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On the Life of Marian Diamond

By Siegfried Othmer, PhD

Marian Diamond, first female science professor at Cornell, and later neuroscience researcher at Berkeley, has ‘graduated out of mortality’ at the age of ninety. The research on which her fame rests was done in the sixties. At that time, she established that rats living in an enriched environment benefited vis-a-vis rats in an impoverished environment with respect to brain parameters such as cortical thickness, total brain protein, weight of occipital cortex, ratio of cortex to the rest of the brain, and the number of glial cells. The case for the existence of brain plasticity had been made—for rats, in any event.

Despite the solidity of the data, the critics remained undaunted. At one conference, Diamond was confronted with the challenge from an attendee: “Young lady, that brain cannot change.” And thus it would remain for another thirty years.

Back in the mid-nineties, when an MD supportive of neurofeedback brought up the subject to his neurology colleague, who gave appearances of being quite open-minded, the neurologist stopped him cold: “There are ten billion neurons up there. You expect them to change?” Well, there was certainly a lack of flexibility in the mind of that neurologist.

EEG neurofeedback and the ground-breaking research of Marian Diamond have experienced comparable trajectories. Both got their start in the sixties, and both confronted the barrier of obtuseness within the neurosciences and clinical neurology. Firmly established belief had airbrushed solid data out of the scene, and then maintained that status for decades.

Late in her career and after her divorce, Marian Diamond married her second husband, UCLA neuroscientist Arnold Scheibel. I had occasion to meet Prof. Scheibel at a UCLA conference back in the nineties, and the opportunity arose for me to tell him of some of our most exciting findings with neurofeedback. Any of the anecdotes I related to him should have fired him up and stirred his interest. Alas, he came back with, “That’s very interesting.” Period. Our conversation was over.

But back to Marian Diamond. She is also well-known among the public for having been one of a number of researchers to get a chance to look at some of the slices from Einstein’s brain. She observed that what distinguished Einstein’s brain was an abundance of apparently healthy glia. They had been taking good care of his neurons.

And now we can put both findings together to conjecture that Einstein’s ongoing mental engagement resulted in his robust complement of glia near the end of his life. Most likely his brain didn’t start out different from other children’s brains. After all, he didn’t attract extraordinary attention early in life from his teachers. His brain ended up looking different by virtue of the way he conducted his life. His early years mattered mainly in the sense that he did not compromise his brain function by playing soccer, or taking up boxing, and he was likely spared other physical or emotional trauma. (It also helped that he had not spent his youthful existence passively watching TV while consuming carbs and sugary delectables.)

A further observation is that in the matter of brain plasticity, neuroscientists haven’t really concerned themselves with the glia until recently. As Diamond demonstrated in rats, the number of glia is not fixed. We can make more in response to demand, in contrast to neurons, whose numbers remain rather stable in our adult brains. It is in the matter of the glial system that our human brains principally distinguish themselves from rat brains and those of our other mammalian relatives. Our neuronal system is very similar in its organization and function to that of other mammals. The opportunity zone for brain plasticity to operate would appear to be with the glial system more than the neuronal. To be sure, the main function of glia is to support neuronal function. So the neuronal system is the ultimate beneficiary in any event. But the above distinction is still worth keeping in mind as a hypothesis.

And now we come to our final observation, namely that with our infra-low frequency neurofeedback training we are likely engaging much more directly with the glial system than the neuronal. In our feedback, we are of course engaging the whole system, and in that interaction the distinction between the neuronal and glial system disappears. But the slow signal we are tracking likely reflects the dynamics being organized mainly by the glial system. Secondly, the consequences of our intervention likely impinge more directly on the glial than the neuronal system. All the more reason for neuroscientists who actually study these things to be interested.

Neuroscientists are constrained by the limited means at their disposal with which to intervene both subtly and specifically with the system they are studying, the living brain. That holds even more true when the subject of study is the brain’s self-regulatory organization, as opposed to its role as respondent or as agent in interaction with the outside world. For the neuroscientist, neurofeedback presents an opportunity to intervene with the brain both at a very subtle level and with great specificity. To date, that has been our signal advantage.

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One Response to “On the Life of Marian Diamond”

  1. Siegfried, the Einstein / glia discovery by Marian has long been an inspiration. And a motivation that if we ‘exercise’ our own neuroplasticity by frequent creative and intuitional endeavors, we will keep expanding.

    Here’s a recent 2017 short biography of glial expert Ben Barres at Stanford,

    http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/49226/title/Glia-Guru/

    His lab showed that glial cells are necessary for synapse generation and dissolution. The very definition of neuroplasticity. Your ILF neurofeedback likely increases the flexibility and resilience in that domain.

    Reply

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