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The seeming miracle of Neuroplasticity after stroke

August 18, 2013 1:54 am

Oh, yes! The brain’s ability to make new pathways will help you regain function

Pathways in maze

The beauty of stroke is that while it can permanently damage brain (or spinal cord) tissue, the brain is so miraculous that it can find new pathways in order to send the signals the body needs to function.

First you  need to quickly understand your central nervous system, and how everything is connected. Here’s a quick and easy explanation, from the Brain and Spine Foundation:

The central nervous system is made up of the brain and spinal cord. Messages (nerve impulses) from the brain travel along the spinal cord and control the activities of the body, such as the movement of the arms and legs or the function of the organs (for example, the bowel and bladder). The peripheral nervous system (the network of nerves outside the central nervous system) carries messages between the central nervous system and the rest of the body.

As I was saying, during stroke recovery (and this process is even faster and stronger for young adult stroke survivors), the brain can make new pathways to send the signals your body needs to move and function around the tissue damaged from your stroke. These new pathways form as a result of hard work, movement and therapy.

Scientists call this “neuroplasticity,” meaning the brain’s ability to change. Some scientist’s believe neuroplasticity takes place primarily from positive thoughts. But there’s so much that goes into it.

The term neuroplasticity might sound scientific and intimidating, but it’s actually really fascinating and easy to understand. Think of the brain as plastic, meaning it is malleable like soft plastic, and can form new shapes. Thus, it can learn new ways of doing things — as opposed to being hard, unmoving and unable to change.

Doctors like to use the metaphor of the road block regarding neuroplasticity and stroke recovery.

Think of the actual stroke tissue damage as a road block. So for instance, Drew’s spinal damage on the left side of his spine between the C3 and C7 vertebrae is a literal roadblock. Let’s address the paralysis in his right leg as a result of that roadblock.

Because that part of Drew’s spine is permanently damaged post-stroke, he is at first unable to lift or move his right leg in any way, because the signal from his brain to his spinal cord to his leg is blocked by the spinal damage, the road block.

But as time passes, and as Drew works hard at his physical therapy, exercise and learning to walk again, Drew is actually able to lift his leg! Muscles that were unmoving and flaccid start moving again. Nerves fire. He can even wiggle his toes a bit (I remember within the first three weeks in the hospital when I watched his toes slightly wiggle once again. I cried. It seemed so odd to take such a tiny movement for granted throughout my entire life until he couldn’t move his Polish toes, as I tease him. It was beautiful and hopeful).

How in the world can this happen? Because the brain found a new pathway to send the signals he needs to move his leg all the way down to his toesies. The pathways are like signals going around that roadblock of spinal damage; going off the map and finding new directions to get to the destination.

So in all, yes there is permanent spinal damage with a spinal stroke, and brain damage can be permanent with a cerebral stroke (although not always). But that doesn’t mean the brain cannot find new pathways to send the signals your body needs to move and function.

I don’t want to sugar coat the prognosis, because spinal stroke is very serious and Drew still has deficits. But two years later, every day second of every day, he is slowly getting more function and feeling back. That’s because his brain is finding new ways and responding to his therapy and hard work, to train his body to move and function.

Neuroplasticity – Dr. Norman Doidge’s definition

Dr. Norman Doidge says neuroplasticity means our thoughts can change the structure and function of our brains, even into old age. Dr. Doidge introduces principles we can all use to overcome a number of brain limitations (including stroke) and explores the profound brain implications of the neuroplastic brain in an immensely moving book, “The Brain That Changes Itself.”

This book is heavy, and it’s brilliant. The things that occur with people with serious brain injuries and disabilities in this book seem like miracles. But they’re not. They are all chalked up to groundbreaking scientific breakthroughs surrounding neuroplasticity.



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