We may have heard about neuroplasticity, but what is it exactly and how does it apply to healing from a stroke? My favorite definition of neuroplasticity is this: “The brain’s ability to change physically and physiologically in response to stimulation.” *
What does that mean? Our brains are changing all the time – every second of every day. Our brains are not fixed. We are constantly making new connections, reinforcing old connections, tearing down connections that are no longer needed, and storing information. Our brains are made of tissues that connect to one another, store information and send signals in various directions. That’s what our brains do. They are information hubs. And everything that happens in the brain is affected by how we stimulate it.
Look at a flower and the brain is stimulated by the sight of that flower. Smell the flower and the brain is stimulated by the smell of that flower. Listen to the wind whisper across that flower and the brain is stimulated by the sound. Close your eyes, hold your breath, cover your ears, and don’t look at the flower or smell it or listen or even think about it and the stimulation of the flower does not reach the brain.
All kinds of information is stored and managed by our brains from how to run our hearts to how to brush our teeth or hold an ice cream cone or plan and organize our lives. And that information is constantly being modified by the stimulation of our experience.
When we have a stroke or other kind of neurological injury, brain tissue is damaged and the flow of information is affected. Signals do not flow through the damaged area as they did prior to the injury. The signal systems that tell our hands or our legs or our eyes to move may no longer work correctly.
As we recover from a stroke or other neurological injury, some damaged brain tissue heals but some has died and won’t heal and it won’t be replaced. Healing the brain is not like healing a broken bone. New brain tissue does not fill in the damaged part. Instead neuroplasticity, the constantly changing brain, allows us to use other parts of the brain to build new connections around the damaged area. The “circuits” are rerouted.
Knowing this helps us to understand what we are trying to accomplish. When our hand is paralyzed, it’s not the hand that’s the problem. The brain is damaged and what we need to do is find our way back to being able to move that hand by working with our brain, encouraging neuroplasticity and helping to direct it.
If we understand the process of neuroplasticity and realize that we are supporting our brains as we work, we are better able to participate skillfully in our own recoveries.
*Barbara Arrowsmith-Young, TedxToronto