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

Margarida Azevedo, MSc avatar

by Margarida Azevedo, MSc |

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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.