About 20 years ago, we speculated that brain’s plasticity was fixed and could not alter itself.  However, recent discoveries by science has debunked this myth and proven that the brain is capable of various change, both in positive and negative ways. 

Via neural connections, called synapses, the brain can process and store enormous amounts of information.

Brain damage impacts the whole person, including deviation in the physical, emotional, and cognitive areas of the body. These changes can tell on how a person reacts to daily life, including school and work, and how one  manages his or her finances. Relationships and a person’s well being are determined by how well he can handle these challenges. The way can seem long and insurmountable.

Starting from job related information up to former telephone numbers, our brains hold a seemingly endless supply of information. How are we able to learn, store, and recall data with such ease? Brain cells undergo chemical and structural changes during learning. By changing the number, or strength, of connections between brain cells, information is written into memory. Ongoing studies are assisting scientists identify how different areas of the brain communicate together to enhance memory formation and storage. This insight could guide new treatments for learning disorders and memory loss. Advances in molecular biology and genetics are offering new clues about key molecules and proteins that influence memory. Recent animal studies suggest that manipulating these molecules could lead to new ways of modifying memories, with the potential of weakening traumatic memories that may underlie post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Similar studies may lead to new treatment options for memory loss (Squire L. R., 1992).

The main effects of brain damage can be grouped into three areas: Physical – affecting how the body works; Cognitive – affecting how the person thinks, learns and remembers; Emotional and behavioral – affecting how the person feels and acts. Among the cognitive effects, I would like to highlight the problems with memory, which are common after brain damage. Memory impairment is one of the most common effects of acquired brain damage and namely occurs after injury to the frontal lobes of the brain. There are no cures available, but there are a number of ways of coping and making life more comfortable. Some people may be unable to remember faces or names, or what they have read or what has been said to them. New learning may be affected, whilst previously learned skills may still be intact. Any form of acquired brain injury, such as stroke, coma, encephalitis, tumors and acute stress can damage the frontal lobes. They are particularly vulnerable to traumatic brain injury, due to their location at the front of the brain and their large size.   

The selected study finds that shocking the brain induces structural changes in the brain’s amygdala and hippocampus, structures that play key roles in processing strong emotions and in learning and memory, respectively. After about four weeks of electroconvulsive therapy, 43 depressed patients experienced increases in volume in the amygdala and hippocampus that made those structures – typically diminished in depression – roughly comparable in size to those of a healthy control group. The scale of the size change seen in those structures corresponded to improvements in patients’ mood and reduction in their depressive symptoms. A treatment administered in varying forms since the 1930s, electroconvulsive therapy induces intentional seizures in the brain. Among its side effects are memory loss and confusion. The long-maligned therapy has gained a following in recent years and is widely offered to those with recurrent major depression that is treatment-resistant. It’s estimated to help between half and 80% of patients with such depression to achieve remission, at least temporarily (Melissa Healy, 2015).

Some people after brain damage reveal the extraordinary memory abilities, which they did not have before.                     

A remarkable young man, exhibiting stunning mental abilities, Daniel Paul Tammet born 31 Jan 1979 claims to see colors and sparks, which he can somehow relate to words and numbers. Scientists consider him a gold mine to further investigation into the understanding of brain activity and potential. Daniel claims that since the age of four, he has been able to do huge mathematical calculations in his head. His childhood holds a clue to his unbelievable brain. As a small child he suffered a number of severe seizures, which were later diagnosed as epilepsy. Ever since this time he has been able to see the patterns in numbers. He appears to be doing the mathematical calculations without actually thinking about it, which destroys scientific theory. Daniel’s talents are not limited by numbers only. He is very gifted with words and speaks nine languages and claims to be able to learn a new one in just seven days. During the experimental study, the documentary team shipped Daniel off to Iceland for a week. His Icelandic tutor described their language as immensely complex and considered it an impossibility for anyone to learn in only one week. Daniel Tammet was to appear on an Icelandic talk show at the end of his week to discuss his experience in their native tongue. Although he appeared to struggle to begin with, in the last few days his tutor said “He was like a sponge, absorbing all words and grammar at a phenomenal rate”. He made his television appearance with great success. (Caroline Scott, 2006) In another study, In 2005 at the University of Cambridge Simon Baron-Cohen and his colleagues at the Autism Research Centre tested Tammet’s abilities.‪ They diagnosed synesthesia according to the “Test of Genuineness-Revised” which tests the subjects’ consistency in reporting descriptions of their synesthesia. And his tests of short-term memory have been implemented well. The study authors assumed that Tammet’s savant memory could be a result of synesthesia combined with Asperger syndrome (Baron-Cohen, Bor, Billington, Asher, Wheelwright and Ashwin, 2007).                   

Another example is Kim Peek, who was born with severe brain damage called macrocephaly,‪ damage to the cerebellum, and agenesis of the corpus callosum, a condition in which the bundle of nerves that connects the two hemispheres of the brain is missing; in Peek’s case, secondary connectors were also missing.‪ There is opinion that his neurons comprised unusual connections due to the absence of a corpus callosum, which resulted in an increased memory capacity.‪ His childhood doctor told Kim’s father to put him in an institution and forget about the boy. Kim’s severe developmental disabilities, according to the doctor, would not let him walk let alone and learn. Kim’s father disregarded the doctor’s advice. Till this day, Kim struggles with ordinary motor skills and has difficulty walking. He is severely disabled, cannot button his shirt and tests well below average on a general IQ test. But what Kim can do is astonishing: he has read some 12,000 books and remembers everything about them. “Kimputer,” as many lovingly know him, reads two pages at once – his left eye reads the left page, and his right eye reads the right page. It takes him about 3 seconds to read through two pages – and he remembers everything on them. Kim can recall facts and trivia from 15 subject areas from history to geography and sports. If one tells him a date, Kim can tell what day of the week it is. He also remembers every music piece he has ever heard. The researchers compared a series of MRI images taken in 1988 by Dr. Dan Christensen, Peek’s neuropsychiatrist at the University of Utah, to see the changes within his brain. Not only are Peek’s brain and his abilities unique, noted Richard Boyle, director of the California center performing the scans, but that he seems to be getting smarter in his specialty areas as he ages is unexpected. During this study in year 2008 it was assumed that Peek had FG syndrome, a rare genetic syndrome linked to the X chromosome, which results in physical abnormality (Darold A. Treffert, Daniel D. Christensen, 2009).                                                               

The cases of the brain-damaged persons evidently demonstrate the complicated interaction between separate brain regions (commonly temporal lobe) and memory organizational structure. Memory is not one thing or one skill on its own. It is easily damaged by brain injury because there are several structures within the brain that are involved in processing information, storing it and retrieving it. Damage to those parts of the brain on which these abilities depend can lead to various memory problems: amnesia (post-traumatic, retrograde and anterograde), short-term memory loss as well as emerge of unexpected startling talents by selected individuals. Thus, impairment of the brain’s frontal lobes is common after acquired brain damage has a profound effect on many aspects of everyday life.

Author: Anastacia Kurianova, MBA, Advisor| Auditor|Speaker,B i o h a c k e r

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