July 25, 2009

Exploring hope

Way back in high school, I taught myself "advanced Placement" Biology - the course that was supposed to get you out of the first year of University Biology. There were no classes available, but I had an understanding teacher to mentor me and I did well enough to pass the exam and get the credit. What I remember most of that course was my dissection of a fetal pig. I worked my way through the poor piggy's body, but the biggest day for me was the day I dissected the brain. I felt reverential, although piggy's brain hadn't developed much in its fetal life. But I knew then I was touching something magical, holy, beyond understanding.

Since then I've had a fascination with neuroscience, which seems oddly appropriate given my MS. Sometimes I think the body knows what is happening to it before it shows clinically...I adore reading and studying about the marvelous things our brains are, the PET scans that isolate areas of response, the amazing system that takes a few chemicals and uses them to regulate everything from scratching our noses to singing to figuring out our taxes to thinking about God. It is astonishing.

I just opened a book by Norman Doidge, MD, called "The Brain that changes itself" - all about brain plasticity and the miraculous way brains can, if not heal, redirect their energies to covering for lapses. The first story almost made me weep. It's about a man who had a huge stroke and was rendered immobile and speechless. He was taught to reorganize his brain by his son, who spent hours teaching him to progress as children do - crawling to walking, sounds to short words to long sentences. This alone was wonderful. But when the father died, several years later, on a mountain climbing expedition (!), the autopsy showed that over 90% of the nerves through his brainstem, that most important of parts of the brain (The bit that regulates basic functions, balance, breathing, etc.) had been destroyed by the stroke - the lesion was still there and had not healed, but the brain was able to work around this damage.

Inexplicable, and thought impossible. So many stroke sufferers are given the standard 4-8 weeks rehab and then left to live with what they have left at that time. But both this story and the tale of Jill Boldt Taylor's stroke recovery prove that this is not enough. More recovery can happen...

So of course, this being an MS blog, it does occur to me that some of the same things should be possible for MS sufferers. But how to work with this changing disease to reroute what must be, essentially, like construction season in Canada - pylons up everywhere, sections being repaired in unusual locations, new areas of destruction created daily, slowdowns and big lumpy bits. It's an interesting thought. Can we create side paths, detours, that would allow nerve impulses to wend their way around the changing landscape, and if so, how?

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