NEUROPLASTICITY: WHAT IS IT? 8 WAYS TO USE IT IN STROKE RECOVERY

Neuroplasticity. does it work? How easy it is? How long does it take? Can the brain really make new pathways? Is this reality or just hope? Are scientists and doctors right or are they still researching. Well I aim to answer all these questions and more.

Specialists have been understanding brain science for decades now, infact it is only in very recent times it has come to public awareness with media appearances and game changing researchers, including psychiatrist Norman Doidge who wrote”The “Brain That Changes Itself”.


Although we believe neuroplasticity is a recent phenomena, it was about 120 years ago when William James was the first to suggest the theory of neuroplasticity in his work priniciples of Psychology.
“Every man can, if he so desires, become the sculptor of his own brain” Santiago Ramon y Cajal.

As I reflect upon the last 30 years of my stroke recovery I think about what my neurologist said to me. He stated my brain was a machine and once damaged cannot heal. I wonder, if he had given me more hope would my recovery have been better?

Does the quality of your medical help impact your hope? Does it effect your willingness to consistently do repetitive activities which are now seemingly impossible? A task like moving a paralysed finger – something you once took for granted.

My doctor during the mid 80’s was blissfully unaware of neuroplasticity and so were most people around me accept my physio.

It was my physiotherapist that did repetitive excercises of the same movement. The physio’s asked me to visualize the brain neurons rewiring and connecting. They asked me to visualize the brain making a connection with that movement. For example moving my wrist or finger and to help my brain see that the exercise had meaning and purpose. So I practiced turning the light switch on and off and moving a ball.

Example of a wrist exercise
Finger presses on iphone app

This was in 1987 when I was 10 years old and the results were very good at the time. I regained alot of movement very quickly, hence my brain was plastic and it began to recover.

Since mid 2016, I have been doing hundred of repetitive exercises 100 to 200 at a time to improve wrist function. The question after 4 years, can I use my wrist now? Well, the answer is, NO, the struggle to move it is the same.

That is some of my story, lets learn some more about it. Firstly what is Neuroplasticity? Neuroplasticity, also known as brain plasticity, or neural plasticity, is the ability of the brain to undergo structural or physiological changes. source: wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuroplasticity

Once thought that the brain could only undergo change whilst developing new findings show Neuroplasticity can occur in adulthood.

Infact. ‘Neural plastcity’ was the term applied to behaviour in 1890 by William James in “The Principals of Psychology”. Source: wikipedia.org/neuroplasticity

The early 1900’s, traditional beleifs in neuroscience were challenged. Frontiered by Santiago Ramón y Caja Spanish Neuroscientist and “Father of Neuroscience” started describing the brain as no longer a non renewable organ. The brain has the ability to heal itself and produce new neuron activity.

This was good news yet the information didn’t begin to be accepted or applied within the medical industry until the 1970’s. Stroke and acquired brain injury. Thirty years on, 2020 have received the fruits of incredible medical advances and technologies, greater understanding of neuroplastcity among physiotherapists and occupational therapists leading to improved recovery for the stroke and brain injury survivor. And most of all HOPE. Neuroplasticity gives us hope after years of lost hope in the medical industry and dashed dreams among us stroke survivors.

HOW CAN WE USE NEUROPLASTCITY IN STROKE RECOVERY?

Repitition 400 reps of an activity to retrain the neural pathway and make a new connection. 400 reps per excercise per day.

Technology There are amazing new technologies out there for you to try. Their purpose is to accelerate your functionality. Links:

a. Mirror box therapy https://www.saebo.com/shop/saebo-mirror-box/

b. Wrist, hand or shoulder orthosis https://www.ottobock.com.au/orthotics/products-from-a-to-z/manu-neurexa/

c. The Saeboglove saebo.com

d.Electro stimulation https://www.apemedical.com.au/product/neurotrac-rehab-nmes/

And many more rehab aides are available at a cost to help you with your rehabilitation after stroke.

Make it functional Your brain wants to see there is a purpose to the task you are learning. Try incorporating an action which tells the brain why you need the function. For example; thumb presses and lifts on iphone apps or sliding the cutlery drawer in and out to increase wrist movement.

Use it or lose it! If you don’t use the limb or do an activity that neuron in the brain can become dormant. Think about all the math sums from high school can you still do them? Imagine already having a damaged brain losing limb function you took for granted. Your job is to reignite those lost neuro pathways and help your brain find new pathways to get function back.

Stay active There is no doubt physical activity is good for the body and mind.Exercise increases the brain’s volume of gray matter (actual neurons) and white matter (connections between neurons). Through increased blood flow to the brain, physical exercise triggers biochemical changes that spur the production of new connections between neurons and even of neurons themselves. Source: the-4-pillars-of-brain-maintenance

Keep it interesting Repetitive exercises are no doubt boring especially if you are to stay consistent for 6 months or more. Some things I do to make exercises a little more enjoyable and less of a chore are; watch TV, play with the cat, take dance breaks in between each set of 10 or have a reward – chocolate yumm.

Eat foods to stimulate brain health including drinking plenty of water. The saying “you are what you eat” is true in terms of brain health. Some awesome foods for neuro development are:

a. Fatty Fish. When people talk about brain foods, fatty fish is often at the top of the list. …

b. Coffee. If coffee is the highlight of your morning, you’ll be glad to hear that it’s good for you. …

c. Blueberries.

d. Turmeric.

e. Broccoli.

f. Pumpkin Seeds.

g. Dark Chocolate.

h. Nuts. Source: healthline.com

*Stay posted for my upcoming blog posts for some great brain food recipes.

Meditation can stimulate neuro pathways and treat anxiety, stress and depression.

So are doctors right? Is all the effort worth it? Does the neuro science of the brain need more research?

Yes, Yes & Yes . The brain is a very complex organ and with ongoing research and increasing knowledge about our brain and body shall increase our global health in terms of recovery rates after an acquired brain injury.

The awesome thing about our modern knowledge of the brain and it’s plasticity is that acquired brain injury and stroke survivors have HOPE. Hope that recovery is even possible in adulthood! Have faith, stay connected, be positive. You are the key to becoming a Thriver!

Stroke thriver

Kate Ryan is the internationally acclaimed author of Beyond Stroke: Living Independently with One Arm https://www.ryanpub.com.au/beyondstroke.htm

Find more links and videos about becoming independent after stroke on Kate’s Facebook page “Stroke Thrivers” https://www.facebook.com/groups/200339547387384

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Becoming independent after stroke: strategies for survivors and health workers.


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