Traumatic brain injury is a serious medical condition that can severely impact a person’s life. Fortunately, the brain is incredibly resilient and possesses the ability to repair itself after a traumatic injury.
This ability is known as neuroplasticity, and it’s the reason that many brain injury survivors can make astounding recoveries. However, neuroplasticity does not activate itself automatically. It will require your help.
To help you optimize your brain’s natural repair mechanisms, this article will cover important facts about neuroplasticity after brain injury, including the best ways to engage it.
What is Neuroplasticity?
For many years, researchers thought the adult brain was static; and that the brain stopped changing after a certain point in development. Thanks to advances in neuroscience, we now know that this isn’t actually true.
The brain is constantly adapting itself to your experiences. It attempts to become more efficient at the things you do regularly, like tying your shoes, so that it requires less effort to carry out that task. This adaptability is called neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity refers to both the creation of new neural networks and adaptation to existing ones. If you begin a new hobby, for instance, your brain will likely start creating new neural connections to help you improve. If you stop practicing a sport, those neural connections may fade as you stop experiencing it frequently.
For instance, when you begin a new sport, it’s likely that you’re not very good at it because you haven’t experienced it much. But after a few months of practice, you feel more confident. This is because your brain has adapted to your experience and created stronger neural connections for the skills relevant to your sport.
This is why, when learning to play the guitar, the first chord feels awkward and difficult. But after practicing a hundred times, it feels second-nature. Neuroplasticity helps make repetitive actions more efficient.
Reorganizing neurons is the primary way that the brain can repair itself after a traumatic injury. We’ll discuss how that works in more detail below.
How Neuroplasticity Helps the Brain Repair Itself After Traumatic Injury
Your brain is composed of over 100 trillion neural connections. 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 speak after a TBI, for example. Because the neural connections that helped you understand language have been lost.
While the brain does not generate new neurons after an injury, it can compensate for that loss by changing the way information flows throughout the brain. This is where neuroplasticity steps in.
Through neuroplasticity, the brain can form new neural pathways, and therefore repair some of the damage it sustained. It can even transfer functions that were once held in damaged parts of the brain to new, healthy 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 through Repetition
As we mentioned above, neuroplasticity doesn’t happen on its own. It requires repetition.
The more you practice an action, the more you reinforce your brain’s neural pathways. And the stronger those pathways become, the easier it is to perform that action.
That’s why a key aspect in TBI recovery is massed practice i.e., exercises with high repetition.
For example, to regain speech you must practice speech therapy activities on a regular basis. To improve your ability to walk, you must practice leg exercises or practice walking consistently. Your brain will adapt to whatever you repeatedly experience.
Your can improve your abilities with enough practice, because your brain will respond and adapt itself to your experience.
Pushing Through TBI Recovery Plateaus
During the first six months after a brain injury, the brain enters a heightened state of plasticity. This means that the brain will spontaneously repair itself, and therapy will have a visible impact. Therefore, you might make rapid progress in your recovery.
However, after about six months, plasticity will decrease. As a result, you might feel like your recovery has stalled.
Therapists call these stalls plateaus, and they are a normal part of TBI recovery. But just because your progress has slowed down, that does not mean that it has ceased entirely.
Your brain can still make repairs during this time, and you can still activate neuroplasticity, even during a plateau. The key is to persevere with your therapy exercises. With enough time and practice, you should begin to make progress again.
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 practice, you help your brain repair itself and restore lost connections.
Therefore, even if you have severe brain damage, you can still make incredible improvements if you stay committed to your exercises. The more you exercise, the more skills you can regain. That’s the power of neuroplasticity.