Harnessing neuroplasticity in physical therapy

The ability to rewire the brain to create new neuropathways is fascinating and should be delved upon. Neuroplasticity derived from the root words Neuro (brains) and Plastic (changeable), is the brains ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life, influenced by intrinsic or extrinsic stimuli. Merriman-Webster defines neuroplasticity as the capacity of neurons and neural networks in the brain to change their connections and behavior in response to new information, sensory stimulation, development, damage, or dysfunction.”1

A neuron refers to the nerve cells in our brain. Each individual neural cells is made up of an axon, dendrites, and is linked to one another by a small space called the synapses. Brain reorganization takes place by mechanisms such as ‘axonal sprouting” in which undamaged axons grow new nerve endings to reconnect neurons whose links were injured or severed. Undamaged nerve cells can also sprout nerve endings and connect with other undamaged nerve cells, forming new neural pathways to accomplish a needed function. Although Neuroplasticity enabled the brain to compensate for damage, sometimes an area of the brain is so extensively damaged that its natural ability to reorganize is insufficient to regain the lost function.

For example, if one hemisphere of the brain is damaged, the intact hemisphere may take over some of its functions. The brain compensates for damage in effect by reorganizing and forming new connections between intact neurons. In order to reconnect, the neurons need to be stimulated through activity. New thoughts and skills carve out new pathways, Repetition and practice strengthen these pathways forming new movement pattern. With repeated and direct attention towards a desired change, we all have the ability to rewire our brains.

A key principle to note is that brain activity promotes brain reorganization. This means that brain exercise will boost the general growth of connections. In Physical therapy, specific motor activity promotes selective self-repair and reorganization. Practicing a particular movement over and over helps your brain form and strengthen the connections necessary for that movement. A research in Germany, involving seven patients who had lost the ability to walk were placed on a treadmill with a parachute and harness. They were given as much physical, but the treadmill forced movement in their legs. This forced movement enabled some of the intact neurons in the damaged area of the brain to form new connections, which in turn enabled three of the patients to walk independently and another three to walk with supervision.

Physical therapy rehabilitation can indeed take advantage of the brains natural flexibility for forming new neural connections and should be done under professional guidance.

Further reading:

http:/web.stanford.edu/group/hopes/cgi-bin/hopes_test/neuroplasticity

References

1. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/neuroplasticity
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