The Brain That Changes Itself – Norman Doidge, M.D. – Chapter 3 –Part 3 – Redesigning the Brain

Finally we complete the review of this chapter:

According the “localizationists” and those who believed there is a “critical period” during which all changes are made, education logically gave the most attention to those that appeared to have the intelligence to learn. Now that we know that the brain is plastic throughout life, that approach is grossly unfair to those that begin with less apparent intelligence.

Paula Tallal from Rutgers had begun to analyze why children had trouble learning. At that point, 5-10 percent of preschool children were thought to have a language disability. Some of these were called dyslexic. Since babies begin talking by practicing consonant-vowel combinations such as da,da, ba, ba, English speakers begin by saying the following words: ‘mama, dada, and pee-pee.’ Tallal believed that children were having difficulty with these ‘fast parts of speech’ because of an auditory processing problem. “Merzenich believed that these children’s auditory cortex neurons were firing too slowly, so they couldn’t distinguish between two very similar sounds or be certain, if two sounds occurred close together, which was first and which was second.” Normally neurons fire after about a 30-millisecond rest. “Eighty percent of language-impaired children took at least three times that long, so that they lost large amounts of language information. When their neuron-firing patterns were examined, the signals weren’t clear.” P. 69 This difficulty in auditory processing resulted in weaknesses in vocabulary, comprehension, speech, reading and writing. P. 69

In 1996, Jenkins, Tallal and one of her colleagues, Steve Miller, a psychologists, joined with Merzenich to for a company, Scientific Learning, that was wholly devoted to using neuroplastic research to help people rewire their brains.” P. 70 They developed Fast ForWord which is a training program for language-impaired and learning-disabled children. There are seven computer activities, which exercise the brain; here are brief descriptions of five of them:
1) Discrimination of short sounds – when a short sound changes the child releases a cow and it flies across the screen. Rapid responses earn points.
2) Discrimination of common consonant – vowel combinations – increasingly more quickly.
3) Discrimination of faster frequent glides (like ‘whooooop’)
4) Remember and match sounds.
5  Finding objects that are out of place – visually.
With the help of the computer, the faster parts of speech are slowed down and then as they continue the sounds get faster. Animation is used to reward achievement. Each time a child is rewarded, his brain secretes neurotransmitters such a dopamine and acetylcholine. These help consolidate the new mind map. P. 70-71
With milder difficulties, children work with Fast ForWord for 1 hour 40 minutes a day, five days a week for several weeks. With more severe difficulties, children work for eight to twelve weeks. P. 71

Research Studies

January, 1996 – first study reported in journal Science. One group of language impaired children used a similar computer program that did not train temporal processing. The Fast ForWord group demonstrated significant progress is standard speech, language auditory processing compared to the control group. Further, they maintained these skills when retested six weeks later. P. 71

A more extensive study with 500 children at thirty-five sites (hospitals, homes and clinics) pre and post tested the children with a standardized language test. On average, the students improved 1.8 grade level in six weeks.

A Sanford group did brain scans before and after Fast ForWord on twenty dyslexic children. After brain scans showed increased activity in the left-parietal cortex. P. 72
Two studies of children with autism have also confirmed much of what Merzenich had been hearing regarding the improvement in testimonials. In one study, children with autism had moved from “severe language impairment to the normal range.” Remarkably, in another study of one hundred individuals other autistic symptoms improved also. Areas of improvement included: attention spans, sense of humor, more connected with people, better eye contact, began greeting, addressing by name and conversing and said goodbye.

Testimonials

Beside the research Doidge gives us a testimonial of a 7-year-old boy from West Virginia.
Before Fast ForWord: “auditory-processing disorder and a hearing problem;” could not discriminate sounds (confused copy for coffee), insecurity, chewing on clothes in Kindergarten, trouble with reading, missed social cues because did not hear changes in pitch, easily distracted auditorily, difficulty following directions, stressed out using the computer.
After 100 minutes a day for eight weeks of Fast ForWord, his grades improved, he was confident. Even after a year later he has maintained these newly developed skills.

Fast ForWord appears to be causing other improvements, perhaps due to the general improvements in mental processing: handwriting, better sustained attention and focus, improving the brain’s general ability to keep time; visual processing problems including skipping lines,

An eight-year-old girl with moderate autism spoke little, using gestures and tugging at her parents to get what she wanted. When her family moved to a school where she could use Fast ForWord, within 8 weeks here speech exploded.

Posit Science, a new company of Merzenich with the goal of helping seniors maintain mental capacity into later years. Posit Science has Fast ForWord type activities to help individuals maintain and expand their mental alertness. Areas that these exercised stimulate include auditory and visual processing, working the frontal cortex that supports executive function. Finally, these activities also work on fine motor and gross motor control.

My Thoughts

While I have spent some time looking into this program and others like it, I still have questions regarding some of the other important areas of development that seem to be missing. I see how these web-based brain-training programs can work for fine motor and processing and memory – both visual and auditory, but I fail to see the connection to gross motor and sensory issues. Further, using technology cautiously is important as we see the problems with too much screen time.

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