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Fred Baughman, MD comments on:

Targeted Mental Training Helps Kids
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WASHINGTON –– Do genes determine your brain’s abilities, or can you retrain
the brain to overcome inherited problems, such as helping a
learning-impaired child to read?

[Fred A. Baughman Jr., MD:
Inherited what?
There is no such thing as an inherited learning disability, dyslexia
included. Not a single learning disability has been proved to be a
disease due to a demonstrable/diagnosable abnormality of the brain.
They find functional differences with PET and SPECT scanning and with
functional MRI and call these abnormalities, when they are not, when,
with proper remedial education the functional abnormality can be
rendered "normal." ]

Neuroscientist Michael Merzenich has proved that special training,
specific brain regions, can help some children with dyslexia and other
language-related disabilities to learn. Sophisticated neural imaging
the retraining, using computerized educational games, leads to physical
changes in the brain.

[Fred A. Baughman Jr., MD:
It is implied here that dyslexia and other
language-related disabilities are inherited problems, i.e., genetic,
i.e., diseases/physical abnormalities. Dyslexia, mentioned by name, has
never been validated as a bona fide disease having a
demonstrable/diagnosable physical or chemical abnormality of the brain.
It is an contrived excuse for the now-failing educational establishment
which has embraced the "new math" of reading called "whole language."
California having adopted "whole language" to the exclusion of phonics,
in 1987, was then tied for last in the country with Mississippi, on the
1992 Reading Report Card; 59 % of CA 4th graders read at a less than
"basic" level—still 1st grade, while 86% were less than proficient.
This had nothing to do with a defective children, only with defective
educators. By the 1994 Nat. Assessment on Educational Progress, CA had
undisputed possession of last place among readers of the nation.
Nothing inherited at all, nothing organic, only educators embracing more
psychology, more fads, as only educators do—regardless of cost to the

If it works for dyslexia, Merzenich reasons, why not for more profound
neurological disorders like autism or schizophrenia? His theory: Such
disorders aren’t simply inherited illnesses.

[Fred A. Baughman Jr., MD:
those with "autism"
are invariably subnormal developmentally, talking late and poorly, well
below age-, grade-level. As such they have diffuse organic damage of
the brain which while similar from case to case, can have diverse
etiologies. Schizophrenia, has not, to date been shown to be an organic
disease of the brain, much less one that is genetically determined.]

Instead, they’re inherited brain weaknesses that turn into full-blown
disorders only when the
ever-changing brain essentially gets stuck in the wrong gear – and that
might be possible to reverse.

“There’s a real prospect of understanding these conditions through
understanding the brain as an operational machine that in a sense
its own capacities,” explains Merzenich, of the University of
San Francisco.

It sounds provocative. But as Merzenich discussed the latest research at
National Institutes of Health meeting last week, neuroscientists said
years have brought widespread agreement that the brain’s “plasticity” –
continual changes that let us learn new things every day – sometimes
out of control, causing developmental disorders once attributed solely
bad genes.

The challenge now is to understand normal learning well enough to
when plasticity goes bad. Merzenich calls it “raising a brain.”

Think of the brain as an incredibly malleable computer. At birth, much
the hardware isn’t hooked up and little software is running. But the
physically changes as it learns, and each change enables new learning
more changes – constant evolution customized to experience.

Take vision. Newborns see very little. Day by day, messages beamed from
eyes to a region in the back of the brain literally hook up neural
circuitry until babies can see normally. But studies of monkeys show
patching over one eye makes the brain rewire itself to see only through
eye without the patch.

“It’s a use-it-or-lose-it game during development,” says Harvard Medical
School’s Carla Shatz.

Change isn’t limited to childhood. Other scientists have painstakingly
counted how many new brain cells grow in adult rats – very few if
kept in plain boring cages but lots if they learn to use exercise
wheels. In
humans, brain-scanning MRI machines show regions involved in playing
for example, grow and become more intricately wired as musicians

But a genetic flaw can knock the whole cycle off kilter. Consider: Some
people with dyslexia have problems reading not because of eye problems
because their brains don’t properly process sounds, such as the
between “duh” and “buh,” that link to words.

Merzenich’s laboratory created computerized educational games to retrain
sound-processing brain regions. The sounds may be drawn out until a
learns to recognize them and then gradually sped up to normal. Put
in MRI machines after about 60 hours of training, and the auditory
looks more normal. Tests show the children learn significantly better,
Merzenich said.

Merzenich co-founded a California company that now sells the retraining
games, called Fast ForWord, to schools and speech therapists.

[Fred A. Baughman Jr., MD:
surely this is training, but, was the child’s brain truly
diseased/abnormal to begin with. The answer is no. In all cases of
dyslexia, instruction has been misguided, a barrier, not a means to
literacy. As such, just about any intensive training, especially if a
modicum of phonics is used is bound to yield impressive results. This
is the reason, Hooked on Phonics, ABC—the Phonics Game and just about
any for-profit reading remediation offering can guarantee incredible
improvements in grades.]

More intriguing are severe disorders like autism or schizophrenia.
genes alone don’t determine who gets those diseases, because 15 percent
identical twins of autism patients escape the disorder, as do half of
identical twins of schizophrenics.

[Fred A. Baughman Jr., MD:
these are statistical
correlations, not proof of a genetic basis for either autism or
schizophrenia. There have been many such theories and technologies
based upon them, few of which stand the test of time but have
subscribers enough, on the short term to make the scientist-entrepreneur
wealthy indeed. Does Merzenich’s conjecture (above) sound sound—proven,
on established scientific ground to you?]

Merzenich thinks people who inherit a predisposition to those diseases
actually get them when brain plasticity runs amok.

[Fred A. Baughman Jr., MD:
smack of
pseudoscience, big time]

How? He hasn’t proved it yet, but his autism theory is that a brain
important for social development, the amygdala, gets bombarded with
that it can’t keep up with, and thus proper development is stymied.

[Fred A. Baughman Jr., MD:
Dr. M. lets get specific. Which diseases are you claiming are helped by
your for-profit technology. List each of them and then (1) cite the
proof each is a disease, (2) cite the proof each is due to a defective
gene—sex linked, autosomal recessive, autosomal dominant, mitochondrial,
chromosomal. Someone has to hold these people accountable. They are
one another’s peers in the peer-review process, and there is no
scientific rigor to be found.]

like a car getting stuck in the mud – the genetic predisposition – and
revving the engine – the brain struggling to learn – just digs it in
Redirect the stalled amygdala and maybe autism can be lessened if not
prevented, he says.

[Fred A. Baughman Jr., MD:
I can just see Merzenich hooking up his
cables, ECT like, or by depth electrodes to the right and left amydalae
to give them a jolt from his electrode. My suspicion is that the neural
training born of each and every dyslexia theory have never stood the
test of valid educational research truly proving in a scientific manner
their educational efficacy.]


Lauran Neergaard covers health and medicine for The Associated Press in

© 2001 The Associated Press

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