It is now so well known that the brain is plastic (has the capacity to change structurally and functionally), that it is almost difficult to remember how we once believed that the brain was essentially fixed and unchangeable. But what does brain plasticity mean? What are its implications for recovery after brain injury?
Here are some basic principles of brain plasticity:
1. But what does brain plasticity mean? What are its implications for recovery after brain injury? This can mean anything from socializing with friends to taking psychotropic drugs. Learning, playing, stressing, even remembering-all of these are examples of life experiences that can change the structure and function of the brain. Furthermore, experiences can interact with each other (ie, socializing while using a drug) to create unique changes in the brain.
2. Changes in the brain are made in several ways. Research has shown evidence of plasticity in anatomy (changes in neurons and synapses), in chemistry (differences in neurotransmitters and channels), in imaging (differences in blood flow activity), and in behavior (although more difficult to prove).
3. Different types of plasticity can be seen in different areas of the brain. Whereas the sensory and motor areas of the brain can show great potential for plasticity, other areas, such as the hippocampus or prefrontal cortex, might only show slow or transient changes.
4. Plasticity is time-dependent. Clear, permanent changes in the brain might only occur after a sufficient amount of time with a certain experience. Transient experiences sometimes induce only transient changes.
The principles of brain plasticity should not be difficult to incorporate into the rehabilitation of brain injury. Understanding that plasticity is time-dependent can lead to interventions that are repeated over longer periods of time, so that improvement isn't transitory. Understanding that certain areas of the brain are more receptive to plasticity can guide direct rehabilitation towards sensory and motor skills, and look for compensatory rehabilitation for functions related to areas that are less receptive.
Furthermore, an interaction of drug therapy with motor or cognitive rehabilitation may prove to be a most effective treatment. Environmental changes alone may not produce a significant enough improvement in the brain, but interactive changes might.
Although the principles of brain plasticity have yet to be fully incorporated into brain injury rehabilitation, continued research will help guide us towards more effective treatment.
Kolb B, Teskey GC, & Gibb R. Factors influencing cerebral plasticity in the normal and injured brain. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. (November 2010).