In New Book, ALS Researcher Niels Birbaumer Explores Brain’s Limitless Capacity to Remodel Itself

In New Book, ALS Researcher Niels Birbaumer Explores Brain’s Limitless Capacity to Remodel Itself

Neuroscientist and professor Niels Birbaumer, a senior research fellow at Switzerland’s Wyss Center in Geneva, has written a new book investigating the brain’s seemingly limitless capacity  to reshape itself and overcome disease.

Birbaumer has conducted research with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) patients who, because of their progressive motor neuron disease, have developed locked-in syndrome, leaving them completely paralyzed and motionless.

Locked-in syndrome is a rare neurological disorder that causes total paralysis of all voluntary muscles except the ones that control movement of the eyes. Individuals remain fully conscious and awake, but cannot move or speak. Communication is usually possible only through blinking. The syndrome is caused by damage to the pons, a part of the brain that contains nerve fibers that relay information to other regions of the brain.

Credit: professor Niels Birbaumer

In “Your Brain Knows More than You Think,” Birbaumer and his co-author, freelance journalist and writer Jörg Zittlau, investigate how the brain’s plasticity allows it to overcome conditions like depression, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), addiction and locked-in syndrome.

In the book, Birbaumer describes working with patients in an effort to show how people can live happy lives through brainpower alone — even in the most dire of circumstances.

In the image at left is the world’s first letter written by a patient, Hans-Peter Salzmann, using his brain’s own electrical activity. The letter invites Birbaumer and his collaborators to a party to celebrate the patient’s achievements. Salzmann is one of the fully locked-in patients Birbaumer’s research helped communicate; other stories like his are featured in the new book.

Birbaumer, a neuroscientist, has pioneered the use of brain computer interfaces for people with neurological disorders. His research matches the neurobiological basis of learning and behavior. According to a press release, Birbaumer has received several international accolades, including the Albert Einstein World Award of Science, the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize, and the Helmholtz Medal of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences.

Your Brain Knows More than You Think” is available in paperback and hardcover, as well as in electronic format.

One comment

  1. Charlie says:

    “…the brain’s seemingly limitless capacity to reshape itself and overcome disease.”

    I am not at all sure I understand what point this researcher, and indeed this article, is trying to make.

    We all know that ALS does not of itself affect the brain,which continues to function normally but without the usual methods of communication as with otherwise healthy people.
    Professor Hawking is ‘locked-in’ but continues to wrestle with the mysteries of the universe, time and space. He has an electronic method of communication.
    Voice-recording appears to be offered to all ALS patients early in the decline period so that when the time comes, as it surely will sooner or later, effective communication can be possible albeit with rather a tin-can-echo type of sound.

    Surely if any disease needs to be ‘overcome’ by what is being described in this report, it is Alzheimers, the opposite of ALS. That really would be ‘overcoming disease.’

    Has Mr. Birbaumer’s method allowed a pALS to’overcome’ their disease?
    I don’t think so.

    Whilst many road-traffic-accident victims who have suffered brain tissue damage have experienced a re-wiring their brain and regained cogency to amazing degrees, ALS reversal mystifyingly remains well beyond the hopes and dreams of all current research channels.
    What Mr Birbaumer appears to be describing is a similar-to-Hawking way of blinking-out sentences to one’s family and friends.

    The hypothesis that ALS is ‘overcome’ by Birbaumer’s approach is misleading at best and cruelly deceptive at worst.

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