Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The Neurological Edge: Facing One's Greatest Challenge

In the movie The Edge, Alec Baldwin and Anthony Hopkins are stranded in the Alaskan wilderness with only their wits to guide them. A man-eating bear is stalking them. Baldwin is paralyzed with fear: "We can't kill the bear, Charles. He's ahead of us all the time..." But Hopkins responds to him cooly, "You want to die out here, huh? Well, then die. I'll tell you what: I'm not going to die. No sir. I'm not going to die. I'm going to kill the bear." This is a pivotal point for the men and the movie, but it has implications for neurology and learning challenges as well.

Day-by-day, we are discovering amazing new regenerative capacities of the brain. A lot of what we thought were lost causes are no longer ones. Instead, it seems for many things- if you find a way to face up to it, you can conquer it. Here children with a hemiparesis (weak side) from cerebral palsy were found to enjoy major improvements if they were treated by constraint-induced therapy. By restraining the good arm, the children were forced to use their weak arms even more - and ultimately this resulted in greater benefits and demonstrable reorganizations of brains. Brain training was beneficial even up to 8 years after birth, and even longer studies have been done following brain injury in adults. For more about the rehabilitative potential of stroke patients, look here and here.

Another recent "kill the bear"-approach to a neurological challenge comes from McGill University. Researchers trying to help elderly patients with fears of falling instructed them not only in how to walk better and balance, but...they taught them tango! These study subjects were men and women aged 68 to 91 who had had falls in the previous year. Half were randomized to walking, and the other half to tango. What was the result? Tango dancers beat out walkers with better balance, posture, and motor coordination. They were better a multi-tasking, and more wanted to continue in the program, too.

Any lesson here for children? Well, it's a good idea to remember that the brain really can reorganize and recover. Sometimes it may be best for the kids to ultimately meet their bear. It's not the right time if a child is feeling defeated, exhausted, or depressed. But if a child has reached a good point in her life and schooling - she understand her differences as well as her personal strengths, then it would be best in the long view of things to find some way of incrementally working on weaknesses. Because chances are, these challenges will improve over time, and she will rewire her brain. - Doing the tango keeps the brain in step, too

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