When I was in medical school, my fellow students and I all dreaded a single course, taught then in the second year—neuroanatomy. At my school, we had two famous neuroanatomy professors who had written competing textbooks on the subject and clearly disliked each other. One was known to be eccentric and the other mean. But the reason we dreaded the course was that we knew it would challenge the human capacity for memorization to the absolute limit. And given how many things a medical student is required to memorize, we were frightened.

We were taught that if you disrupt this pathway going from this region to that region, the ability to move the left arm below the elbow would be lost. Hitting a pathway in another part of the brain meant losing the ability to understand, but not generate speech. If you cut the nervous supply at the level of the spinal cord in a particular spot, a person would no longer be able to feel a pinprick to the front of the right thigh, but vibration to that area would not be affected. We sat up long nights, often in groups, trying to remember all of this because that is what we would be asked about on the many tests our two professors loved to give.

Through all of this, we were too scared and exhausted memorizing the names of brain regions and pathways to ask a fundamental question: if the brain is laid out like a fixed series of subway stations and tracks, how is it that we can learn something new? It must be the case that something is capable of changing somewhere in the brain to accommodate the fact that we continue to learn and remember things through our lives.

In the last half-century, we have come an enormous distance in understanding that the brain is not an organ whose functions are written in stone, but rather a dynamic collection of genes, molecules, cells, and pathways, all of which are modified on a second-by-second basis. So far, we have the most information about the profound ways that early life adversity affects brain structure and function, and that information is proving extremely useful in developing new ways to intervene with psychiatric illnesses, both with medications and psychotherapy. As research develops, we will also learn more about how to reinforce the effects of positive life experiences on the brain.



View full blog article


Jack Gorman is the Co-Founder and President of Critica Inc. and the CEO and Chief Scientific Officer at Franklin Behavioral Health Associates