Some scientists argue that as the brain incorporates new experiences and makes new connections among neurons, it expresses a form of evolution through the competition of its various neural networks. Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Gerald Edelman suggests that the brain’s many networks vie against each other in “neural Darwinism.”
While genes determine how the brain begins to grow in an embryo, the brain’s extreme complexity and plasticity make it nearly impossible to predict how it will develop in response to a particular stimulus. The complexity of the brain makes it like the weather. Short-term weather forecasts are possible with some degree of confidence, but long-range forecasts become more and more difficult because of the interaction of so many variables. The so-called butterfly effect, which was discovered during computer generated weather simulations in the 1960s, posits that under the right conditions, the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in China can be magnified until it causes a tornado in Texas. As expressed in the brain, a small change in biochemistry under sensitive conditions may have a tremendous impact on the brain’s future development.
PREMATURE births pose special challenges to the brain. The child emerges from the womb before its neural networks have been established and have gone through initial stages of pruning. Much of the brain development must occur in the buzzing confusion of the world rather than a calm womb, which psychologist Sigmund Freud called the baby’s stimulus barrier. Development of the preemie’s brain occurs without the nutrients and protection of the uterine environment. In addition to difficulties involving regulation of body temperature, digestion of food, and weakened breathing, many preemies suffer brain hemorrhage. Babies who survive amid the chaos of lights and sounds in a hospital nursery may have their brain overstimulated and may develop problems such as attention disorders and learning disabilities later in life.
Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston has attempted to re-create the conditions of the womb in its neonatal intensive care unit. A preemie’s brain reacts with extreme sensitivity to light and loud noises, so the hospital keeps its NICU dark and quiet. Babies get plenty of skin-to-skin contact, to mimic the touch of the womb. They feed on demand. And they’re allowed some freedom of movement, as they would experience inside the womb, rather than being swaddled tightly The result: These babies leave the hospital earlier than those raised in a standard intensive care unit and have an accelerated developmental curve compared with other preemies.
Consider how neural Darwinism finds expression in the early stages of fetal brain growth. Neurons forming from stem cells move through the brain, guided by basic genetic coding. Genes determine how the neurons connect, axon to dendrite, to create the foundation and basic architecture of the brain. However, the precise chemical environment surrounding the newly formed neurons strongly influences how far they migrate and which neighboring neurons they link with. Exposure to substances in the womb, such as alcohol, can disrupt neuronal migration, but there is no guarantee that exposure will or won’t lead to fetal alcohol syndrome. The unpredictability of the complex system that is the human brain makes such precise calculations impossible.
Babies don’t learn to walk until about a year after birth, but they are born with the neural program already hardwired.
As people grow older, they take in new experiences. There may be changes in climate, social networks, formal education, and career. To get on in life, people have to adapt to change. Successful adaptation is a matter of rewiring the brain by creating new neuronal connections. Links that promote survival and well-being grow stronger. Those that lose their usefulness grow weaker. In a process that resembles natural selection, they lose the competition to stronger neural networks, and they die.
Neural Darwinism provides a new perspective on the brain’s plasticity: As neural networks compete, those that function best get stronger. Changes in the environment encourage changes in the brain by giving new neural networks a chance to flourish. Such evolution of a single brain continues over an entire lifetime.