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Tuesday, 30 December 2008 10:32

Alice in Neuroland - Page 5

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In his next experiment he trained the cats to generate SMR at will, for hours on end, rewarding them with milk flavored with chicken broth whenever their EEGs displayed it. He published the results, intriguing but of no obviously earthshaking significance, in Brain Research in 1967.

Sterman's federal funding for this research later dried up, possibly because alpha-wave biofeedback researchers were viewed by federal bureaucrats as blissed-out ninnies. So, in a fusion of rocket science and brain surgery, Sterman moved on to investigating the neurological effects of toxic rocket fuel. (The research had its genesis in fears that the early astronauts, who'd reported seeing South Sea islanders waving at them like sirens, were getting hallucinations from exposure to rocket-fuel fumes.) On a contract from the Defense Department, he injected monomethylhydrazine into 50 lab cats and recorded their EEGs while they panted, drooled, and had epileptic fits. As described in Jim Robbins's 2002 book, A Symphony in the Brain , most of the cats had seizures within an hour of being injected, and some died soon afterward. But seven cats held off seizures for more than two hours, and three had no epileptic seizures at all. When Sterman went back over his records, he discovered that the seizure-resistant cats were the ones he'd trained earlier to generate Sensory Motor Rhythm.

That discovery tantalized him. Just exactly what had happened in those cats' brains? How had a low-key, noninvasive, behavioral intervention--training brain waves with a milk reward--made cats capable of resisting epileptic seizures? To understand how earthshaking this was, imagine the healthy brain as a huge sports stadium where clusters of neurons sit in the bleachers playing millions of semi-independent versions of the child's game of gossip, whispering messages to one another down interlocking daisy chains. In an epileptic seizure, ever-growing numbers of those neurons stop passing messages critical to body functioning and join instead in a slow, synchronized version of The Wave.

The brain-wave training had somehow taught the cats' brain cells not to take up The Wave, even when awash in an excitatory poison. An intervention so simple and subtle that even a cat could do it--involving no drugs, therapy, or surgery--had changed how neurons communicated, possibly even rejiggering their structure at the cellular level. It was early proof of what scientists now call neuroplasticity--the brain's ability to reshape itself physically.
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