Grandma: You shouldn’t drink alcohol! You’ll kill your brain cells and they won’t grow back!
You (after reading this): Shut up Grandma, haven’t you heard of neuroplasticity or neurogenesis?
Well, we have so we want to stress the importance that it holds in all our lives and tell you about a few examples of where the principles of neuroplasticity have been taken and used to produce a positive outcome from a dire situation.
Neuroplasticity is the term we use to describe our brains ability to change. When scientists came to accept that our brains are plastic and not hardwired to be the same this changed the field of neuroscience in a big way.
If our brains can change how can this help us?
Chronic pain and the phantom limb
Ever heard of a phantom limb?
Sometimes when individuals lose a limb, they still experience pain or physical sensation in that limb! That really doesn’t make sense… well, because our brains contain what are known as ‘brain maps’, which are the areas that light up when we are touched on certain parts of the body, it means that sometimes after a limb is lost, the corresponding brain map still exists and can even be stimulated.
Some veterans have come back from war with missing limbs after an explosion but experience the phantom limb. This can be awful as it means they experience the pain of losing the limb repeatedly as even though the limb is no longer attached to the body, the part of the brain that was responsible for the limb is still active. Interestingly, some amputees who have lost their leg reported (grudgingly) about experiencing their orgasms in their missing leg! You might laugh but it also meant they experienced orgasms twice as powerful so who’s really laughing.
In this example when the brain maps were surveyed, the results showed the brain map for the left foot and the genitals were right next to each other, meaning that the brain maps for the individuals’ genitals were taking over the maps for the missing limbs.
A scientist named Ramachandran created what is known as the ‘mirror box’ which help patients cure the pain by altering their perceptions of their body image.
How did he do this?
Amputee patients who were struggling with pain from their phantom limb were found to be experiencing this pain due to the neural connections not being able to fire properly. However, when the patients were able to see their functioning limb working properly in the mirror the pain began to reduce. So Ramachandran utilised mirror boxes to show amputee patients their functioning limb performing normally.
Why mirror boxes? Well due to the reflection the brain was tricked into thinking that their functioning limb was in fact their phantom limb this allowed the neural connections to fire properly again. Continued practice and use of the mirror box over time lead to a significant reduction in pain.
The woman who relearned balance using her tongue
Cheryl was prescribed a drug called Gantamicin for an ailment, but little did she or her doctors know that taking it in high doses can damage what is known as the vestibular apparatus, which is responsible for helping us maintain our balance and relaying information regarding our body position to the brain.
This is located in the inner ear and comprises of three small canals, in which microscopic hairs exist surrounded by a small pool of liquid. When we move the liquid moves, moving the hairs which then send signals to the brain informing it that we are moving.
Put simply, if this is damaged it can make life extremely difficult. Individuals with a damaged vestibular apparatus struggle with staying upright and are constantly falling over, even when they can stand upright, they still suffer with the sensation of falling. Many, of these individuals develop mental health issues due to a severe decrease in quality of life.
Fortunately, Paul Bach y Rita, one of the most renowned scientists in the field of neuroplasticity created an invention to help individuals like Cheryl. He invented a contraption using a construction helmet, a small device which you place on your tongue hooked up to a number of electrodes all connected to a computer.
When they detect movement, they relay the information to the computer but also to the strip on the tongue creating electric shocks that feel like bubbles on a certain area of the tongue to tell you that you are moving in a certain direction.
Cheryl tested this device and her brain started to decode the artificial signals coming from the device onto her tongue. What is occurring is that Cheryl is ‘working out’ some of her unmasked neurons in the region of the brain that controls balance, making them stronger to such an extent that even after she’d taken off the device the residual effects lasted longer and longer after every use and she now hasn’t worn the device for a year but still remains upright.
This device doesn’t just help people affected by gantamicin, it also has the potential to help the elderly. Elderly people can be susceptible to falling over. It is believed one of the reasons for this is that the vestibular apparatus weakens over time. So, by training the area of the brain responsible for balance we can hopefully reduce the number of falls amongst the elderly.
Suffering from a stroke can be a debilitating blow in someone’s life. A blood clot or bleed in the brains arteries cut off oxygen to the brain’s tissues, killing them. In the worst cases the victims end up with a significantly reduced quality of life and frustratingly there is not a lot modern medicine can do to treat a stroke, however, when we discovered that our brains were ‘plastic’ and able to change, Edward Taub developed his ‘plasticity-based treatment’ to help stroke achieve recovery by rewiring their brains.
Through a series of experiments Taub began to explain that after suffering from a stroke, patients see that they can’t walk or use their arms, they naturally start to believe they will never be able to walk or use their arms again. He called this ‘learned non-use’. After a stroke he believed patients entered a period of ‘spinal shock’, which can last a few months and means that their neurons struggle to fire, making them believe that it would be impossible to recover. For recovery to happen the neurons the brain region in charge of movement needs to be able to function properly, and the neurons need to be able to wire together to transmit messages. The stronger the connection between the neurons the easier the movement becomes.
After a stroke the effected brain map in the affected area of the brain which controls the affected limb, shrinks by roughly 50%, causing patients to report that using that certain limb is extremely tiring.
So, it’s not just muscle atrophy that occurs but also brain atrophy, meaning we need to train our brains to use the effected motor area. The more we use the effected motor area through repetitive exercises whilst slowly increasing the difficulty of the exercises the easier it becomes. This is known as incremental training.
Anxiety or depression sufferers
We can rewire our brains, even if it seems impossible. Mental health sufferers may be bombarded by high volumes of negative thoughts every day, but not realise that every thought we have shapes our brain, meaning they are more likely to continue to think negatively. So, when we can produce positive thoughts, we can change the shape of our brain to create a more positive outlook.
When the brains of people who had died were examined, those with depression were found to have a shrunken hippocampus. Those who did not had a normal sized hippocampus. The hippocampus is in control of emotional regulation, therefor by damaging this; we make it harder to regulate our emotions and make it more likely to fall into the anxiety and depression trap.
Studies have shown that exercise can increase the size of the hippocampus, which is encouraging because it means we can prevent the effects of anxiety and stress but also as we grow older the hippocampus naturally shrinks which can lead to memory impairment, so we have a natural tool at our disposal to prevent or slow down the age-related decline of our hippocampus.
When we carry out activities like yoga or meditation regularly, we can actually grow certain parts of the brain, creating positive brain changes. Yoga and meditation have been shown to increase the volume of grey matter and cortical folding in our brains. Grey matter is responsible for memory, seeing, hearing, executive functions, impulse control, emotions and speech. Improving function in these areas of the brain can help to treat anxiety and depression.
The lessons that we can learn about our brains ability to change are simple, whenever we are in a difficult situation in our lives or if we perceive ourselves to have a weakness in certain areas of life, we can simply tell ourselves, maybe this is just an area of my brain that I need to grow, and to do this I need to carry out certain exercises in order to challenge this area of my brain for it to improve. We need to get uncomfortable to feel more comfortable. Repetition of certain movements, activities, skills can help us strengthen the neural connection and make it become second nature.