We still have so much to learn about how the brain works, but our understanding keeps evolving in exciting new ways. It was as recently as the mid-1900s that researchers believed the brain stopped forming new synaptic connections by adolescence (a process called neurogenesis) and was mostly fixed in adulthood.
Fortunately, with the emergent field of neuroplasticity research, scientists now understand that the brain continues to generate connections through learning and new experiences. Neuroplasticity also reveals potential for the brain to heal and repair itself after traumatic brain injury (TBI).
This is great news for concussion and TBI recovery. Read on to learn more about neuroplasticity and how to activate your brain’s potential for healing.
What is neuroplasticity?
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to reorganize, rewire or change its structure, activity, or function based on experiences. It’s how the brain forms new synaptic connections. It’s also known as brain plasticity.
Through neuroplasticity, the brain’s changes can be:
- Structural: Through neural reorganization or neurogenesis, new connections form, changing the physical structure of the brain.
- Functional: Through functional regeneration, different areas of the brain learn to perform functions that an injured part can no longer do.
How does neuroplasticity work?
As you continue to learn and have new experiences in adulthood, the connections in your brain that are used frequently are strengthened. Connections that are not used are removed through a process called synaptic pruning. By forming connections and culling unused ones, your brain is kept healthy and adaptable.
Neuroplasticity is a lifelong process. While brain plasticity is especially present during infancy and childhood, recent research shows that adult brains change, repair, and heal too. Your brain can be changed by a brain injury, but it can also be regenerated through learning, making memories, or practicing new skills.
Who popularized neuroplasticity?
The emergent field of neuroplasticity was widely popularized by Norman Doidge in his books The Brain That Changes Itself (2007) and The Brain’s Way of Healing (2016). His books explore the mechanics of neuroplasticity, brought to life through the stories of people who overcame the limitations of brain injury by retraining their brains.
WHAT IS THE ROLE OF NEUROPLASTICITY AFTER BRAIN INJURY?
Neuroscientists have identified some critical moments of neuroplasticity following a brain injury:
- 48 hours after injury: Initial damage to the brain takes place during this stage, but the brain also attempts to maintain function using secondary neural networks.
- Following weeks: Synaptic plasticity and new connections are made during this period based on activity and experience.
- Weeks to months afterwards: The brain continues to remodel itself structurally and functionally, reorganizing around the damaged area.
Following TBI or concussion, the brain goes through structural and functional changes. Several debilitating symptoms can happen as a result too: headaches, sleep disturbance, issues with memory or attention, and anxiety or depression.
In response to these changes, many people learn workaround behaviors—ways of compensating for their injury so they can continue to perform daily tasks.
HOW CAN YOU MAXIMIZE NEUROPLASTICITY AFTER INJURY?
TBI and concussion recovery is all about getting the right level of exertion at the right time, with periods of rest. So is neuroplasticity.
Here are some ways to maximize neuroplasticity after an injury:
- Exercise: Regular exercise has incredible benefits for your brain. Cardiovascular and coordinated exercises in particular have been shown to support hippocampus health, an area of your brain involved with memory. You can start with the simple practice of a daily walk, and build from there.
- Motor learning: Along with exercise, motor learning stimulates unused areas of the brain through conscious practice. Intentionally learning a skill, trying a novel activity, and striving for a goal promotes the growth of new neural pathways. Motor learning enriches your brain by giving you an unfamiliar challenge to solve.
- Biofeedback: Biofeedback is a technique of reinforcing new practices to optimize performance. A physical therapist or specialist helps define an action, provides cues, and creates the framework for reinforcing an action. Whether it’s re-learning to contract a muscle or use a utensil, the patient can practice the cues and get refined guidance as needed to optimize recovery.
- Sleep: Getting enough sleep—and quality sleep—is essential to healing your brain. Sleep regulates your hormones, mood, and overall wakefulness during the day. Plus, during sleep, reconsolidation takes place which helps the brain reinforce new pathways and solidify memories.
ENRICHING YOUR BRAIN IS KEY TO HEALING
It’s reassuring to know that emerging research on neuroplasticity shows that you can strengthen your brain throughout your life—even after a traumatic brain injury or concussion.
Now we know that the brain is not fixed. In fact, it is resilient and adaptable in its ability to rewire and recover itself. It takes the support of specialists and knowing the mechanisms of neuroplasticity to show you which activities can promote the healthiest possible outcome for your brain.