You may recall that last year we blogged about the research of Elizabeth Quinlan on removing the brakes on neural plasticity contributing to amblyopia. Lamberto Maffei has been at the forefront of frontiers on extending cerebral plasticity through environmental enrichment. Publications by Professor Maffei date back to the early 1970s in conjunction with Adriana Fiorentini, and he has collaborated with many notable individuals in European visual neuroscience. The Laboratorio di Neurofisiologia in Pisa, Italy, where Maffei and Fiorentini conducted their research, was host to accomplished visiting vision scientists from all over the world as evidenced, by example, in this paper published together with Colin Blakemore from Cambridge. It was therefore exciting for me to come across a book on New Perspectives in Cerebral Plasticity authored by former students of Professor Maffei, leading researchers in their own right, who have had a long personal and professional association with Lamberto.
My favorite chapter in the book comes quickly. It is Chapter 2, The Dynamic Building of the Brain, co-authored by Sale, Baroncelli, Spolidoro, and Maffei. The end of the chapter is heralded by this photograph, Figure 2.7, and subtitled: “A photographic moment portraying Lamberto Maffei with some famous neurobiologists trying to train their brain on a Mexican beach: controversial results”.
As striking as this silhouette is, the more striking photograph is Figure 2.4 linked to an article co-authored by Maffei and collaborators showing that a combination of gentle massaging is highly effective in accelerating the maturation of healthy preterm babies who were of gestational age between 30 and 33 weeks. Massaged infants exhibited a greater reduction in latency of flash visual evoked potentials, and an increased in behavioral VA that persisted beyond the end of treatment.
Sale et al note in Chapter 2 that these results suggest massage therapy can be a good supplementation to normal intensive treatment for preterm babies aimed at counteracting the onset of neurological pathologies associated with premature birth. All in all, Maffei and his collaborators are amassing a wide body of evidence regarding the effects of a variety of early interventions on cerebral development in general and visual development in particular. Active visual stimulation and environmental enrichment are intimately bound in a cascade of purposeful inhibitory and excitatory interactions that begin when life is conceived and ends when ….