Changing brains and changing lives
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Changing brains and changing lives

Author to speak locally on neuroplasticity

Science correspondent

Dr. Norman Doidge believes that the human brain can change in dramatic ways, and that what we do determines, to a certain extent, how well our brains work. He maintains that the human brain has boundless potential, and that those who have disabilities, or individuals with brain damage due to trauma or stroke, can improve their functioning, and overcome these difficulties by retraining their brains. This process is referred to as neuroplasticity. According to Doidge, some examples of neuroplasticity could include improvements in children with learning disabilities. Doidge will be discussing research on neuroplasticity, and his book, "The Brain That Changes Itself," on Thursday, May 31, at 8 p.m. at Ma’ayanot High School in Teaneck.

When Avital started school she had problems remembering colors, other children’s names, the names of letters, and even her own phone number. Her parents were concerned; they hoped that she would not have to struggle with learning disabilities. Now, at 7 1/’, she is able to read in both English and Hebrew, she retains what she learns in school, and, her mother Annette Goodman says, she even remembers her homework. Avital’s brother, Moshe Shlomo, was in fourth grade when his teachers told his parents that he had attention deficit disorder, or ADD. Now, less than two years later, his mother reports that he’s in the gifted program and one of the top students in his class.

Annette Goodman, a resident of Cedarhurst, N.Y., who works for Emunah of America, credits her children’s dramatic improvements to the Arrowsmith Program, which became available at the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach two years ago. The Arrowsmith program is based on the principle of neuroplasticity, and is discussed in Doidge’s book.

Doidge, a Toronto-based psychiatrist, maintains that individuals who have lost brain function due to brain injury through trauma or stroke may regain lost functions through neuroplasticity. In addition, he explains that programs such as the Arrowsmith program can be effective, as they capitalize on neuroplasticity to alleviate learning disabilities.

Until just a few years ago scientists believed that the brain and its neural connections were fixed, and were skeptical that it could change dramatically once the connections were established. Now there is convincing evidence that the brain and its connections are more flexible and adaptive then ever imagined. "There was a paradigm shift," said Goodman. "It took time for the scientific community to accept the work."

The Arrowsmith Program was founded 30 years ago by Canadian Barbara Arrowsmith Young, who suffered from learning disabilities when she was growing up. She initially developed exercises to overcome her own disabilities. They were so successful that she decided to offer them to others. Now she licenses her approach to schools in the United States and Canada.

Annette Goodman has seen the approach in action in her children’s school. But she also knew of the effectiveness of the program even before she had children. She worked as a teacher in the laboratory school where research was conducted for the program years ago, before the concept of neuroplasticity was widely accepted.

Goodman explained that the best candidate for this type of approach is a child of average or above average intelligence, with a minimum IQ of 90. "It’s for students who have the typical learning disabled profile: dyslexia, auditory, ADD, or ADHD," said Goodman. The program at HALB provides cognitive exercises to address problem areas. According to Goodman, the exercises are designed "to make changes in the brain … to strengthen that area of the brain so it can do the job." As each area improves and the child reaches average levels of competence, it is possible to discontinue that part of the program. For many children it is possible to mainstream them part of the day and provide the Arrowsmith Program for part of the day.

The HALB program started with 10 students two years ago, and is growing to ‘0 students next year. Goodman reported that some of the children who have been in the program have been declassified by the district and are no longer learning disabled. Some have improved three to four grade levels, and some have even been moved into the gifted program.

"The kids work really hard," said Goodman. "They have to lift their own mental weights. They see the changes and they get motivated to continue."

In HALB the parents of children in the program have been paying a $4,500 program fee for each student, plus the teacher’s salary. Teachers are trained to implement the Arrowsmith Program at workshops offered in Toronto every summer. Goodman said that the program is supposed to expand soon to two other day schools in the metropolitan area. She was unable to disclose the names of those schools as the agreements have not been finalized.

Goodman reported that the changes in her own children’s academic achievement were dramatic. Within a few months of starting the Arrowsmith Program, significant improvements were observed. "It changes lives," said Goodman.

Doidge’s talk is a benefit event for Emunah of America, a women’s religious Zionist organization that helps support social service and educational programs in Israel. The suggested donation for the event is $’0.

For more information about the May 31 event, call (‘1’) 564-9045, ext. 301.

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