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.
We have the ability to change our brains. Throughout life, even into old age, new neural connections can be formed. However, the idea the brain can change, called brain plasticity, is relatively new. Before 1963, scientists theorized that the brain remained static after birth and environment played no role in its potential.
The woman who changed the conversation around brain plasticity, Marian Diamond, professor emerita of integrative biology, University of California, Berkeley, was the subject of “My Love Affair with the Brain: The Life and Science of Dr. Marian Diamond,” a documentary that aired this week on PBS.
Diamond focused on proving that the brain is shaped by environment, not just genetics. She performed an experiment where one group of rats were kept in enriched cages, with toys and other rats to socialize with, while another group lived in impoverished cages, with no other rats or objects to interact with. Rats housed in enriched cages had brains that were six percent larger than the rats in impoverished cages. She reacted to this finding by running across the campus to tell her research partner the results. “This will change science,” he told her. And it did.