Rewiring Neural Networks - Neuroplasticity
Neural plasticity has gained a lot of attention in recent years and so it should. We only discovered in the 90’s that the brain was not fixed and you are not left stuck with the damage or pathways that were created. This is exciting stuff and has been termed neuroplasticity. This means any negative thinking patterns , as well as physical damage to the brain can be changed.
The brain is the command centre or power house for your life.
So if it is in order the rest of your life and health can be. Because with a happy brain everything is better, your relationships, your health, your money-as you make better decisions. etc.
Ask yourself, is what you are doing today good for your brain or not?
We need to fall in love with our brains and start asking this question. We need to do good things to make our brains feel good. Ie Avocado is good, so are blueberries- if organic (as often they are covered in pesticides), whereas alcohol and marijuana are NOT good for brain cognition. We need to make the necessary changes to behaviours that serve the brain better, it controls everything so we need to take care of it.; and you change behaviour by changing tiny habits consistently. Now onto neuroplasticity…
Neuoplasticity allows the brain to change structure and function in response to mental activity.
The things you think, do and experience change the brains structure. This is the modus operendus of the brain, not just when it is ill and trying to repair itself.
The brain also grows most when it is under stress- it lays down new neural connections more rapidly in this state. Your neurones can have a few connections or as many as 30,00 per neurone! It all depends on how much of your brain you are using and how often.
Stress however helps it form more and more connections and the more connections you have the safer this is for your brain when it has to deal with insults (physical and emotional). This is often termed your “brain reserve”. As already stated to lay down more connections stress is often required- but there is a caveat- the stress has to be good.
Good stress is there such a thing I hear you ask?! Yes, yes there is.
We can’t get rid of stress as it is the centre of mental activity- so if we are to always experience it we want it to be the “good stress” and we need to change our relationship with stress.
What is good stress?
A challenge- defined by you and has a series of successes, it is time bound and has a purpose etc This is often referred to as “meaning” or “purpose”.
It is what helps us grow, pushes us to be better
We define the type of stress we experience as “good” or “bad” by the meaning WE attach to that stress with the limbic system and the emotional power we give that connection. I’ll say that bit again because it’s important the meaning WE give to it.
Meaning/ purpose is at the center of human consciousness. Having a meaningful life- which is what we all strive for - is also what helps wire our brain in a health stressful way. When we are most in flow and loose track of time when we are doing it- Its hard work but we enjoy it.
Having meaning in your life is also the reason why people with faith fair better often neurologically; plus they have the connection of community. Human connectedness in itself is protective for the brain, that sense of community and relationships with others. Those who are socially isolated suffer more from neurological imbalances.
Now back to stress, good stress stimulates the immune system and metabolic processes through the hypothalamus pituitary axis & stimulates connections between neurones.
Whereas “bad stress” stimulate the production of cortisol and adrenaline/epinephrine and noradrenaline/norepinephrine. This is your fight/flight/ freeze system that is very primal to help you deal with danger, and not how we want our neural pathways laid down/ associated with this state.
Small parts of the brain have been found to grow new nerve cells all throughout your life (the Hippocampus). Although the rest of the brain can change connections, prune away old ones and create new ones. The Hippocampus (which is Greek for seahorse) is a very special part of the brain and can be stimulated to make new cells with neuroplasticty- it can stimulate stem cells and on average creates 700 new neurones/brain cells every day! The Hippocampus is important for memory, learning and your mood. It is also the first area that dies with Alzhemier’s. When the blood brain barrier (which is the wall between your brain and the rest of the body) is affected the first area to be affected by this disruption is the Hippocampus- and for memory this is critical.
Outside the Hippocampus, where we don’t seem to grow anymore new neuronal cells (that we know of currently) we can only rewire. We can reconnect the wiring to make new circuits and get our other brain areas to take over where there is damage.
A good example of this in action is constraint induced therapy- if a person has a stroke on the right side of their brain they loose function on the left side of the body and if that side is restricted/restrained due to the damage, it will loose even more function . It is better to restrain the “good arm” and force the person to use the “dodgy arm” so the brain is forced to rewire the damaged area. Mirror images in the brain or circuits nearby then have the opportunity to take-over.
You will get improvement by doing this process of rewiring but it may not go back to the exact same functional capacity as before. By restricting the undamaged arm and forcing the person to use the damaged one, you are putting the damaged area of the brain through “good stress’ and forcing it to lay down new paths to achieve the function you are asking of it.
The Brain needs energy
The brain is the most energy hungry organ in the body and for its relatively small size it uses on average 20% of our total daily energy needs. Knowing this we can manipulate the brain and the energy/brain chemistry it is comprised of.
Our brain cells connect globally by electrical signals or “spikes” and this is what is unique about it. As the brain is an electrical hot box it doesn’t have any sensors of its own and instead relies on other organs to be its window to the outside world and have these signals converted into something electrical it can understand i.e. ears turn sound into energy- are transducers.
So as it can’t see for itself but relies on energy patterns to understand what is going on around it ,we can use this knowledge to sculpt the plastic brain.
Energy therapy is therefore a non-invasive way to stimulate the brain in some of its deepest parts. For example we can stimulate the brain stem by using electrical signals on the tongue! This has been done in experiments to assist rewiring in patents that have vestibular or balance problems to walk without falling over.
Light, sound and movement can affect the brain.
Other energy sources that can therefore be tapped into to rewire the brain include, light, sound and movement. In the past we thought chemicals were the only way to communicate with the brain, but we now know it is seemlessly attached to the rest of the body and can be influenced in natural ways by these other means.
Too much electricity in the brain is a problem
Irregular signalling is involved in a lot of brain problems aka. having a “noisey brain”. When you are next feeling anxious, depressed etc tell me is your brain silent or is it very very noisey? Having thoughts roll around unimpeded.
A good example of what I mean by a noisey brain in a physiological sense, is say I have a person who has lost 90% of the function in their right hand due to a stroke- we would then assume logically that 90% of the cells/ paths in the brain must be damaged that cause this hand to perform any task.
However this is not the case.
Some cells are dead but some cells adjacent to these dead cells are just “sick” and sending irregular signals. And some of the “healthy cells” that are connected to these sick cells, due to this connection are now also sending irregular messages. Their sick neighbours influenced them so they can’t communicate effectively, as the messages they received are all messed up. So these cells receive junk data and therefore they send out junk data- but are not actually damaged themselves.
What we need to do therefore is reset this signalling to make it “clean “ again and get rid of the background noise so it can operate effectively.
Neurofeedback to restore normal firing is one technique that can be used. However for people with Traumatic brain injury- there is no one size fits all, different strategies are needed for different people as they are all affected on different levels.
5 stages of neurolplastic healing
Address general cellular health- light therapy, hyperbaric oxygen, mineral deficiencies, reduce toxitcity, address gut health
Neurostimulation- when Injured the body defends itself by going dormant aka learned non-use can happen. We need to find ways to stimulate circuits and this can be done by- Sound, exercise, neurofeedback
Reorganise firing- Neuromodulation-need to decrease the SNS(sympathetic nervous system), stimulate the PNS (parasympathetic nervous system) and regulate the RAS (reticular activating system) by- Light, sound, vibrations etc.
Neuro-relaxation - sometimes people with brain damage sleep 16-18hrs a day. The brian is doing lots of recovery, sleep is crucial. Don’t treat this excess sleep -let it happen as much as they need.
Neuro-differentiation- learn new things . The brain learns by maps of movement.. Babies learn by moving fingers at different times and this allows them to differentiate different fingers. If you tape your fingers together & keep it that way your brain will only create a map for a mit and you will find it difficult to move your fingers independently once untaped! If you want more differentiation you need to build new maps. Our brain is a use it or loose it system. If you stop moving parts of the body post stroke- maps decrease. Need to help the brain re-differentiate -this can be done with brain exercises and body work.
Light rewires the brain
All life and growth depends on light. Laser lights (cold ones) stimulate healing to occur. This has been shown in a number of animal studies where light therapy helped wounds heal and hair grow. Light therapy also assists the production of DNA, decreases inflammation and eliminates pain. Light therapy is also referred to as photobiomodulation and it is super exciting- lots more will be coming out in studies around it.
In one study they placed light (LED) on the back of a mans neck that was sore from a fracture- but found serendipitously that it also improved his vision- vision that had been damaged from a previous stroke! Light therapy has also been found to assist migraines in traumatic brain injury patients by reenergising mitochondria in cells. Cool laser is a great form of light therapy but not very accessible to you or I at home. Thats why studies have also looked at LED light therapy at certain frequencies and found it does the same job- it’s safe and you can’t really make any mistakes with using it!
LED light therapy doesn’t go as deep as cool laser into the body but is just as affective. Light therapy was found interestingly enough to also decrease pathological inflammation and not normal inflammation- win win for light therapy! Companies that produce medical grade light therapy include Meditech in Toronto, they special in traumatic brain injury and manufacture a product called Vielight that is also used a lot for stroke patients. Joov is also a company that has full body and handheld devices that have infrared as well as red light therapy.
Sound therapy affects all stages of neurplastic healing to get a response. Sound therapy is particularly useful for Autism- where the majority of children with this diagnosis are hypersensitive to sound. The ears’ auditory zone that allows us to focus on a single human voice in noisy room; in these kids, often doesn’t work properly and they have trouble differentiating different sounds.
Certain noises such as the ones predatory animals make, we are very sensitive to- these are typically low sounds. Ever wondered why that low music in Jaws gave you the creeps?!- this is why, our brains’ associated that low music with predators that want to eat us! Autistic kids appear to have trouble hearing sounds the way “neurotypicals do” they don’t hear calming sounds as calming, they often hear them interpreted in their brain as these low frequency threatening sounds.
So to help calm these children it can be useful to cover their ears to help block out sound, especially when they are fearful. Listening to modified music that helps to modify the auditory zone is also beneficial. When these kids are in fight or flight mode in social engagements, the auditory zone turns off. So their ability to modulate speech, look you in eye and have facial recognition is diminished. Therefore some attention problems are actually auditory problems.
People with traumatic brain injuries can also get hypersensitive to sound. And they may require intermittent sound therapy where they are trained for 15 days, then this is repeated in a few months and then once a yr for a few yrs. To help re-regulate their neural pathways. Traumatic brain injury (TBI) sufferers also need novelty and demand placed on their brain to keep it flexible. Some TBI sufferers benefit from exercises soon after the injury where as others need time and benefit from interventions later on.
Now this is a tricky one as it requires you to be hooked up to an EEG machine- the EEG machine will monitor brain wave patterns and gives direct feedback to the participant. The participant is rewarded when their brain waves are in the calm patterns wanted. This type of therapy is often used in epileptic children and in some types of ADD/ADHD. It was first used in astronauts at NASA by Sternman to prevent epilepsy with space travel- in epilepsy the brain “fires too much" and this was happening to astronauts due to their exposure to rocket fuel.
In ADD or ADHD they often don’t have as many Beta waves (that helps you be calm and focused) and more of the brain waves we “neurotypicals” have when we are falling asleep called Theta waves and also more Delta waves. So part of the brain is on the edge of sleep- this is often why ADHD kids drift off into their own world, eyes glazed over, starring out the window. Neurofeedback typically involves a game, such as keeping the smile on the face or keeping the boat in the race- when the correct brain waves are stimulated the game gives you points etc.- in real time. This game and direct feedback encourages more focused mental states by getting kids to see the effects and regulate their own thoughts. It helps kids be more calm, focused and less sleepy in class.
If you want to know more about neuroplaticity - because there is just so so much coming out about this. I recommend you read two great books by Norman Doidge MD “ The brain that changes itself” and “ The brain’s way of healing”.