A few months ago, I started seeing reviews of Norman Doidge's new book, The Brain's Way of Healing. Here's what appeared in the Huffington Post:
His new book is a tour de force -- one of the most riveting books on the human brain and its mystery powers ever written. Doidge addresses the role of alternative medical therapies to what he claims can reset the dynamic patterns of "energy" in our brain, in some cases helping to restore relatively normal health to those whose fate seems hopeless.... These are people that traditional medicine all but abandoned as... untreatable. But they were rescued.The review included this sentence: "It’s possible to start anywhere in the book and be mesmerized." When "Amazon one click" brought the book to my mailbox, I knew exactly where to start: Chapter 2, titled "A Man Walks Off His Parkinsonian Symptoms."
Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the man was John Pepper, whom I know from our online exchanges in the HealthUnlocked forum for people with Parkinson's.
This new book isn't Doidge's first. Earlier, he'd written The Brain That Changes Itself, a bestseller that prompted Pepper to send the author this email in 2008:
I live in South Africa and have had Parkinson's disease since 1968. I do a lot of exercise and have learned to use my conscious brain to control the movements which are normally controlled by the subconscious brain. I wrote a book about my experience, but it has been rejected by the medical profession without looking into my case, because I no longer look like a PD sufferer. I no longer take PD medication, although I still have most of the symptoms. I walk 15 miles per week in three sessions of five miles. The glial-derived neurotrophic factor produced in the brain appears to restore the damaged cells.... I am sure that I can help many newly diagnosed patients, if I can encourage them to do serious regular exercise. Please let me know your thoughts on this matter.The glial-derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF) that Pepper described is a brain growth factor. The scientists who discovered GDNF in 1993 said it contributes to plastic changes in the brain by promoting the development and survival of dopamine-producing neurons, which Parkinson's destroys.
Here's how John described his background in a recent email to some of his online pals:
To tell you something about myself: I was born in England in 1934 to a family that had been destroyed by the big depression of 1928, leaving my father with huge debts he was not prepared to walk away from. He never finished paying those debts but we children did. We weren’t poor, we just did not have any money.
I went to a good school but had to leave before getting my A levels. We left England after the war and settled in South Africa. I worked and saved and married and had children as we all try to do.
In 1970 I started a small printing business, which grew into a large public company employing over 1600 people.Pepper and Parkinson's
Although Pepper was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 1992, he believes he showed symptoms nearly two decades earlier. Initially, he didn't exercise much, but after two surgeries for a bad back, he became obsessive-compulsive about working out. By the time he was diagnosed with Parkinson's, he was going to the gym for 90 minutes six days a week.
After the diagnosis, Pepper felt that his health had deteriorated so badly that he quit his job and tried to eliminate everything that caused stress in his life.
He joined Run/Walk for Life, an exercise program popular in South Africa. The regimen recommends starting off slowly, permitting walks of only ten minutes three times a week. Walking time increases only five minutes every two weeks. Reaching eight kilometers -- about five miles -- was the goal.
The required slow start was frustrating for Pepper, but it gave him lots of time to evaluate his gait problems and correct them.
Through the long process, he effectively relearned how to walk... as a child might. The new techniques, he realized, involved "using a different part of my brain to control an action which normally was controlled by my unconscious."
Dopamine, depleted by Parkinson's, is vital to the part of the brain that governs automatic movements like walking. Pepper's "conscious walking" created new neural networks that replaced those damaged by Parkinson's.
By 2002, he felt that his health had improved so much that he began weaning himself off his Parkinson's medications. He takes no PD meds now.
Reaction of the Medical Establishment
In 1998, Pepper became the chair of the South African Parkinson's Association, and was reelected for five consecutive years. But after he published his 2002 book -- in which he described how his exercise program had led to a medication-free life -- he was voted out of office.
Critics questioned the medicine-free "cure," accusing him of creating false hope and using the Association to sell his book. Three neurologists maintained that Pepper never had PD, although none of them had ever examined him.
Does Pepper Have Parkinson's?
Pepper never claimed to have been cured of Parkinson's, only to have overcome some of its symptoms. When Doidge asked Pepper's neurologist if his patient had Parkinson's disease, the doctor replied, "Absolutely."
Members of our HealthUnlocked Parkinson's forum who have spent time with Pepper have no doubt that he has Parkinson's. In his recent email to some of us, he wrote:
I am not cured of Pd. I still have most of the symptoms, but they are all under control, providing that I continue to walk fast every 2nd day and maintain my regimen.Pepper often advises others not to change their medication without talking with their doctors first.
Pepper's acknowledgement that he must continue exercising to maintain the improvement has led some to suggest that his brain has not rewired itself very well.
Determination To Help Others
Pepper turns 81 this month, but he hasn't slowed down. If anything, he wants to use whatever time remains to help others.
Tomorrow, I'll discuss Pepper's plans, which include a trip next May to America. I'm looking forward to hosting him when he comes to Washington, DC.