The Current

How 'plastic' brain can heal from traumatic injuries

Traumatic brain injuries once considered permanent can now be treated with non-invasive techniques such as light and sound therapy to help re-align brain signals. It's all thanks to discovering that the brain is plastic or pliable rather than mechanical.
Kathy Nicol Smith overcame her traumatic brain injury with a device that electrically stimulates the nerves in her tongue — nerves that go right to the brain. 0:41

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Life was pretty challenging for Jeri Lake after a bike accident left her with a traumatic brain injury. Six years after her accident she still couldn't stand up straight without falling over and was having problems with vision and depth perception. 

"It was really difficult for me to navigate the world and I spent a lot of time at home," she tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.
Canadian psychiatrist Dr. Norman Doidge says the brain should be seen as plastic and not fixed as we have always assumed. (Courtesy of The Nature of Things)

But things started to change for Lake when she discovered a new device that was undergoing testing at the University of Wisconsin. It's called PoNS and it attaches to the tongue. Small electrodes send electrical signals to the brain — stimulating dormant circuits. Jeri Lake felt improvement after only one 20-minute session. 

"Someone to my left asked how I was feeling, I turned my head to look at her and answer. I suddenly realized I had moved — I had turned my head freely for the first time in almost six years and I didn't fall."

"I didn't lose my balance."

That's something she hadn't been able to do since her accident. 

Lake's experience is just one of the stories featured in the documentary, The Brain's Way of Healing, where psychiatrist Dr. Norman Doidge examines the non-invasive treatments being used for neurological conditions. It all comes from the idea that the brain isn't hardwired like a machine, but instead is plastic and can change over time. 

"Every traumatic brain injury is different but the classic approaches to traumatic brain injury were very limited. Rest and restore was the big ones and recently we were looking at brain exercises."

"In my book and in the film, we talk about a number of different approaches that are emerging. I know of nine now that we can use."  

He features cases where sound therapy has been used with success for children with autism, light therapy to treat brain injuries and exercise to lessen the symptoms of Parkinson's disease. 

Jeri Lake says she's not functioning like she was before the accident. But at least she can now navigate the world. Plus, she's able to ride her bike again. 

"That's been marvelous because I'm happy on a bicycle."

The Brain's Way of Healing airs Thursday Oct. 27, on The Nature of Things.

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's producer Liz Hoath.