Health & Fitness

Review: Unorthodox treatments may help with brain maladies, but author needs more critical eye

Everybody has a brain, which is why books like The Brain’s Way of Healing are so popular. Norman Doidge’s earlier bestseller, The Brain That Changes Itself, laid the ground work for the newer work, a collection of success stories in the battle of the brain.

Book one argued that — contrary to long-held dogma — the brain was not an organ whose capacity to adapt and grow ended in early adulthood. Not only were neurons capable of rearranging themselves, they could learn new functions. Neuroplasticity, scientists called it.

The concept wasn’t new to science but it is fair to say that Doidge had a lot to do with the layman’s introduction to the phenomenon. His first book sold more than a million copies worldwide, his publisher says.

That’s a reflection of the public’s appetite for information on the brain’s afflictions — Alzheimer’s, dementia, autism, attention deficit disorder, Parkinson’s, concussion, dyslexia, Lou Gehrig’s disease, stroke, multiple sclerosis — a nearly endless parade of maladies both physical and psychiatric.

In his second book, Doidge introduces his readers to a variety of treatment approaches whose success hinges on the brain’s plasticity. He explains the science, profiles the scientist, applauds the “cure.” In this book the blind see, the deaf hear, the halt walk, the mute speak, pain stops.

The treatments range from shining low-intensity lasers on the outside of a patient’s head, to placing electrodes on a tongue, playing Mozart for the autistic to “healing serious brain problems through mental awareness.”

In almost every case the patient isn’t simply ailing, he or she is barely able to function and in almost every case the turnaround isn’t subtle or gradual, it is borderline miraculous and almost immediate.

One of the heroes in The Brain’s Way of Healing is Moshe Feldencrais, a physicist who developed a technique he called Awareness Through Movement or ATM. Doidge acknowledges that it “may seem magical” that a wide array of serious brain malfunctions can be cured by simple awareness of movement, but he insists it works owing to the brain’s plasticity and the unique way the Feldencrais Method harnesses it.

The Feldencrais Method is a copyright-protected treatment administered by practitioners throughout the United States and Canada. Feldencrais followers carried on his work in ATM after his death in 1984.

As in all of the cases outlined in the book, the “cured” unreservedly support the treatment they received.

That was surely the case with “Simon,” a child who began showing symptoms of autism at age 3. The symptoms worsened with age. Simon, not his real name, was withdrawn, unresponsive, unable to relate to others.

Then Simon’s mother found Paul Madaule, who himself had suffered from a “massive developmental disorder” as a child. Like Simon, Madaule grew worse with age. He saw doctors of every stripe and made no progress, in fact, grew worse.

Enter Dr. Alfred Tomatis, a French otolaryngologist whose technique seemed unorthodox. This doctor of last resort hooked up Madaule with earphones and piped in a scratchy patch of Mozart for two hours a day for several weeks. Madaule was saved. He went from lost cause to high achiever and disciple of Tomatis’ method.

Under treatment by the miraculously cured and now-physician Madaule, Simon blossomed. As did the technique, currently called Integrated Listening Systems, another copyrighted treatment method that makes use of a listening device that sells for about $2,000.

The eight chapters of The Brain’s Way of Healing are filled with stories of unorthodox treatment triumphs. Doidge has done a superb job of telling them. What his telling lacks is the critical — if not jaundiced — eye. To succeed as a book of service to the reader, it desperately needs it.

Doug Clifton is the former executive editor of the Miami Herald and former editor of The Cleveland Plain-Dealer.