The "plastic" brain: How our thoughts, environment, and exercise can change our brain.

There has been a long standing belief that after childhood, our brains are static, unable to change, or grow.  However, researchers and scientists are now discovering that the brain itself is capable of amazing changes through its unique properties of “neuroplasticity”.    I recently read a book by Norman Doidge, MD, titled “The Brain that Changes Itself”.  In this book, Dr. Doidge, MD, describes how neurons in the brain and nervous system are plastic and can change and become modifiable with the right sensory input and environments.  The book describes many examples of the brains incredible ability to change and grow even into the last years of our lives.  There were a few areas of the book I found particularly interesting from a Physical Therapy perspective:  stroke rehab, the role of mental imagery, the effects of physical exercise on the brain, and the need to challenge ourselves by changing our environments. 

In PT school, I was taught that the most recovery a patient will make after a stroke will be in the first 6-12 months after the initial injury.  After about a year, whatever function that a stroke patient had, they had to learn to live with. I now know that to be false, as stroke patients can continue to make small but important gains with the right type of therapy,  primarily Contraint-induced movement therapy that was first introduced by Dr. Edward Taub.  This type of therapy involves restricting movement in the unaffected arm or leg and making the involved limb work at very specific tasks that become increasingly complex. This sensory input helps to “rebuild” lost neural pathways and strengthen the existing ones.

Mental imagery is a tool that has been long utilized by  many individuals, from athletes to musicians, as a way to help them prepare for their performance.  What brain researchers are now discovering is that just by thinking about performing a specific task, the same neuronal activity occurs in the brain as when the individual actually physically performs the task.  Think of the disuse atrophy that occurs in muscles with post surgical immobilization or the casting of a bone fracture and how we  may be able to accelerate the rehab process by  just thinking about moving and strengthening the effected limb long before we could actually physically move it.  If we never allow the nervous system to “disconnect” from the effected area as we heal, we may not need to perform as many “muscle re-education” exercises during rehab.

As if we needed another reason to exercise, it has been shown that physical activity helps to create new neurons, brings more oxygen to the brain helping people feel more alert,  and helps with the release of a neuronal growth factor that is crucial to the brains plastic properties.

And finally, nothing will contribute more to brain atrophy as we age than being in a stale, non-changing environment.  Learning a new activity or language, travelling to new locations, or even learning to dance can have a profound effect on the brains ability to keep functioning at an optimal level.

So, turn off the TV, go for a walk on a trail you’ve never been on, rent a movie with subtitles, and for dinner, pick out a recipe from that old Indian cook book you have sitting on your self and help jump start your brain!

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