The Plastics are researching the feasibility of reintroducing neuroplasticity into the adult brain to allow for rapid multilingual development. After presenting this idea to the class, we received positive feedback, as most of our classmates agreed that the project was moonshot material. Below, we outline some potential solutions to this problem that we brainstormed. While most of these ideas are infeasible, a couple of them do have some merit. In our next blog post, we will discuss in more detail the solutions that are reasonable to combat this problem.
Induce brain lesions in adults or trick the brain into thinking there is a lesion in a particular area. This is obviously invasive and potentially very dangerous. There is also not much evidence to support the notion that astrocytes would temporarily increase plasticity, and even if they did, there is no evidence that we could capitalize on this effect to achieve some goal. For these reasons, we reject this proposal.
We entertained the idea of playing other languages while an adult is sleeping. From a neurological perspective, although the brain is incredibly active during sleep, it is busy consolidating experiences from conscious periods and is not as receptive to external stimuli as it would be while awake. So, despite the free 8 hours of stimulus and training we could provide during sleep, there is no good way to implement this solution. Separately, this isn’t really moonshot material - anybody can turn their Netflix on to a foreign documentary and fall asleep to it.
We also thought about complete cultural immersion in a foreign country. There is some theoretical research to suggest that this is an effective way to force a participant to fluency, given that the alternative is to never use language again. However, there are two issues with this. Primarily, this is not a moonshot solution; a moonshot solution is more creative and will give an overwhelmingly satisfactory outcome - being forcibly placed in a new country for months doesn’t meet those requirements. Further, our goal is not bilingualism, but multilingualism. Assuming each immersive experience takes say six months, it would take years before subjects achieve their final goal.
One of the crazier ideas that we considered was to stimulate deep neurons in an individual's brain with electrical pulses. This was determined to be rather invasive and there isn’t strong evidence that it would actually work. Further, from the perspective of a participant, the potential risk of brain damage due to surgery does not outweigh the rewards of multilingualism. As a result, we learned to consider how our participants may weigh the costs and benefits of our solution.
We also considered the classic science-fiction solution to this problem -- implanting a computer chip into someone’s head that is capable of interfacing with the brain directly. Such a chip would be able to download information to the user’s brain, which includes languages in addition to other skills. We ultimately deemed such a solution as invasive, impractical, and at least a few decades ahead of its time. In addition, this is a common idea, and we did not think it was unique enough to pursue further, even if it were remotely possible with our current technology.
We also considered playing foreign language tapes to infants aged 0-12 months to increase length of critical period and keep phonetics plastic as adults. This has been confirmed to be effective. A case study found that an adult who was only exposed to Chinese from age 0-6months and then was adopted into a French-speaking family didn’t have an accent when learning Chinese later in life. This is a non-invasive method for increased flexibility in language fluency for adults
Optogenetics was another idea we had to try and increase plasticity. However, it is extremely invasive and unethical because it involves removing the skull and placing a metal mesh on the brain and using light to reprogram cells. However, current optogenetics is invasive because of the need to use visual spectrum light. So, what if we used infrared or another type of light to reprogram cells. We would have to be careful about being unethical, but it is a step forward in the right direction.
Our last idea was to inject chemoattractants and chemorepellants into adult human brains in order to grow new synapses where old ones from when we were children might have died off. This is invasive, potentially unethical, and particularly difficult.
The solutions that we are most excited about exploring as possible moonshot solutions include making reformations of existing optogenetic strategies for human use, usage of gene therapy, and playing foreign languages to babies with a regulated, formulaic strategy.
For now, we leave you with this.