being engaged in it. I have very mixed feelings about it, though it can have therapeutic use, it can also be detrimental if abused.
Most cognitive intervention studies exclude people with neurological or psychological disorders, why is this and are attempts being made to assess the potential benefits in those populations?
Well, when you do a study in a normally aging population you must exclude people that have brain disorders, that is a necessity of a control trial. On the other hand, we have supported more than a hundred trials in individuals that have brain diseases or disorders. We don’t talk about them much because if you make any medical claims about computer based therapies it gets treated like a drug and you can go to jail. So we are very constrained about what we can say about it, but many studies have shown that you can make positive changes to the brains of people that have psychiatric or neurological disorders, with no exceptions.
Could you talk more about the specific results you saw in people with neurodegenerative disorders?
What we know is that we can have a significant impact on delaying the onset of dementia. There was a control trial that demonstrated that if you train an individual in a progressive training strategy for a few hours per year, five years from the start those individuals had improvements in their speed of processing, indicating a substantial benefit. Scientists determined that just one hour a year of training lead to noticeable lasting improvements that carried over to every day life. Also about half as many of the individuals that underwent training went on to develop dementia.
What biological changes did you observe in those people’s brains?
We checked for 30 different markers and observed positive changes in each. These are things like myelanation, specific cell populations, changes in the inhibitory and excitatory mechanisms involved in brain connectivity, a series of changes linked to the coordination of activity in brains, as well as those relating to vasculature and the blood brain barrier. We then examined the differences in rats that went through brain training exercises and those that did not and observed a series of changes at the end of their lives. Those that underwent training looked like brains from animals that were in the prime of life and were overall much healthier across the 30 markers that we observed.
We also asked the opposite question, what would it take to transform a brain that looked to be in the prime of life to quickly change to one that looked ready to die. What it took was to increase the noisiness in the processes of the brain, so it was struggling to organize its activities.
As it applies to neurodegenerative diseases, I don’t think they are diseases at all, I think they are the end stages of particular kinds of regression and that you can throw a switch and drive them back in a positive direction at any point.
Do you believe the forces that govern synaptic plasticity are entirely deterministic?
Yes and no. Everything comes from it, yet, we are incredibly flexible. We are always constrained in the possible actions we can take. But within those limits we are free agents.
We know that the self is created by self reference. Every time you feel or do anything, you are making an association in your brain to a source, and the source is you. You do this millions and millions of times a year. You do have agency, and within that agency you have flexibility, but there are constraints and you are not completely free to do anything. We have semi-free will.
How well do we understand these processes?
I think we understand it fairly well. I often hear how little we understand about the brain. I think, to a level of first approximation, we know what is going on.
Do you think we will soon fully understand and then be able to recreate the processes that go on in the brain?
Yes, this is a revolution. Understanding brain plasticity changes everything. Just about everything we think about, and everything involving how we organize society, should be reconsidered from this perspective. The brain explains why we are the way we are, why we do the things we do, and in a sense, where we come from. We can’t complete account for consciousness, but most of the operational characteristics are pretty well understood. Most of the mysteries of psychology are solved when you reduce them to the operations that govern the brain. We haven’t elucidated all of them, but they are all neurological. They are not mind-stuff, they’re brain-stuff. If you think about the origins of human behavior, all of these things are resolved in the context of neurology and plasticity. People that commit crimes, or do evil deeds are just damaged neurologically, we should be helping them. Based on this understanding we need to reconsider many aspects of how society is organized. It changes everything.
Where do you think we’ll be in 30-50 years?
I think it is highly likely that we will be progressing rapidly towards disaster. Maybe we will transform society in beneficial ways, but the forces against it are very strong. We have the ability to re-engineer society for the better, but our neglect and our ignorance are difficult to overcome. The problem is, we are not really very smart. We can’t deal with complexity. One of the challenges is understanding the bases of our neurology and its limitations. One example is, you can ask the average citizen if the climate is changing, half the people will tell you yes, there is no question that the climate is changing, the other half will say, I don’t know, I’m skeptical. The reality is that 99.99% of people don’t know anything about it, it is an incredibly complex issue, the mathematics behind climate models are beyond the understanding of 99.99% of people. And yet, everyone, in a sense, has a vote. So you can say, are we really governing ourselves in a way that is appropriate? Should every ignorant person be helping us deal with these complexities? On the other hand, should we just let scientists do it?
I’d like to be optimistic, but I’m not. I think it would really require some sort of miracle. But, one of the things we have going for us, is that every child is a point of new beginning. We do have the power within us to change how we operate and reconsider how things should be. If we could just acknowledge our neurological limitations, and restructure our education systems to acknowledge the complexity of the world.
To end on a more optimistic note, I do think that we are going to learn how to treat brains properly and help people who have neurological disorders before they become a problem.