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csandrinic's picture

Seeing with your tongue

This discussion about just how connected our senses are to one another made me think of a very interesting article in the New York Times that I read recently, titled “Patient, Heal Thyself.” Over the decades, biomedical engineers have been working to provide technological cures for people afflicted with paralysis, deafness and other disabilities. The technologies that show the most signs of success are those that exploit the body’s regenerative powers of the nervous system and muscles. This research seems to show us that our brain cells have the capacity to rewire themselves radically (form new synaptic connections and dissolve old ones) in response to certain stimulation. For example, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin designed a device that essentially leads the blind to ‘see’ with their tongues. By feeding data from a camera to a ribbon that lies on the tongue and is studded with electrodes, and tickling the tongue in a pattern that mirrors incoming data, subjects over time learned to interpret the data so well that they could recognize faces.

This article mentioned that with an extremely rigorous training regimen that included the electrical stimulation of his muscles while being aided to move on treadmills and stationary bicycles, Christopher Reeves was able to regain sensation to his limbs and could even feel them slightly. The notion that the brain can rework itself to repair its damages, such as injuries to the spine or to the nerves throughout our body is fascinating to me. I also think that it would be important to try to solve the complex nature of the way in which the brain interprets signals. How is it that when the normal pattern of connections that result in different modes of perception is ruptured, the brain is capable of rewiring its connections and creating new action potentials? 

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