Sunday, November 11, 2007

Mirror of the drug industry

A decade ago, neuroscientist Mike Merzenich and a team of colleagues conducted a bold experiment: Using computer exercises they showed that they could, in effect, rewire the brains of children with language-related learning disabilities like dyslexia.

He thought it was important work, but nothing prepared him for the public response. Less than 48 hours after an article about the effort appeared in Science magazine, phone lines at one of the institutions doing the research were flooded by tens of thousands of calls. So many people were clamoring for a copy of the software with the exercises the children used that the university had to shut down a switchboard.

"I went to the chancellor and said ‘I have something valuable that I want to deliver to the world. . . . How do I do it?' " the University of California at San Francisco scientist recalled in an interview.

Merzenich then created a company called Scientific Learning, which sells computer-exercise software to school districts and therapists around the world.

Now, Merzenich, a paunchy and rumpled 65-year-old whose mantra, associates say, has been "science to the people," is trying to build a bigger business. His second company, Posit Science, is in the vanguard of efforts to commercialize a revolution in brain science known as "brain plasticity."

Scientists once believed that the adult brain was largely unchangeable. But research by Merzenich and others has demonstrated the ability of the brain to adapt to new conditions in ways previously thought not possible.

The business based on the science has so far involved selling software programs that give the brain a workout-improving skills like memory and processing speed. For an aging baby-boom generation that seeks to keep physically fit, there is a ready market for such mental fitness programs, and Posit sells tens of thousands of them. (The Food and Drug Administration has not issued an opinion on mental-fitness programs.)

But Merzenich has loftier ambitions. He envisions his company as part of a new industry that will become a "mirror" of the drug industry. He wants to go far beyond simply sharpening memory and cognitive ability to tackle diseases as well. Instead of medications, he sees a business rooted in neuroscience that will use noninvasive computer exercises to rewire the brain, gradually training it back to mental health.


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