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 value

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 UCSF’s Michael Merzenich and his colleagues. To date, over 300,000 language-learning disabled children have been treated using the company’s 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 company’s tools are targeting. And this success would probably not have been possible without Merzenich’s team’s 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 interventional strategy.

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.

James Cavuoto
Editor and Publisher



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