The Arrowsmith School For Brain Change
Excerpted from the book: The Brain That Changes Itself
Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science
By Norman Doidge, MD, Penguin Publishing, December, 2007
In these years before high-tech brain scans were available, she relied on Luria's work to understand which areas or the brain commonly processed which mental functions. Luria had formed his own map of the brain by working with patients like Zazetsky. He observed where a soldier's wound had occurred and related this location to the mental functions lost.
Barbara Arrowsmith Young found that learning disorders were often milder versions of the thinking deficits seen in Luria's patients. Applicants to the Arrowsmith School — children and adults alike — undergo up to forty hours of assessments, designed to determine precisely which brain functions are weak and whether they might be helped.
Most of them come with three related problems: trouble speaking in a smooth, flowing way, writing neatly, and reading. Barbara, following Luria, believes that all three difficulties are caused by a weakness in the brain function that normally helps us to coordinate and string together a number of movements when we perform these tasks.
When we speak, our brain converts a sequence of symbols — the letters and words of the thought — into a sequence of movements made by our tongue and lip muscles. Barbara believes, again following Luria, that the part of the brain that strings these movements together is the left premotor cortex of the brain
When we write a thought, our brain converts the words — which are symbols — into movements of the fingers and hands. The same boy had very jerky writing because his processing capacity for converting symbols into movements was easily overloaded, so he had to write with many separate, small movements instead of long, flowing ones. Even though he had been taught cursive writing, he preferred to print. (As adults, people with this problem can often be identified because they prefer to print or type.
Writing was especially painful for the boy, since he often knew the right answers on tests but wrote so slowly that he couldn't get them all down. Or he would think of one word, letter, or number but write another. These children are often accused of being careless, but actually their over-loaded brains fire the wrong motor movements.
At the Arrowsmith School this boy's brain exercises involved tracing complex lines to stimulate his neurons in the weakened pre-motor area. Barbara has found that tracing exercises improve children in all three areas — speaking, writing, and reading.
At other tables children are studying Urdu and Persian letters to strengthen their visual memories. The shapes of these letters are unfamiliar, and the brain exercise requires the students to learn to recognize these alien shapes quickly.
Clearly many children would benefit from a brain area-based assessment to identify their weakened functions and a program to strengthen them — a far more productive approach than tutoring that simply repeats a lesson and leads to endless frustration. When "weak links in the chain" are strengthened, people gain access to skills whose development was formerly blocked, and they feel enormously liberated.
She has shown that children with learning disabilities can often go beyond
compensations and correct their underlying problem.
Trained or stimulated neurons develop 25 percent more branches and increase their size, the number of connections per neuron, and their blood supply. These changes can occur late in life, though they do not develop as rapidly in older animals as in younger ones.
For people, postmortem examinations have shown that education increases the number of branches among neurons. An increased number of branches drives the neurons farther apart, leading to an increase in the volume and thickness of the brain. The idea that the brain is like a muscle that grows with exercise is not just a metaphor.
If this post strikes a chord with you, we take brain plasticity possibilities a step further in Impossible Dream, the extraordinary story of triumph over disability told from the first-person perspective of a young woman living with autism.