Retraining The Brain

It is hard to tell by watching her, but 4-year old Harper Thomas is participating in what may be a medical revolution. So are Betty and Ernie Radez, aged 87 and 85, respectively.

All three are using cutting edge therapies to rewire their brains. Treating serious medical conditions with neither drugs nor surgery.

"Everybody thinks that the answers to the ills of humankind lie with pharmacology, gene therapy or stem cells, right?" asks neuroscientist Dr. Michael Merzenich.

"That's where the answers are, but another set of answers is coming from a surprising source; right? It's the use, it's the understanding of the process of the brain," Merzenich tells CBS News correspondent John Blackstone.

Merzenich is a leading developer of therapies based on what's called brain plasticity, which he defines as, "the capacity of the brain to change itself. It actually changes physically, functionally, in ways that you can measure."

A treatment based on brain plasticity is helping Harper Thomas. She was born with cerebral palsy, largely paralyzed on her right side. Now her mother, Laura, sees her doing the impossible.

"I was surprised by all of this," Laura says. "The therapy itself, just, you know, the results that we've gotten."

Harper is doing what's called Constraint Induced or "CI" Therapy. Her "good" hand is restrained, forcing her to use her "bad" hand for a series of exercises. Little by little the therapy rebuilds her brain, enabling it to send signals to her once paralyzed limbs.

"From what I've been told, the brain has an amazing power of re-circuiting and that's what Harper's doing every day with the therapies and things that we do with her," Laura says. "She's re-circuiting and using parts of her brain that she might not have used."

CI therapy was designed by Dr. Edward Taub at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

"There are no drugs and no surgery involved," Taub says. "Nevertheless you get a very substantial treatment effect without any side effects."

Though Taub says Harper will never be totally cured, she now has about 70 percent normal use of her arm. For the first time in her life, she can throw a ball, and feed herself with a fork.

"She's able to pick up toys, you know, put them in bags, carry heavy bags across the room. She's able to open doors. We've seen that on occasion. She's just been wonderful," Laura remarks, adding that Harper can also dress herself, something she was unable to do in the past.

Ernie and Betty Radez have been married for more than 60 years. But recently, Ernie watched, and worried, as his wife's memory failed her.

"She'll talk about something and look for a word, and she'd look at me and wait for me to tell her what the word was," Ernie explains.

He says that while physically present, Betty's mental capabilities betrayed her. "The tough part of it was to watch her and know that she was thinking, but it didn't come out," Ernie says.

For millions of Americans memory loss has seemed an unavoidable part of aging. But when Ernie learned their care facility would be a test site for a memory enhancement program, he signed up both of them.

They became testers for the "Brain Gym," a computer program designed to exercise the part of the brain used for memory.
  • Sean Alfano

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