Day 5: Your Brain on Brain

Since I have a luxurious 397 blogs to go, I’m starting a series of periodic posts about “people you should know.” Real people; not made up ones. I might start a series of made up people at a later date.

This particular person passed away in 2006, so you missed your chance to meet him. However, you can still learn about, appreciate and be fascinated by his work.

A caveat: I’m not a scientist. If I write something inaccurate and you know better, feel free to let me know (in a nice way, please…. all caps are no fun).    

Paul Bach-y-Rita (1934–2006)

Bach-y-Rita, one of the “fathers of neuroplasticity,” was one of only a handful of early neuroscientists who believed in the adaptability of the brain. Just a few decades ago, neuroplasticity was a fringe theory. The brain was thought to be hardwired—fixed—and could not create new connections. On the contrary, Bach-y-Rita knew that the brain was alive and constantly adapting to new stimuli.

“We don’t see with our eyes, we see with our brains.”

Bach-y-Rita coined the concept of sensory substitution—that if one of our senses is damaged, we can acquire the missing information through another sense. He posited that when a person became blind or deaf, they hadn’t necessarily lost the ability to see or hear; they only lost the ability to transmit information from their eyes or ears to their brain. A brain without a working set of eyes could potentially still “see” with another transmitter.

Drum roll for one of our more amazing organs, please: the tongue.

Save the lips, it has more tactile nerve endings than any other part of the body. Knowing this, Bach-y-Rita invented a “tongue display,” a thin strip of plastic covered with electrodes that lies on a person’s tongue. The device is hooked up to a camera, and as the camera reduces what it sees into pixels, the pixels are converted to electric currents that run along the tongue strip. The brain learns to interpret the impulses it receives on the tongue as a visual picture of the environment. Watch it in action (and ignore the hokey background music).

This is a very tiny taste (heh) of his work. Prior to creating the visual device, he used the tongue strip to help patients with severe balance problems recover from vestibular damage. Want to get down and dirty with some electrotactile vestibular substitution neuroscience? Read the NIHPA journal article on the BrainPort® balance device, submitted by Bach-y-Rita and his collaborators.