#WSF18: Harnessing the Power of Neuroplasticity

Ann Whitman
June 4, 2018

The World Science Festival in New York City, now in its 11th year, offers fascinating talks on a variety of science disciplines, and notably for us, neuroscience. At last week’s talk on neuroplasticity, we heard from neurobiologist and Dana Alliance member Carla Shatz, developmental psychologist and Dana Alliance member Nim Tottenham, and neuroscientist Alvaro Pascual-Leone. Moderated by neurosurgeon Guy McKhann, the discussion included what neuroplasticity is and why it’s important, critical periods of development in the brain, and the possibility of accessing it later in life for cognitive enhancement.

From left: Guy McKhann, Carla Shatz, Nim Tottenham, Alvaro Pascual-Leone. Photo: World Science Festival/Greg Kessler

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change, or learn, throughout life. It’s what helps make us unique and adaptable. But it doesn’t operate on the same level throughout our lives; it is most potent during the brain’s development, in “critical periods,” when our neural circuitry gets fine-tuned. These critical periods include sensory systems, motor/language systems, and higher cognition, which develop in that order (with some overlap), explained Tottenham. [She expands on this concept in her recent Cerebrum article, which focuses on emotional development.] This increased plasticity in kids’ brains largely accounts for their ability to learn new languages or a new instrument with greater ease than most adults, for example.

Carla Shatz at WSF
Shatz was the first woman to receive her Ph.D. in Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School. Photo: World Science Festival/Greg Kessler.

Shatz quipped that she’d love to learn to speak French without an American accent, but how possible is this goal? Are scientists close to figuring out how to reopen windows of plasticity for adults to enhance brain function? Could it be used to fix problems in the brain?

All the panelists voiced hope for selective interventions. Shatz’s spoke about her work on adult mice, and the reality of opening up developmental critical periods in the visual cortex. Tottenham added that there are already examples where pharmacology can bring the human brain back to a plastic state. She cited a study where adults who took an epilepsy drug were able to reopen a critical period of learning, enabling them to develop perfect pitch–something previously thought to exist only in one in every 10,000 people.

There is also a lot of industry investment in brain enhancement, and consumer products on the market claiming to improve cognitive abilities, said Pascual-Leone. But don’t believe everything you hear, he cautioned. The data shows that while you may improve on a given task, it’s not an overall effect. Not to mention, if we get better at one task, will it be at the cost of another? he asked. [For more on this, read the Cerebrum article Pascual-Leone co-authored, “The Illusion of the Perfect Brain Enhancer,” or listen to our Cerebrum podcast.]

And while we wait for the research to catch up to consumer interest, there are proven lifestyle modifications that can improve cognition. Exercise, good sleep, and staying mentally engaged can help, said Tottenham.

Pascual-Leone agreed with Tottenham, adding that we want to get to a place where we know how much of each lifestyle change we need for optimal benefit–to make it a prescribable intervention.

In the meantime, I encourage you to visit the Dana Foundation’s Successful Aging & Your Brain program page to learn more about simple lifestyle choices you can adopt to help maintain brain health. If video is your preference, Successful Aging & Your Brain On Demand is now available to watch on the Dana Foundation YouTube channel.

Stay tuned for more coverage from the World Science Festival, exploring such topics as artificial intelligence, music and the brain, and the microbiome.