The Plastic Brain
One afternoon at a high school where I was teaching, I saw a student speed out of the parking lot going much too fast. Just blocks away, she lost control of her car. It flipped and crashed, and she was terribly injured. For many weeks we waited to hear that she had emerged from the coma, and one day that news came. But like often happens in similar accidents, the girl faced a life that was changed forever. She had sustained serious brain injuries, and we were told she would be in therapy for years.
One tiny ray of hope in tragic situations like these is that while a brain injury can result in loss of movement or capacity, our brains can often find alternate ways of functioning when one area is damaged.
The Brain and Plasticity
I came across an article the other day entitled “Scientists Study the Way the Brain Can Heal Itself.” The author speaks about the plasticity of the brain: “Plasticity means an injured brain can reroute signals through existing pathways and grow new connections between cells. It means the mind in some cases, and given the right prompting can begin to heal itself.”
"For years what we have taught people is if you had right-sided weakness, just learn to write with your left hand," says Dr. Ross Zafonte, director of rehabilitation at the University of Pittsburgh. "This was probably the wrong thing to be teaching, because the brain is plastic [so] use facilitates recovery."
In a technique pioneered in stroke victims, patients struggle to use hands rendered nearly useless by brain damage. Many of the stroke patients show marked improvement after just a few weeks, and scans show increased activity in brain regions surrounding areas affected by the stroke.
Researchers believe the physical act of trying to use the weakened limbs can create new connections between existing cells. The training also may prompt the brain to recruit previously unused cells and pathways, a process neuroscientists call "unmasking."
"They're there already!" Dr. Paul Bach-y-Rita, a University of Wisconsin rehabilitation specialist, says of the pathways. "The brain is incredibly plastic, but it doesn't happen unless you demand it."
Plasticity and Learning Disabilities
Having taught in schools for several years, I have become very sensitive about the topic of learning disability, about how frequently children are given a label that implies that their brains are not functioning properly. I’ve worked mostly with children who have been identified as struggling with learning in some way, and while I am passionate about not labeling children, I also understand that there can be serious blocks to learning and functioning for which there are no easy answers. The last thing I would want to do is yell, “Try Harder!” to a parent who already feels that they have knocked on every door and asked every question and tried every known remedy.
On the other hand, I have personally seen too many cases in which children have labels heaped on them – multiple labels – and yet we discovered ways to facilitate learning for them. In those cases, I do yell, “Try Harder!” And it is children like these that concern me right now.
One student whom I will never forget had the dubious distinction of having the most labels of any child in our school. To put this into perspective, our school was in a very depressed area, and we had multiple classrooms for each grade level. We also had a high number of failing students. So for Rob to have the highest number of labels was quite a distinction indeed.
There were some things I did to help Rob, one being keeping him right under my nose when we had instructional time so I could track how he was doing. Another strategy that proved powerful for Rob was using finger-mapping as we studied the structure of words. (A strategy used in The Illustrated Book of Sounds & Their Spelling Patterns). This simple strategy apparently provided the missing piece in Rob’s understanding because by November, when he was tested (DIBELS), Rob was on grade level for reading. The next student study meeting in which Rob was discussed proved very interesting. Consternation abounded over the fact that while his IEP had recently been updated to reflect his myriad of disabilities, he was now testing normal--it threw a huge spanner into the works.
This experience with Rob and many others like it strengthens my resolve to keep getting the message out by any means possible: we simply must not give up on our children. While we cannot be guaranteed perfect restoration and healing, children do have an amazing capacity to learn and grow, many times far beyond what we would have believed possible. It makes it easier to hold on to hope and to move forward, knowing that we have such an amazing ally in the plastic brain which loves to learn and improve as it is used.
I do feel hopeful. When I read that scientists and doctors are beginning to strive for increased function in cases that seemed hopeless, it energizes me to keep on looking for more ways to stimulate the brain to learn. One thing we just can’t afford to do is stick to the status quo.