Q&A: The Brain That Heals Itself

On whether we can reverse damage in the brain, instead of just trying to fix it.

By Luciana Gravotta, published on January 2, 2013 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

What if there were a way to treat everything from tinnitus to post-traumatic stress disorder by harnessing the very mechanism that creates the faulty circuits in the first place? Michael Kilgard, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at the University of Texas at Dallas, discusses an experimental new approach—targeted neural plasticity—that aims to do just that.

So far, as Kilgard reports in Trends in Neurosciences, it has been effective in rats, and results of an early trial in humans were encouraging. Still, many years of additional research are needed before the treatment might become clinically available.

Which disorders could be treated with this approach?

Any aspect of brain function that is pathological could—in principle—be restored. We have a better understanding every day of how to activate the right circuits, and we're now learning that if you pair that with the release of certain neurotransmitters, it can drive plasticity.

 Michael Kilgard, Ph.D.

Why would we want to manipulate neural plasticity?

We've come to understand that brain changes are one of the major contributors to neurological and psychiatric disease. The brain often improves in the context of learning and memory, but in the case of injury—whether it is the loss of an arm or brain damage from a stroke—the changes to the brain are usually not helpful.

Let's talk specifics; how does the tinnitus treatment work?

The patient will hear a range of different tones paired with vagus nerve stimulation, which doesn't cause any pain or discomfort. Because we tune more neurons to the new frequency than to the old one, the brain concludes that the tinnitus frequency is less important and will shrink the cluster of neurons that "hears" it, thereby reversing the pathological brain changes that caused it.