Rewiring the Brain

Paul Bach-y-Rita grew up in New York City where he attended the Bronx High School of Science and graduated when he was 15. He then went to Mexico to study medicine. His primary area of interest was neuroscience.

At the time that Paul started practice, neuroscientists believed that the brain was rigid in structure. It was believed that certain parts of the brain controlled certain functions, and if that part of the brain was damaged then the person could no longer perform the function. Paul believed this as well until his father, Pedro, had a stroke and was paralyzed and couldn’t speak.

Paul and his brother (a psychiatrist) decided to test whether their father’s brain could be “rewired”. Their work was based upon the concept of neuroplasticity which believed that the brain was not rigid, and different parts of the brain could be used to perform functions that were previously done by parts of the brain that were damaged. Neuroplasticity was not a concept that most neuroscientists believed in at the time. Over a span of a year, Pedro was taught to do tasks normally associated with early childhood. Eventually, Pedro regained almost all of what was lost and was able to return to a normal life. Pedro’s initial diagnosis was that he would live out his life in a vegetative state.

With Pedro’s recovery, Paul needed to discover what led to the recovery. A brain scan revealed that the damaged parts of the brain did not recover. The only other conclusion was that the brain learned new ways to connect to body functions. Paul used this experience to do pioneering work in neuroplasticity.

Two inventions that Paul made led to giving blind people a sense of seeing through a process known as sensory substitution. In effect, one part of the body becomes the signal receiver which then sends a message to the brain. Paul also worked on a medical condition known as wobblers, people who cannot remain standing. Sensors placed on the patient are linked to a computer. The computer then sends a signal to a small plate on the tongue which acts as a substitute for the original location of the balance sensors for the brain. In this case, the patient is completely cured after a period of time as the brain adapts.

In Paul’s case, he became a hidden hero as he tried to save his father from a debilitating illness. Would he have made the breakthrough in medical science otherwise? It’s hard to say, but fate often changes the direction of people’s lives as it did with Paul’s.

* * *

“The human brain, then, is the most complicated organization of matter that we know.”– Isaac Asimov (Science Fiction Author)

How To Use

Useful guides for incorporating messages into discussion.