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Co-founder of Fast ForWord Honored For Work on Neuroplasticity

Michael Merzenich, co-founder of Fast ForWord, has won the $1 million Kavli Prize in Neuroscience. The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, which administers the prize, announced earlier this month that Merzenich and two other researchers are being honored this year for their work on neuroplasticity.

Merzenich, along with Eve Marder and Carla Shatz, challenged the assumption that the brain is fixed in its ways. Instead, their research showed that the brain is continually adapting and that experience reshapes the brain.

Many of Michael Merzenich’s groundbreaking experiments focused on the “maps” the brain uses to coordinate movement and sensory perception. Merzenich found that in animals like monkeys, these maps evolve as learning takes place. His work was featured in Norman Doidge’s bestselling book about brain plasticity, The Brain That Changes Itself.

Merzenich also did research looking at how brain maps are involved in sound perception. This work showed that brain maps can evolve to process sounds in new ways, a finding that helped pave the way for cochlear implants. Prior to winning the Kavli Prize, Merzenich was a recipient of the $500,000 Russ Prize for his contribution to the development of cochlear implants.

How the Human Brain Works

Merzenich is best known not for creating maps of how monkeys process movement or even for helping create cochlear implants but rather for his role in overturning the old dogma that the brain can’t change. His work opened up a radical new understanding of how the human brain works: neuroplasticity.

The basic idea behind neuroplasticity is that the brain is like a muscle. When you use it for certain things, it gets better at those things. The more you use it, the stronger it gets.

The implication is that everything you do shapes your brain. That’s why the best way to get good at something is to practice it. When you use your brain, you’re rewiring your brain to make it a little better at whatever you’re using it for.

This realization that the brain is essentially plastic was a revolution in neuroscience. It brought about new insight into how the brain works and, as a result, new ways of treating a variety of disorders and disabilities involving the brain.

In His Own Words

For Michael Merzenich, whose research helped pave the way to understanding neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change itself in response to experience is a big part of what makes us human. Since our brains reflect our experiences, and each of us has a different life history with a different set of experiences, each of us ends up with a unique brain. As Merzenich put it in his 2004 TED Talk:

Because what we’ve done in our personal evolutions is build up a large repertoire of specific skills and abilities that are specific to our own individual histories. And in fact they result in a wonderful differentiation in humankind, in the way that, in fact, no two of us are quite alike. Every one of us has a different set of acquired skills and abilities that all derive out of the plasticity, the adaptability of this really remarkable adaptive machine. In an adult brain of course we’ve built up a large repertoire of mastered skills and abilities that we can perform more or less automatically from memory, and that define us as acting, moving, thinking creatures.

As recognition for his work on neuroplasticity, Michael Merzenich was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1999, then the National Academy’s Institute of Medicine in 2008. His research has been covered widely in the media and has been the subject of documentaries shown on PBS and Discovery Channel. And the Kavli Prize is just the latest in a string of prestigious awards he has received.

Throughout his career, Merzenich has also been intent on turning his discoveries toward practical ends and using them to find new ways of helping people harness the power of neuroplasticity and learn to use their own brains in new ways.

The Creation of a New Type of Learning Program

Merzenich has been especially interested in computer-based learning and cognitive training programs, and he holds almost 100 patents in the United States. In 1997, he co-founded software company Scientific Learning along with fellow research scientists Bill Jenkins, Paula Tallal and Steven Miller.

The impetus to start Scientific Learning came from a study done by the four researchers on children who had an impaired ability to process sounds in time. When children have a hard time making sense of sound sequences, they’re not able to learn language as efficiently, which in turn can lead to reading difficulties and other language problems down the road.

However, the study done by the scientists and several of their colleagues showed that computer training can help children get better at processing sounds in time, which then leads to improved language skills. Merzenich, Jenkins and Tallal decided to take the software from their experiment and distribute it to the public. It became known as Fast ForWord, and it’s now used to help children improve their language skills and sharpen their cognitive functioning.

Of course, the idea that children who lag behind in language skills can catch up by training their brains to hear sounds in new ways is just another example of neuroplasticity. Software like Fast ForWord takes advantage of the brain’s ability to adapt and nudges the brain to reshape itself in ways that let it perceive sounds more efficiently.

Dr. Michael Merzenich Continues His Important Work

The fact that one basic concept – that the brain changes itself in response to its environment – can set the stage for everything from cochlear implants to games that help with language learning shows how far-reaching the implications of brain plasticity are. No doubt that’s one of the things the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters had in mind when they decided to award this year’s Kavli Prize in Neuroscience to Michael Merzenich along with Eve Marder and Carla Shatz, two other brain plasticity researchers.

For his part, although he’s now a professor emeritus at University of California, San Francisco, Merzenich has continued to explore applications of neuroplasticity research in recent years. In 2004 he founded a second company, Posit Science, and in 2014 he even co-hosted a neuroplasticity symposium with the Dalai Lama. You can get the latest of what he’s up to at his blog.