Plastic Reason: An Anthropological Analysis of the Emergence of Adult Cerebral Plasticity in France

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University of California, Berkeley, 2006 - 734 pages
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From January 2002 to August 2003 I conducted fieldwork among Parisian neurologists, with the laboratory of Alain Prochiantz, located at the Ecole Normale Superieure, as my main fieldsite. In the course of my research I encountered a milieu immersed in a vibrant debate about the future of its discipline, about how neurology should be practiced, about what kind of knowledge it should seek to generate, and about how it should think about the brain and the human. The background to these debates was that neurology and its conceptualization of the brain has been undergoing a fundamental metamorphosis. Throughout the twentieth century the nervous system has been conceptualized as a strictly fixed and immutable structure devoid of any morphogenetic plasticity. This structure was imagined to be composed of distinct functional regions, connected to and communicating with each other through synapses. Understanding the structure of the synaptic connection---and the processes of synaptic transmission---was regarded as the key for understanding the brain. With the discovery of large-scale adult cerebral plasticity in the 1990s---identification of neural stem cells; birth, differentiation, and migration of new neurons; appearance of new and disappearance of old synapses, axons, and dendrites---the traditional conception of the brain as immutable has been considerably troubled. Indeed, what was before impossible---large-scale morphogenetic development---is now regarded as one of its defining features. Prochiantz's lab was one of the first, in France and beyond, to conceptualize and analyze the brain form the perspective of its fundamental plasticity.

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