You may have heard your therapist use this term over the course of treatment – actually, I HOPE you’ve heard your therapist use this term. It is likely the biggest reason you will see improvements if you have had a stroke, brain injury, spinal cord injury or any condition affecting your brain/spinal cord. Yes, your hard work is imperative, and yes, the type of therapy you do is of paramount importance. But without neuroplasticity, the ceiling for recovery would be lower than the one in my daughter’s doll house.
So what is neuroplasticity?
You get an excellent textbook answer here from Dr. Merzenich (a pioneer in studying and defining this subject). Simply, neuroplasticity is our brain’s ability to change. Old dogs CAN learn new tricks….and this is not just a theory. There are countless academic studies confirming this fact – under the right circumstances, the wiring in our brain can be transformed.
Think about how we often refer to a child as a “sponge” of information. My 3 year old is easily becoming fluent in both the Polish and English languages, just by listening to other people speak in her daily life. Infants and toddlers learn and develop without much conscious effort. Kids and young adults have much more ‘neuroplastic’ brains than adults and the old thinking was that after adolescence, our brain was hard-wired and unable to change its function. Science tells us otherwise.
Dr. Norman Doidge wrote an excellent book called The Brain That Changes Itself. He is able to eloquently demonstrate the physiology behind neuroplasticity, shedding light on the effect of changes in the brain for issues such as stroke and brain injury, drug addiction, love, depression and many other psychological, emotional and physical issues affected by the human brain.
A common phrase in the book, “nerves that fire together wire together” is an easy way to think of neuroplasticity in adults. As an example, if you were to tape together your index and middle fingers on your right hand so that whenever one finger moved so would the other, eventually the brain will change its wiring so that even after the tape is removed, those two fingers will move together. Not an experiment I recommend trying, but for those with copious amounts of free time and an urge to develop some “party tricks”, why not?
Neuroplasticity is an incredible skill our brain possesses, allowing us to recover from injury and learn new things even after the critical periods of childhood – but it can also cause many unfortunate negatives. Obsessive compulsive disorders, chronic pain, phantom limb pain, distorted body image…the list goes on. Luckily, the same neuroplastic changes that cause these negative outcomes can be the clue to treatment through the proper rehabilitation techniques (intensive rehabilitation, psychotherapy, etc.). The brain, although a solid mass, can be considered a fluid environment. Parts of the brain programmed for specific function can be reprogrammed – either purposefully as with therapy, or over time as a result of lack of use or changing demands on the body.
This is where our therapy protocol comes into play. We are literally trying to change the brain (and/or spinal cord) and how it communicates with the body for people with neurological injuries or diseases. The exciting part is that we know it can be done – evidenced by both the literature and our own experiences. But what we want to do is optimize the neuroplasticity in each individual. Over the next few months, one of the many topics you’ll read about at Neurochangers is the research taking place at Aim2Walk – case studies and control trials in collaboration with industry leading neurologists and universities – all focused on harnessing the power of Neuroplasticity, changing the lives of our clients, and pushing the boundaries of neuro-rehabilitation.