The ability to revert neural cells back to their younger, plastic state could potentially be a treatment breakthrough. But fully restoring the brain’s original spongelike quality would nonetheless give clinicians pause. Turning the brain into malleable mush at the age of 30 would not be the best solution—some scientists think that an excess of plasticity, in fact, may
lie at the root of conditions such as schizophrenia.
Some investigators are already exploring how far they can bring back plasticity and mend patients through environmental cues alone. In his own work, Levi found that after thousands of sessions in video game–like exercises—“kilo trials” as he calls these mini clinical trials—adult amblyopia patients achieved substantial improvements in visual acuity. Levi is already doing research with actual video games. Grand Theft Auto IV or Medal of Honor may retrain the brain in ways its developers never imagined.
Perils of a Badly Wired Brain
The research showing that neural systems can be forced back to an earlier, more pliable state may extend beyond treatments for “lazy eye.” Schizophrenia may emerge from faulty signals transmitted during the critical developmental period, causing an excess of plasticity throughout life. Autistic children may suffer a surfeit of overexcited connections, another offshoot of errors in wiring that occur during this early-childhood window. Biochemicals similar to those in the visual system may be activated by auditory, olfactory and tactile signals. Adjusting their levels up or down in the central nervous system could conceivably treat a variety of disorders.
Note: This article was originally printed with the title, "Childhood Recovered".