Neuroplasticity in focus

Let's talk about neuroplasticity. It's become one of those catch-all phrases that many people have heard of in passing but might struggle to actually define.  I did some reading a few years ago when looking at interventions for stroke rehab and came across some unlikely inspiration.

Six facts about Neuroplasticity and the Brain

  • Our brain continues to make new cells every day we live.
  • The brain can form complex synapses throughout life.
  • The connections between neurons can be strengthened against weakness.
  •  There is no limit to brain repair. Previously, it was believed that the window for brain recovery was at most one year after injury;  research has shown that the brain can be repaired months and years after injury if the right intervention is applied. The question is "what are the right interventions?"
  • Brain repair mechanisms share commonalities across disease, injuries and age related declines. For example, active cognitive stimulation can help build new connections after traumatic brain injury, stroke, in normal ageing and even in progressive brain disease such as Alzheimer's.
  • Advances in sophisticated brain imaging technology allows us to view changes in the activation of brain regions that occur at the very moment we acquire new knowledge.

The Dalai Lama, watched a brain operation during a visit to an American medical school in the early 1990s and asked the surgeons a thought provoking question:  

"Can the mind reshape brain matter? "

Neuroscientists up to that time had a quick answer for him - and the answer was NO.

Since the 1980s, scientists knew of the "molecules of emotion". They explained to him back then that mental experiences reflect chemical and electrical changes in the brain. When electrical impulses zip through our visual cortex, for instance, we see stuff; when neuro-chemicals course through the limbic system we feel stuff.

But something had always bothered him about this explanation.

The Dalai Lama asked “Could it work the other way around?”

Neuroplasticity gives hope but we still know too little to have certainty in many situations

Neuroplasticity gives hope but we still know too little to have certainty in many situations

That is, in addition to the brain giving rise to thoughts and hopes and beliefs and emotions that add up to this thing we call the mind, maybe the mind also acts back on the brain to cause physical changes in the very matter that created it.  If so, then pure thought would change the brain's activity, its circuits or even its structure.

One brain surgeon hardly paused.  Physical states give rise to mental states, he asserted.  Its all about "downward" causation; from the mental to the physical is just not possible.

That was the belief at the time - now we know that this is not true.  Despite this slap down years ago, the Dalai Lama had put his finger on an emerging revolution in brain research.

Neuroscientists have overthrown the dogma that the adult brain can't change.

We now know that the brain's structure and activity can morph in response to experience, an ability called neuroplasticity.  The discovery has led to promising new treatments for children with dyslexia and for stroke and neurological patients, amongst others.  It's term and an effect that we are trying to get to grips with - certainly there is much we know and much that we do not yet know.

In our business we are working with a number of products and services that encourage neuroplasticity.  They all demand some conscious thought and engagement by clients. They usually require lots of repetitions - and a pinch of belief and hope.  Kate Allat started the charity Fighting Strokes after her personal "miracle" in recovering from locked-in-syndrome.  Kate talks about recovery being a situation of "No promises - just possibilities".  I think that sums up our personal view on a lot of rehabilitation from catastrophic injury and neuroplasticity.  It may not always work to assist recovery but we give it a great chance with intensity, repetition and focus.

RehaCom software was designed as a tool for cognitive rehabilitation and is a fine example of technology designed to give neuroplasticity a chance.   So - "how do you train and old experienced brain into what appears to be a more capable young one" – the answer may well be as simple as this - "By training it"

The brain changes that were discovered in the first rounds of the neuroplasticity revolution have reflected input from the outside world.  For instance, certain synthesized speech can alter the auditory cortex of dyslexic kids in a way that lets their brains hear previously garbled syllables; intensely practised movements by stroke patients can allow them to move once paralysed arms or legs.

The kind of change the Dalai Lama asked about was different. It would have to come from "inside".  In this scenario something as intangible and insubstantial as a thought could rewire the brain. To the first neuroscientists, the very idea seemed impossible - now we are not so sure.

Further Reading

Derek Jones PhD, MBA