It is hard to tell by watching her, but 4-year old Harper Thomas is participating in what may be a medical revolution. So are Betty and Ernie Radez, aged 87 and 85, respectively.
All three are using cutting edge therapies to rewire their brains. Treating serious medical conditions with neither drugs nor surgery.
“Everybody thinks that the answers to the ills of humankind lie with pharmacology, gene therapy or stem cells, right?” asks neuroscientist Dr. Michael Merzenich.
“That’s where the answers are, but another set of answers is coming from a surprising source; right? It’s the use, it’s the understanding of the process of the brain,” Merzenich tells CBS News correspondent John Blackstone.
Merzenich is a leading developer of therapies based on what’s called brain plasticity, which he defines as, “the capacity of the brain to change itself. It actually changes physically, functionally, in ways that you can measure.”
A treatment based on brain plasticity is helping Harper Thomas. She was born with cerebral palsy, largely paralyzed on her right side. Now her mother, Laura, sees her doing the impossible.
“I was surprised by all of this,” Laura says. “The therapy itself, just, you know, the results that we’ve gotten.”
Harper is doing what’s called Constraint Induced or “CI” Therapy. Her “good” hand is restrained, forcing her to use her “bad” hand for a series of exercises. Little by little the therapy rebuilds her brain, enabling it to send signals to her once paralyzed limbs.
“From what I’ve been told, the brain has an amazing power of re-circuiting and that’s what Harper’s doing every day with the therapies and things that we do with her,” Laura says. “She’s re-circuiting and using parts of her brain that she might not have used.”
CI therapy was designed by Dr. Edward Taub at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
“There are no drugs and no surgery involved,” Taub says. “Nevertheless you get a very substantial treatment effect without any side effects.”
Though Taub says Harper will never be totally cured, she now has about 70 percent normal use of her arm. For the first time in her life, she can throw a ball, and feed herself with a fork.
“She’s able to pick up toys, you know, put them in bags, carry heavy bags across the room. She’s able to open doors. We’ve seen that on occasion. She’s just been wonderful,” Laura remarks, adding that Harper can also dress herself, something she was unable to do in the past.
Ernie and Betty Radez have been married for more than 60 years. But recently, Ernie watched, and worried, as his wife’s memory failed her.
“She’ll talk about something and look for a word, and she’d look at me and wait for me to tell her what the word was,” Ernie explains.
He says that while physically present, Betty’s mental capabilities betrayed her. “The tough part of it was to watch her and know that she was thinking, but it didn’t come out,” Ernie says.
For millions of Americans memory loss has seemed an unavoidable part of aging. But when Ernie learned their care facility would be a test site for a memory enhancement program, he signed up both of them.
They became testers for the “Brain Gym,” a computer program designed to exercise the part of the brain used for memory.
Betty explains that when searching for the right words to say, “I couldn’t get them out. I was just numb. And I’m just coming back now and it came back through this experience.”
Ernie adds, “I’m not a doctor, but there’s just no question in my mind of what it’s helped both of us. So it’s really nice for me to have her back as far as she is, and she’s, I’d say, she’s about 90 percent now.”
When asked if the Brain Gym served as a fountain of youth, Merzenich, who developed the program and founded the company Posit Science, says, “Well, this is a part of a solution.”
He adds, “This can have an incredible impact, not just from the point of view of the quality of life of older people but sustaining people with vitality, with vigor.”
Merzenich says scientists are learning to harness the brain’s plasticity and encouraging healthy parts of the brain to take on jobs they don’t usually do.
According to Merzenich, learning new cognitive skills can be achieved at any age. “Absolutely,” he says, “in fact, very strong positive improvements in basic faculties can be achieved at any age.”
Merzenich’s company, Posit Science, has begun selling the Brain Gym computer program and the potential market is huge. By the time they reach age 85 nearly half of Americans will suffer from dementia. Merzenich wants to prove, scientifically, that Brain Gym can help them.
So scientists at Stanford University tested the program on people with memory problems. Ruth Speigel has a disorder called mild cognitive impairment.
Using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (FMRI), scientists can watch the brain at work. Dr John Gabrieli set up the study to see if the brain gym can actually change the way an aging brain remembers.
“We can see the presence or absence of memory,” Gabrieli explains. “We can see memories of different kinds.”
Gabrieli says, “We’re very hopeful. I mean, it’s at a very early stage and these are really the first glimpses of how an older person might, you know, change their brain to improve their memory.”
Whether or not Brain Gym is proven to work, Gabrieli knows the theory is sound. He studied how the brains of children with dyslexia changed when they used another of Merzenich’s brain exercise computer programs.
The programs, a sort of mental weight lifting, stimulated the children’s brains and made a sizeable difference in their reading skills.
“It is a large change, of course. Their reading scores also improved, that’s the bottom line,” Gabrieli says of the children.
“We feel like we’re lucky explorers, you know, getting to see on topic after topic the first images of the human mind,” Gabrieli intimates.
For Merzenich, developing the Brain Gym is a professional accomplishment driven by a painful, personal experience. “I watched my own mother decline in Alzheimer’s disease,” Merzenich says.
“It’s crucial that this science be brought out of the laboratory into the world to help people and the need is massive,” he says. “That’s what this is all about.”
Taub agrees, adding that the research “needs to be further explored.”
Back in Birmingham, Taub says treatments that retrain the brain have been proven useful in treating strokes, brain injuries, even helping recovery from hip replacement. He knows, however, there remains skepticism about miracle cures that do not depend on drugs or surgery.
“There are treatments for lots and lots of conditions that are not part of mainstream treatments, but are effective,” Taub says. “You don’t have to go into complete speculation and looking at blue skies. It’s here, and it just needs to be used more.”
As science learns more about the brain’s capacity to rewire itself, instead of using drugs, doctors may increasingly try teaching old brains new tricks.