Following is the full text of Don Vaughn’s talk titled “Neurohacking: rewiring your brain” at TEDxUCLA conference.
Don Vaughn – TEDx Talk TRANSCRIPT
Inside each one of us is a beautiful symphony. 100 billion neurons firing in concert, constructing this vivid reality that we’re living in. And inside each little piece of that neural activity lives a little bit of what makes you, you.
And after your experiences today, that activity will have shifted and you will never be the same. You are inextricably tied to your brain.
When I first learned these principles, when I was 16, I fell in love with the brain, and I’ve been doing neuroscience research ever since.
Now, one day, we were doing a new MRI experiment. And I was surprised because the experiment went well, but much to all of our shock, I had a hole in my brain. It was a pretty big one too; it was like 30% of my cerebellum just wasn’t there.
Which, as you might imagine, I was pretty shocked because I didn’t feel like anything about me or my life and my experience of the world had changed or was missing.
The cerebellum is one of the most fundamental parts of your brain. It has, like, 80% of all of your neurons. So I got interested.
Now, there’s this collision between what your brain is supposed to do and then what it’s dealt, and somehow it finds a middle ground. And I became really interested in the idea of your brain as a dynamic, flexible system.
And to that end, I want to tell you the story of Cameron Mott. Just after her third birthday, Cameron started having violent seizures. They started becoming worse and worse, and eventually, she was losing her ability to speak.
Doctors diagnosed her with something called Rasmussen’s encephalitis, and the only real treatment for this was a hemisphererectomy — cutting out half of her brain. And keep in mind that one half of your brain controls and is responsible for movement and sensation in the other half of your body.
So this surgery would immediately leave Cameron hemiplegic. But just four weeks post-op, she walked out of the hospital. And she is still dealing with a bit of hemiplegia and a bit of peripheral vision loss. But otherwise, she is able to run around with her peers, and she is cognitively quite deft — it’s amazing.
And I wondered, you know — consider that for a second: if I gave you half of a car, or half of a phone, you wouldn’t be going anywhere in LA, and you wouldn’t be on Twitter right now tweeting about how mind expanding TEDxUCLA is.
Because for most devices, 50% equals broken. But somehow in this instance with Cameron, 50% is almost equal to 100%.
HOW IS THAT POSSIBLE?
Well, the remaining part of Cameron’s brain sensed the massive loss of neural tissue, and it physically rewired and reorganized itself to take over everything that the other half had previously handled. That is an ability known as neuroplasticity. It’s the ability of the brain to change itself — to rewire.
And so, I think it’s not a very good analogy when people say your brain is like a computer. It’s actually just a really bad one because your brain is not static hardware.
And although the prevailing view in neuroscience for a long time was that the adult brain is a fixed processing unit, it seems like every day we find a new result that says that’s not the case at all.
While there is structure to your brain, it is dynamic, flexible biology. Let me say that again: You and your brain are static, but you’re also dynamic — you can change yourself.
So the idea worth spreading is this: What if we were able to treat injuries and impairments in an entirely new way, by hacking into your brain’s ability to rewire itself.
To show you what I mean, let’s look at how we’ve treated depression.
Since 1952, scientists and doctors have addressed the question of treatment for depression as a fixed hardware problem where there is a deficiency of “happy” neurotransmitters, like serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine.
And in this context, it makes perfect sense that the way to go about it is to discover and design drugs which increase those neurotransmitter levels. Enter MAOIs, tricyclics, SSRIs — there are hundreds of them, but they all work in pretty much the same way.
And these are marvels of modern medicine. I mean, on anti-depressants, we see about two-thirds of people see some sort of symptom relief. But that still leaves 1.5 million people, in the US alone, who are still struggling to enjoy their lives, who are becoming disconnected from their friends and their families. It is an awful, debilitating disease.
So what if we were able — what would become possible — if we addressed the problem from the perspective of neuroplasticity? So what we’re doing is we’re essentially finding regions in the brain that show different activation in depressed patients than in normals.
So for example, if someone with depression shows dorsolateral prefrontal cortex — it is not as active as it is in other brains — we actually use electromagnetic currents from devices placed on the scalp to induce neural rewiring in those areas.
So in the case of the area that was less active than normal, we give a pulse, we stimulate it, we do whatever we can over several sessions to say: Can we upregulate that? Can we make this brain essentially push back towards normal behavior, one area at a time?
And while this is a new technology, some of the pioneering work by Dr. Jonathan Downer at the University of Toronto shows nearly a 33% remission rate for treatment-resistant depression, which is depression where patients have seen no relief from therapy, they’ve seen no relief from anti-depressants, and they are running out of options.
And another wonderful thing about the idea of neuroplasticity is that while drugs are very specific on a molecular level, they’re quite general still in their delivery, often affecting a whole host of parts around the body that we didn’t intend, and leading to the laundry list of side effects that you’re probably used to hearing at rapid speed at the end of drug commercials.
But neuroplasticity kind of takes the other approach. Instead, we’re targeting very large patches of your brain, but we’re leaving the rest of you alone. We’re now in the midst of the personal medicine revolution — you can sequence your genome; you can get SNPs — it’s $100-$200.
I think neuroplasticity can fit into this because the devices that we use can be tailored very specifically to each individual. We can deliver just the right stimulating pulse for John, and we can give just the right targeting area for Jenny.
There is a lot of flexibility to make sure that we address the fact that we’re as different on the inside — probably more so — than we are on the outside, and any optimal treatment mechanism should cater to that.