Our Plastic Society
The phenomenon of cortical plasticity is no foreign concept to researchers
and professionals in the neurotechnology field. As we discuss in
our cover article this month
[p1], there is considerable commercial potential for neurotech firms
working in this area.
Considering the enormous number of neurons in the central nervous
system and the great extent of redundancy in neural systems, it
should be no surprise that the brain has the capability to reroute,
rewire, or repair itself. If we can uncover more details about the
mechanisms of plasticity and the locations where it can best be
put to use, this will expand significantly its practical and commercial
One of the more interesting questions raised by all this is to what
extent electrical stimulation is required or even necessary in order
for the benefits produced by cortical plasticity to take place.
There are some who believe that externally applied electrical activity
is a critical factor in stimulating neuronal regrowth and reconnection.
There are others who believe that changes in electrical activity
are the result, and not the cause of neural plasticity.
One of the more compelling arguments for the viability of retraining
and re-education of neural tissue is the dramatic success of Scientific
Learning Corp. and the techniques developed by UCSFs Michael
Merzenich and his colleagues. To date, over 300,000 language-learning
disabled children have been treated using the companys suite
of computer-driven training products. What seems to be key here,
however, is not the general utility of educational software to produce
learning benefits, but rather, the very precise and localized point
of action within the auditory cortex that the companys tools
are targeting. And this success would probably not have been possible
without Merzenichs teams years of research on the neural
correlates of specific behavior and processing tasks.
And therein lies some good news for neurotechnology firms. Even
if it were to turn out that electrical stimulation is incidental
in the cortical plasticity process, there is a major role for neurotechnologists
and computational neuroscientists to help identify other sites within
the brain where an identifiable deficiency in neuronal processing
leads to an observable neurological or psychiatric disorder. Once
such a discovery is made, there will be great potential for neurodiagnostic
firms to develop and market specific tests or indicators that will
help identify when the disorder is present and point to an appropriate
Of course, if it turns out that patterned electrical stimulation
can enhance the process of cortical plasticity, it could open the
doors to a whole new realm of devices and therapeutic tools.
Editor and Publisher