Cortical plasticity is the most important concept during stroke rehabilitation.
If you don’t know what cortical plasticity is or how to apply it to your recovery, then read on.
We’ll catch you up to speed and provide 5 ways to boost your recovery from stroke.
How Cortical Plasticity Works
Cortical plasticity, also known as neuroplasticity, is the brain’s ability to reorganize and restructure itself by creating new (and strengthening old) connections between brain cells, also known as neurons.
These neural connections are strengthened when they are frequently used.
For example, when you practiced writing the alphabet as a youngster, your brain began to form new neural connections for handwriting.
In the beginning, your letters probably resembled chicken scratch because those neural pathways were brand new and just getting started.
But as you practiced more and more, those pathways became stronger and stronger. In time, your brain rewired itself and your writing started looking better.
This is how cortical plasticity works.
Cortical Plasticity Is the Reason Why People Can Recover from Stroke
When a stroke occurs, it cuts off the supply of blood to the brain, which causes brain damage.
While the damage is irreversible, the surrounding healthy areas of the brain can pick up the slack thanks to cortical plasticity.
Rehabilitation from stroke revolves around activating cortical plasticity to help you regain lost skills and independence.
Relearning Lost Skills
Stroke survivors often feel like they’re relearning basic skills – like eating, walking, and dressing – as if for the first time. And in a way, they are.
The brain must create brand new pathways to redevelop skills that were lost after stroke.
For example, if the motor cortex was damaged by stroke, it can lead to poor mobility on one side of the body, a common stroke side effect known as hemiparesis.
In order to recover from hemiparesis, survivors must participate in stroke rehabilitation exercises, which involves repeated therapeutic movements.
As these exercises are practiced, it sends signals to the brain to activate cortical plasticity. New neural pathways begin to form.
In time, the new connections begin to strengthen and you slowly regain control over your affected muscles.
5 Ways to Boost Cortical Plasticity
If you want to recover from the side effects of stroke, you need to activate cortical plasticity.
Here are 5 ways to get things going:
1. Focus on High Repetition
When you practice something, it tells your brain that it’s important, and your brain will respond by strengthening the neural connections proportionately.
For example, if you want to improve leg function after stroke, then you should practice leg rehab exercises to improve that skill.
But if you practice those exercises once a week, it doesn’t send a very strong message to your brain, and cortical plasticity is minimally engaged.
But if you practiced those exercises daily, it sends a message to your brain that leg movement is important, and your brain will begin to form and strengthen new connections responsible for leg movement.
Put in your reps in, and your brain will respond accordingly.
2. Hone Your Attention
A great way to maximize cortical plasticity is with your attention. The saying “where attention flows, energy goes” was probably based on this phenomenon.
Your attention is particularly important for cortical plasticity associated with sensory experience.
Although you might not be able to feel anything during those exercises yet, your attention sends signals to your brain to “wake up.”
With good repetition and attention, you can rewire the brain to correctly interpret your senses again.
Cortical plasticity is amazing in this way.
3. Trigger Your Neurotransmitters
In this journal article on cortical plasticity, they said:
“Since sensory and motor experiences (associated with release of modulatory neurotransmitters) determine the form of plasticity generated, it is critical to develop targeted rehabilitation techniques designed to stimulate adaptive plasticity following brain damage.”
If you want to speed up stroke recovery, focus on therapeutic activities that release positive neurotransmitters, like serotonin and dopamine.
Because your brain gets better faster when you have fun!
4. Get Started Early
Studies show that the brain is in a heightened state of cortical plasticity during the first 3 months after injury.
During those first 3 months, the brain is rapidly trying to heal itself, and cortical plasticity is at an all-time-high.
Whatever you do during this window of time will have a larger effect, so make sure that you have an effective rehabilitation program – especially during this time period.
5. Don’t Let the Plateau Stop You
But if this window has closed, don’t let it stop you from pursuing rehabilitation!
Cortical plasticity is happening your entire life-long. Whether you’re 3 months or 30 years post-stroke, your brain is capable of healing and rewiring itself.
It just needs you to put in the work so that it gets the stimulation it needs to activate cortical plasticity.
Cortical Plasticity and You
Repetition and attention help activate cortical plasticity effectively, so that you can heal the brain faster after stroke.
By participating in rehabilitation and practicing the skills you want to rebuild, you can rewire your brain to regain lost function.
Whether it has been months or years since your stroke, there is always hope for recovery because cortical plasticity can be activated at any age.
Cortical plasticity is how you can rebuild your life again after stroke.