Thanksgiving

Mozgala at work
Mozgala at work

Back when I was reporting the book I went to see  neurologist George Bartzokis of UCLA. We were sitting in his tiny office, talking about myelin and how the brain can learn new behaviors, and Bartzokis said something that got my attention.

He said, “In a most basic sense, myelin is hope.”

Myelin is hope, I remember thinking. Could that possibly sound any more cornball?

I’ve found myself thinking about his words more than a few times — especially while reading Neil Genzlinger’s remarkable story in today’s Times.

It’s about a man named Gregg Mozgala who, with the help of a master teacher, learned to dance. The twist: Mozgala suffers from cerebral palsy, where the brain can’t send the right signals to the muscles. Until a few months ago, he couldn’t walk normally. Now? (Hit the link and check out the video for the proof.)

Before, [Mozgala’s] gait was extreme enough that it would draw stares on the street.  Now, when he is fully concentrating, a passer-by might have to look twice to realize he has a disability at all.

How? That’s the interesting part. It’s a combination of forces — the same forces that build any new circuitry.

First, a relationship with a master coach, Tamar Rogoff, a dance instructor who purposely didn’t read up on cerebral palsy before starting her work. “That way I didn’t have any ideas about what he could and couldn’t do,” she said.

Second, they built new circuits (as opposed to fixing old circuits). This involved spending (a lot of)  time on the edge of Mazgola’s ability.

They began doing intensive one-on-one sessions they call body work, Ms. Rogoff using her knowledge of the body and dance-training techniques to help Mr. Mozgala “find” individual bones, muscles and tendons that he had had no command of before.

They started at the top and worked down — sternum, sacrum, knees — with Mr. Mozgala’s body and brain opening paths of communication that had not existed.

“There’s a lot of howling, screaming, crying, sweating,” Ms. Rogoff said. But “we often have these huge eureka moments.”

I’m sure this could (and might well be) made into some cornball Hollywood movie. The screenplay practically writes itself — the hopeless angry man (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the understanding teacher (Cate Blanchett), and a skeptical head of the dance company (Judi Dench) — toss in a smoldering romance, a sweat-dappled “Eye of the Tiger” training scene, a triumphal Carnegie Hall performance.

But if they do make a movie, I hope they find a way to zoom in on the real forces that made a difference: the ability all human brains have to build new connections; to transform deep practice into fast, fluent circuits.

(And the Oscar goes to… Neuroplasticity!)