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Neuroplasticity After Stroke: How the Brain Rewires Itself to Bounce Back from Injury

illustration of brain and neural networks showing neuroplasticity after stroke

On average, the brain uses 100 trillion neural connections to send and retrieve information. When a portion of these connections are damaged by injury like stroke, they can actually grow back through a process called neuroplasticity.

Although you cannot reverse brain damage, neuroplasticity can rewire functions to new, healthy areas of the brain. This helps compensate for the damage sustained after stroke.

You’re about to learn how neuroplasticity aids stroke recovery, and what you can do to maximize your potential.

Neuroplasticity After Stroke Works Differently for Everyone

First, it’s important to understand that every brain is organized differently, and every stroke is different. As a result, every recovery from stroke will be different.

Understanding the location of your stroke can help you anticipate the potential side effects that may occur. There is no exact answer, but it will give you important insight.

For example, a left hemisphere stroke may cause language difficulties because that’s usually where the language center of the brain resides.

To overcome language difficulties, neuroplasticity comes into play by allowing the brain to create new neural connections elsewhere in the brain that control language.

Think of it like an elaborate storage system. When one file cabinet is destroyed, you can use another cabinet. But it takes hard work to recreate all the documents and file them away again.

The process takes time and effort, but it’s worth it. Neuroplasticity is how stroke patients can regain lost skills and take back their independence.

This begs the question, how exactly can you activate neuroplasticity?

Activating Neuroplasticity with Massed Practice

Neuroplasticity is experience- and learning-dependent. This means that whatever you repeatedly experience, or repeatedly practice, determines how the brain will reshape itself.

For instance, mathematicians spend many hours each day practicing arithmetic. As a result of their experience, mathematicians have increased grey matter in the areas of the brain responsible for arithmetic. Their brains have become efficient at solving math problems.

You can apply this concept to any skill that you want to get better at, like moving your arm or memorizing facts. It just takes practice. Therapists often refer to this as massed practice, and it’s the key to stroke recovery.

Using Neuroplasticity After Stroke to Regain Lost Skills

It’s important to take advantage of neuroplasticity at every stage of the stroke recovery process.

For instance, neuroplasticity is at its “peak” immediately after stroke. This is why stroke rehabilitation starts on day 1. Rehabilitation specialists work hard to start the healing process as soon as possible to maximize recovery.

Throughout the continuum of care, therapists focus on using massed practice to help stroke patients improve the side effects of stroke.

For example, physical therapists will help stroke patients practice physical therapy stroke exercises to help improve mobility. The exercises are practiced repetitiously to stimulate neuroplasticity and recruit new brain tissue to control movement.

Similarly, speech therapists encourage patients to practice speech therapy exercises to improve language skills. Exercises are done repetitively to stimulate the brain and encourage neuroplasticity.

Essentially, any skill that you can practice can likely be regained. Even sensory issues like numbness after stroke can be remedied by practicing sensory reeducation exercises.

If you can practice it, the brain can get better at it thanks to neuroplasticity.

BDNF Also Helps Neuroplasticity

Aside from massed practice, there is another well-studied way to enhance neuroplasticity: increasing brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).

BDNF is a protein that supports and encourages the growth of new neurons and synapses, which is critical for neuroplasticity.

One way to boost BDNF is with aerobic exercise, which includes any kind of exercise that increases your heart rate, like brisk walking or cycling.

If mobility impairments after stroke prevent you from participating in aerobic exercise, talk to an occupational therapist. (S)he may recommend adaptive exercise equipment that can help.

Another way to boost BDNF is by eating certain foods. For example, omega-3s have been shown to normalize BDNF, and you can get it from salmon or chia seeds.

See BDNF-boosting foods for stroke recovery »

Finding Hope for Recovery from Stroke

Although the brain is in a heightened state of plasticity immediately after stroke, neuroplasticity can happen at any time. Whether it has been a few months or a few decades since stroke, the brain is still capable of healing and rewiring.

Studies have shown that the brain is changing itself throughout your entire life. This means that recovery is never “over.”  Whenever you begin to stimulate your brain with positive, consistent, repetitive stimulus, the brain will respond.

The brain never gives up, and neither should you. We hope your new understanding of neuroplasticity keeps you inspired on the road to recovery.

Featured image: ©iStock.com/metamorworks

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