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 a stroke, they can actually create new pathways through a process called neuroplasticity.
Although brain damage cannot be reversed, neuroplasticity may rewire functions to new, healthy areas of the brain. This compensates 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 likewise every stroke is different. As a result, every recovery process from a stroke will be different.
Understanding the location of your stroke may help you understand the potential secondary 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 allows the brain to create new neural connections elsewhere in the brain that control language.
Think of it as an elaborate storage system. When one file cabinet is destroyed, you can use another cabinet. But it takes time and effort to recreate all the documents and file them away again.
Neuroplasticity is how stroke patients may regain lost skills and regain their independence.
This begs the question, how exactly can you activate neuroplasticity?
After a stroke, the healthy areas surrounding the damaged brain tissue can compensate and develop new functions. This rewiring and reorganizing process is called 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 and learning, 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 improve, such as 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.
Neuroplasticity after stroke is activated by massed practice: high repetition of a task.
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 most receptive immediately after stroke. This is why stroke rehabilitation starts on day 1. Rehabilitation specialists begin therapy to activate the healing process as soon as possible to maximize recovery.
Throughout the continuum of care, therapists focus on using massed practice to improve stroke patients potential for recovery.
For example, physical therapists may help stroke patients practice physical therapy stroke exercises to improve strength and mobility. The exercises are practiced repetitiously to stimulate neuroplasticity and recruit new brain tissue to control movement.
Occupational therapists may guide patients in practicing the movements and skills needed for their activities of daily living. By structuring these tasks into individual steps, and repeating them often, patients may regain some independence thanks to neuroplasticity.
Similarly, speech therapists encourage patients to practice speech therapy exercises to improve language skills. As with all therapies, exercises are done repetitively to stimulate the brain and encourage neuroplasticity.
Essentially, any skill that you can practice may improve your independence. For instance, sensory issues such as numbness after a stroke may be decreased by practicing sensory reeducation exercises.
If you can practice it, the brain activates the neuroplasticity which leads to healing and recovery.
Skills lost by the damage from a stroke may be regained by practicing that specific skill. There are a variety of therapies available after a stroke to increase recovery within the brain and the body.
BDNF Also Helps Neuroplasticity
Aside from massed practice, there is an additional well-studied therapy 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 a stroke prevent you from participating in aerobic exercise, talk to a physical or occupational therapist. They may recommend adaptive exercise equipment to assist you with aerobic exercise.
Another way to boost BDNF is by eating certain foods. For example, omega-3s have been shown to normalize BDNF, available from salmon or chia seeds.
Neuroplasticity is aided by a protein called BDNF, which you may boost through aerobic exercise and a healthy diet.
Finding Hope for Recovery from Stroke
Although the brain is in a heightened state of plasticity immediately after stroke, neuroplasticity may be activated throughout the recovery process. Whether it has been a few months or a few decades since a stroke, the brain is still capable of healing and rewiring.
Studies have shown that the brain is changing itself throughout an entire life time. This means that recovery is continuous. Whenever you stimulate your brain with positive, consistent and repetitive stimulus, the brain will respond.
We hope your new understanding of neuroplasticity keeps you inspired on the road to recovery.