How does the brain repair itself after a traumatic injury?
The brain possesses an extraordinary ability to adapt and heal itself after an injury. This ability is known as neuroplasticity, and it’s the reason that many brain injury survivors can make astounding recoveries.
However, neuroplasticity doesn’t happen automatically; you need to activate it before you make improvements.
Today’s article will cover everything you need to know about neuroplasticity after brain injury, including the best ways to engage it so that you make the fullest recovery possible.
What is Neuroplasticity?
Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to reorganize neurons in response to learning or experience.
In the past, the adult brain was thought to be static, meaning scientists believed that after a certain point in development, the brain could no longer adapt to change.
Today, however, we know the brain is always in a flexible state. We also know that we can help the brain rewire itself by our actions.
For example, as you learn how to play an instrument, your brain creates new neural pathways in response to your movement. These pathways make it easier for the brain to store and retrieve information.
You may have noticed that the first time you tried to play a chord on the guitar, it felt slow and clunky, but by the 500th time, it felt second-nature. That’s neuroplasticity in action.
How Neuroplasticity Helps the Brain Repair Itself
When you experience brain trauma, many of the neural connections you once had become damaged or destroyed. This explains why you might lose the ability to walk or speak after a TBI.
While it’s not possible to revive dead brain tissue, with neuroplasticity, the brain can form new pathways around damaged areas, allowing you to regain function.
In some cases, the brain can rearrange itself so much that entire brain regions take over function from damaged areas.
Think of it as a detour on the road. If the way is blocked or destroyed, you’ll have to find another route. Neuroplasticity creates that route.
Repairing the Brain with Repetition
As we mentioned above, neuroplasticity doesn’t happen on its own. It requires repetition.
The more you practice an activity, the more the neural pathways formed in response become reinforced. And the stronger the connection is, the better you can perform that action.
That’s why a key aspect in TBI recovery is massed practice i.e., exercises with high repetition.
For example, to learn how to speak again after brain injury, you will need to practice speech therapy several times a day. The same principle applies if you want to improve your balance, and even your short-term memory.
Whatever ability you want to improve, with enough practice, your brain will eventually repair itself, and you can start to regain that function.
Restoring Function vs Adapting Function
While neuroplasticity can help your brain repair itself, it also has a downside you’ll need to be careful of during recovery. Physical therapist call this phenomenon maladaptive plasticity.
As you now understand, to help your brain relearn an activity, you’re going to have to do a lot of practice.
Unfortunately, sometimes you can teach your brain to do an action the wrong way. When this happens, it can severely harm your recovery.
For example, if you can’t move your right hand to pick up a cup, you might start using your left hand instead. This trick is called a compensatory tactic, and it is helpful during the early stages of recovery.
However, if you continue to use it, eventually your brain will “forget” how to do the action the right way.
That’s why therapists recommend you incorporate restorative techniques into your recovery program. Restorative techniques teach you how to regain lost function, and not merely adapt.
So, if your right hand is weak, try to resist the urge to do everything with your left hand.
Neuroplasticity: How the Brain Repairs Itself After TBI
Now that you know a little more about the science behind brain injury recovery, you can hopefully see why consistent therapy is so important.
When you activate neuroplasticity through exercise, you help your brain repair lost connections. That not only lets you relearn certain activities, it also prevents neuronal decay and keeps your condition from deteriorating.
Therefore, even if you have severe brain damage, you can still make incredible improvements if you stay committed to your exercises. That’s the power of neuroplasticity.