Learning Hebrew to rewire the brain

Picking up a new skill, such as a new language, changes the brain’s physical structure and function as it involves the development of new brain circuits
PHOTO: Learning Hebrew to rewire the brain

Last week, I told a colleague I was seriously considering going far, far away to learn classical Hebrew.

The exasperated chap asked why I would throw it all away just to learn Hebrew. I replied: "Because." And he shot back: "Oh, one of those things on your bucket list?"

Well, it could rewire my brain too.

A fringe benefit to learning a new skill like a new language may be that it changes the brain's physical structure and function.

This is because it involves the development of new brain circuits to enable those skills.

In this way, the brain region devoted to language will increase in total area as one makes more and more effort to become proficient at reading, writing and speaking the new language.

That is, learning Hebrew could rewire my brain and keep my mind sharp as I age.

This surprising malleability of the brain, which is called neuroplasticity, comes from the fact that stem cells found in the brain can transform into new brain cells (neurons), which will make new connections.

Such stem cells know when to do so because injured neurons release chemicals that signal them to begin making new neurons to repair that injury.

This malleability is why people who have lost their sense of sight early in life tend to have better hearing than sighted people.

New neurons for hearing can make connections with the visual area of the brain, which is transformed into one for processing sound (auditory) stimuli instead of visual stimuli.

So they may not have ears with a more acute sense of hearing, but their brains may have developed a heightened ability to process auditory stimuli instead.

More commonly observed is how stroke victims recover lost functions to one degree or another.

This takes place because the brain area around the part damaged by the stroke can rewire itself by making new neurons and pathways too.

Different brain areas control different functions and the brain develops new neurons better in some areas than others.

This is why one function may recover better than another. Often while function recovery may not be full, it is often enough for the task in view.

So are there any practical applications of neuroplasticity?

Indeed, some readers have asked me to review the anecdotes about patients said to have benefited from some brain training schemes related breathlessly in The Brain's Way Of Healing: Stories Of Remarkable Recoveries From The Frontiers Of Neuroplasticity (2015).

Authored by University of Toronto psychiatrist Norman Doidge, it describes victims of strokes or Parkinson's disease, say, who are put through various brain training schemes and recover so much function that they can stop all medication completely.

Dr Doidge relies on anecdotal accounts from patients talking about the benefits of simple brain exercises of one sort or another that seemingly bring about miraculous results.

But where's the evidence? It is a fundamental rule in research that a claim can be upheld only by good data obtained from rigorous clinical trials, not anecdotes.

Yet, armed with such anecdotes, the author speculates unscientifically about how neuroplasticity may be boosted for healing.

Basically, he believes that repeated thoughts and repeated physical movements will rewire the brain. So he relates how a patient overcame chronic pain by visualising his brain areas that process pain stimuli shrinking daily.

Or, a Parkinson's patient who used a special method to concentrate his mind and an intensive programme of fast walking that healed him completely.

He also asserts that a set of eye exercises known as the Bates system can improve one's vision.

Supposedly, you have imperfect vision because your eyes are habitually strained. What you need is not spectacles but learning to get your brain to relax that "strain" through a system of eye exercises based on visualising moving black letters.

Secondly, you must imagine and also physically roll your eyes back and forth so that objects appear to be "swinging" in the opposite direction. All this is said to get the mind to relax any eye strain and boost your vision.

However, a recent American Academy of Ophthalmology review nixed such claims for the Bates system.

Likewise, a 2013 review in Current Opinion in Neurology and a 2014 review in BioMedCentral Neurology found that no specific brain exercise regime actually promoted neuroplastic recovery in stroke.

Overall, the brain training systems that Dr Doidge advocates have not been adequately tested, promise too much and deliver too little.

We don't know enough yet to be able to do specific things to rewire the brain in the way the author badly wants to believe.

None of these programmes is supported by science. By his advocacy, which helps to sell his book, Dr Doidge raises false hopes in desperate patients and their families.

The programmes he recommends call for time, effort and fees with no guarantee that they work.

The schemes that he raves about are not unlike those that have in recent years been foisted on parents here as ways to boost their children's learning capacity. And there are also specifically designed computer games touted to help the healthy ageing person stave off cognitive decline by promoting neuroplasticity.

Recently, the Stanford Centre on Longevity and the Berlin Max Planck Institute for Human Development jointly issued an expert consensus statement that "there is no compelling scientific evidence to date that... brain games offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline".

They note that playing a game may teach you how to use your brain better for the cognitive tasks that particular game requires. Your brain develops new strategies for handling those tasks.

But even that improvement is not dramatic or long-lasting while your general brain function is not boosted so as to overcome cognitive decline, if any.

Proponents may say that patients have the right to choose. But of course. However, I think patients would also want to know if the current state of science says a particular programme claiming to promote neuroplasticity is bunkum.

I'm going with classical Hebrew. But what if that's not your cup of tea? Then just engage in a variety of new activities, mental and physical. If nothing else, they would be fun to do.

andyho@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on April 10, 2015.
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