The idea that the brain is a static organ is long forgotten. We now know that the brain is plastic, which means that it can change and grow.We have behavioral Neuroscientist, Mr. Edward Taub, and his Silver Spring monkeys to thank for this. In the early 1980s, Taub performed research on monkeys and discovered that when he restrained one of their arms, they invested more energy into using the other arm in order to compensate. When the brain was examined, the neural pathways reflected these same changes by showing weakened paths to the restrained arm, and strengthened paths to the free arm. This was a huge discovery in neuroscience, debunking many beliefs by behaviorists that our movements are simply reflexive.
The discovery forced behaviorists—and the rest of us—to admit that not only are our physical movements intentional, but we also have the ability to change the way our brain is wired. How? By performing tasks that encourage it to grow. This pertains to both healthy brains and brains that have experienced a loss of function.
Neuroplasticity and Stroke
The implications of Neuroplasticity are comforting when we consider people who have had strokes. When a stroke is severe enough, people can lose their abilities to function. Some of these losses include:
- Motor abilities (the ability to move body parts)
- Verbal and non-verbal communication
- Literacy (reading and writing)
- Auditory Comprehension (the ability to understand words or sounds)
- Memory skills
- Eating and swallowing (decreased ability to protect the airway)
- Recognition of people or everyday objects
How does the Brain Regain Function?
The ability of the brain to regain function and perform activities related to daily living skills exists because of neuroplasticity. Exercises that help to improve function include those that call attention to the brain (interest), challenge the brain (intensity), and build or strengthen pathways in the brain (repetition). More can be learned about this concept and how to get started here.
Such exercises must be customized to the individual needs of a person who has had a stroke. The parts of the brain damaged by the stroke can be identified by instrumental exams such as MRIs, but also by specialized clinicians such as Speech-Language Pathologists and Occupational Therapists. These therapists can perform cognitive evaluations which test the brain’s abilities, detect where the deficits lie, and then customize a program to repair neural pathways.
Books about Neuroplasticity
There are many books available to read on the subject of Neuroplasticity and how to get started on rewiring the brain. Don’t be intimidated—most are written in a way that is comprehensible to people who aren’t brain experts. Here’s a list of my favorites:
- The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science by Norman Doidge, M.D. In this book, Norman Doidge takes us on a fascinating journey through the history of neuroscience and major discoveries along the way. He assembles personal accounts of people who have experienced major neurological setbacks and found the resilience–and scientific evidence–to begin healing their brains.
- Soft Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity can Change Your Life by Michael Merzenich, PhD. Dr. Michael Merzenich is a world authority on brain plasticity and has compiled all the information needed to improve neurological health. He even includes sections on how age, stress, and illness can affect the ability to remain in good cognitive health. The guide is geared towards people of any age who are interested in how to make the most of their brain.
- Over My Head: A Doctor’s Own Story of Head Injury from the Inside Looking Out by Claudia L. Osborn. Dr. Claudia Osborn recounts her experience of head injury from the moment of regaining consciousness through a grueling recovery, to finding her new life. She uses plain language and some humor to explain the perception of a medical professional experiencing brain trauma which she knew much about, but not from the inside.
Experiencing a stroke is a life-changing experience. At first, it’s difficult to imagine what kind of recovery is ahead—and where it ends. The answer is always the same: brain recovery is limitless. It can continue over the course of the lifespan and creating an environment rich with cognitive stimulation, challenges, and socialization is imperative to progress. Seeing a Speech-Language Pathologist or an Occupational Therapist for an evaluation of your abilities is an important step to recovery. Therapists will use evidence-based treatment plans to optimize your chances of improvement. If you or someone you love wants to make the most of treatment, talk to your therapist about how they’re including Neuroplasticity into your treatment plan.