Imagine a machine capable of repairing itself after it was damaged. It may sound like something from a science fiction story, but science has shown that our brains can do exactly that. Through a process known as neuroplasticity, sometimes referred to as brain plasticity, the brain begins to repair itself following a traumatic injury. This process will naturally depend upon the severity of the trauma.
New scientific research has made it possible for people to incorporate neuroplasticity exercises for brain injury to aid their recovery, thereby helping them improve their overall quality of life. Let’s look deeper at what neuroplasticity is, as well as its therapeutic applications.
Defining Neuroplasticity and Its Importance
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to rewire and reorganize itself on a functional, structural and chemical level. This process happens during human development and growth as well as after a traumatic brain injury (TBI). A TBI can occur as a result of either blunt-force trauma with the brain still enclosed in the skull, or it can happen when both the skull and brain tissue are lacerated.
The process of neuroplasticity occurs when neurons (brain cells) change their response to external stimuli. These changes form new neural connections and networks. The scope of the process is incredibly complex, but essentially your brain is compensating for a lack of adequate networks in order to respond to new information from the outside world.
Types of Neuroplasticity
As mentioned above, there are different types of neuroplasticity. We’ll focus on structural, functional and chemical.
Structural encompasses everything related to the actual makeup of the brain. It’s the brain’s ability to adapt after damage by reshaping individual nerve cells. After an injury, brain cells decay and die off. The brain then begins to restructure itself by generating new neurons. These cells form new connections with one another, creating new neural networks, and the networks communicate with each other via synapses, which make up cell-to-cell connections.
Functional, on the other hand, refers to when the brain relocates certain functions from one area to another. For example, after an injury, abilities that were once regulated by one area of the brain will move to an undamaged part by strengthening existing synapses.
Chemical neuroplasticity works in conjunction with the aforementioned structural and functional components. It occurs in the beginning stages of learning new information and is critical to the functions of short-term memory and improvement with motor skills. A chemical called glutamate helps the brain build and restructure neural networks through a process called synaptic plasticity.
Factors That Affect Neuroplasticity
As incredible as neuroplasticity is, its success depends greatly on a number of factors.
The severity and location of the injury, not to mention whether it’s external or internal, will determine the efficacy of the process. Other factors that play a critical role are age, environment, inflammation, genetics and diet. For instance, an individual with a diet high in fat and sugar won’t see optimal results. The same can be said for those with a history of drug and alcohol use. Age is one of the most critical factors, as our brains lose their plasticity the older we get.
The Role of Neuroplasticity in Healing
People in the United States suffer brain injuries every 5 seconds, and millions live with the devastating aftermath of TBI. It’s no surprise that doctors, clinicians and therapists take full advantage of the brain’s incredible healing abilities through the use of neuroplastic therapy.
Neuroplastic therapy can involve everything from overall lifestyle changes to dietary changes and, of course, brain exercises. These therapeutic treatments are by no means one-size-fits-all, as much of the success rate is determined by the type of injury, its severity and the unique genetic makeup of the individual. The therapies can be divided into four primary uses: creation, restoration, improvement and maintenance.
Creation involves focusing on the areas of the brain that never reached maturity but still have the potential to generate new neurons. Restoration centers on restructuring the damaged areas, as well as moving functions to undamaged locations. Improvement utilizes and strengthens the undamaged parts of the brain in order to enhance cognitive function, and maintenance is used to keep the healing, as well as undamaged parts, functioning properly.
As more is understood about the role of neuroplasticity in healing, many professions and disciplines are incorporating neuroplastic therapy. Psychology, occupational therapy, optometry, functional neurology, physiotherapy and even yoga are just some of the disciplines and therapies that use neuroplasticity to treat patients.
Exercises and Techniques to Promote Neuroplasticity
In order to facilitate the brain’s neuroplastic therapy, there are certain exercises therapists may utilize.
Often a session will begin with light cardiovascular exercises to encourage healthy blood flow through the body. This helps your brain better respond to the therapy and is achieved by the release of chemicals such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which aids the brain in its recovery.
Sensory therapies that utilize touch, smell, taste, vision and hearing help bring external stimuli into the brain to encourage cognitive function. For example, scent therapy is used to stimulate the area of the brain responsible for olfactory processing.
Sensory integration therapy is another approach that involves all the senses. This helps the brain adapt to and process stimuli from the outside world.
Movement therapy uses physical movements as a way to strengthen the mind/body connection. As the body’s movements are processed in the brain, new neural connections are formed, leading to increased neuroplasticity.
Lifestyle changes also play a critical role in healing the brain post-TBI. One of the most important factors is hydration. The human body consists mostly of water, and hydration is crucial for it to function properly. Other lifestyle changes such as sleep, socialization, diet and breathing contribute to the brain’s ability to heal.
Intellectual stimulation is another therapeutic avenue that can aid in forming new neural pathways. This can come in the form of reading, listening to music, playing brain games such as puzzles and interacting with other people.
Becoming Whole Again
This is by no means an exhaustive dive into the incredible and vast subject of neuroplasticity and neuroplastic therapy, but it does give you a foundation to understand the amazing benefits it has to offer. If you or a loved one has suffered a traumatic brain injury and is seeking help to begin recovery, reach out to the compassionate and professional staff at Sun Health Center. Our staff is ready to respond 24/7.