Neuroplasticity: Change Your Brain and Improve Your Health

Understanding what is possible, is an important part of creative health and healing. Too often the medical establishment will write people off as not being able  recover certain functions, and the patient believes them. Neuroplasticity research has shown that stroke patients thought to be beyond improvement, can regain mobility and other functions, and other conditions thought to be incurable have been cured.  Neuroplasticity can help you cresate health and healing by changing your brain.neuroplastic brain

Neuropalsticity, the ability of the brain to change itself in response to experience, is a relatively recent discovery that shows how the body heals from conditions such as stroke, nerve injury, and chronic or phantom pain. Neuroplasticity to s considered an essential part of development, and is the way that we gain skills.  Obviously the brain is at its most plastic during infancy and childhood, when the child is constantly learning new skills, but it continues past the development stage and into old age.

The brain is made up of of nerve cells, know as neurons,.  Each neuron has a cell body, called the Soma.  At one end of the cell body is an axon, a long extension of the cell that send nerve Neurons are the basic building block of the berainmessages out to other neurons.  The cell body also has a number of  short branched extensions lnown as dendrites; these receive impulses from other neurons.  Each cell has only one axon, but many dendrites.  The axon from one neuron communicates with the dendrites of other neurons by releasing chemical or electrical signals across a space called a synapse –  the space between an axon and one or more dendrites. Neuroplasticity can arise from the addition of new brain cells or, more often, from the creation of new dendrites which then connect to other neurons.

The neurons that build connections to one another are those that fire impulses through their axons at the same time, and thus have some sort of common purpose, which may arise through intentional attention (eg practicing a new piece of music on the paino) or from unintentional attention (eg focusing on physical pain). The result is the same in either case – a new habit is developed.  All habits, including addictions, are created through neuroplasticity.

However, unwanted habits can be broken through deliberate intention.  The saying “Neurons that fire together wire together, neurons that fire apart, wire apart”  indicates that  synapses between neurons are eliminated when the focus of attention changes.  By adding or removing connections, or adding cells, the brain changes itself so it can carry out new skills or eliminate or build new habits.

Neuroplasticity provides the scientific basis for rehabilitation of people with acquired brain injury, using goal-directed experiential therapeutic programs. A surprising consequence of neuroplasticity is that the brain activity associated with a given function can move to a different location in the brain; this can result from normal experience and also occurs in the process of recovery from brain injury. For example, people who have damage to the vestibular organ, which controls balance, can be taught to balance again through stimulation to the tongue. However, after severe brain injury, improvement in function related to neuroplasticity is unlikely to occur without help from health professionals skilled in rehabilitation.

In his book The Brain That Changes Itself, Canadian psychiatrist Norman Doidge  stated that neuroplasticity is “one of the most extraordinary discoveries of the twentieth century.”  Using case studies, Doidge demonstrates both the beneficial and detrimental effects that neuroplasticity can have on a patient, saying: “Neuroplasticity contributes to both the constrained and unconstrained aspects of our nature,” and “it renders our brains not only more resourceful, but also more vulnerable to outside influences.”

Another psychiatrist, Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz in his book (written with Sharon Begley)  The Mind And The Brain: Neuroplasticity And The Power Of Mental Force, describes how he used neuroplasticity to help patients with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder lose their compulsions.

These new technologies and therapies demonstrate that the brain’s neural circuitry can be rewired and it is highly likely that other practical applications will be discovered in future years. However, do not count on your medical advisers being up to date on the latest neuroplasticity findings. My neighbor had a stroke recently, and when I visited him in hospital I was surprised to find that none of the latest treatments that could bring back mobility and shorten recovery time, were being used.

The books on neuroplasticity are fascinating reading, and you might find information that will help you, or a friend, change your brain and improve your health.

Photocredit Liz Henry

The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science (James H. Silberman Books)

The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force

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