Cerebral palsy is a life-long condition. With CP the location and severity of damage in the brain is usually what determines the gravity by which the person is affected by the condition.
Understanding what cerebral palsy is, only helps us understand the reasons for our child’s physical limitations. It gives us nothing concrete besides that. Addressing any of CP treatments with this knowledge alone…keeps us in the present and a seemingly never ending maintenance mode against CP. Because there is no cure for CP we do our best to keep up as our child grows.
Neuroplasticity on the other hand, offers us the chance to open another door into how their bodies can deal with CP. Neuroplasticity gives us the possibility of ‘reversing’ the effects that cp has on our bodies—the earlier on in life the better. There is nothing permanent about neuroplasticity, because neuroplasticity describes the brain’s ability to change. To actually rewire itself.
From the beginning of its formation till the moment we die, our brain is in constant change, both physically and chemically.
The damage to the brain resulting in CP can not be reversed. Through neuroplasticity however, the brain has the potential to ‘rewire’ itself and bypass damaged areas passing the tasks to able areas.
In the earlier stages of development, neuroplasticity is the single most important hope for your child’s improvement possibility. Taking advantage of that small window of time in your CP child’s development as early as possible is critical. The sooner the better.
Neuroplasticity offers a different, possibly more positive view on CP. When addressing cerebral palsy from a neuroplasticity perspective we can always hope that our daily work against the condition will actually improve ability. This offers us hope for both current and future improvement possibility.
What is Neuroplasticity?
The brain is the most complex of organs and is responsible for everything we do. It controls everything we think, see, hear, remember and feel. It also determines our intelligence as well as controlling all our bodily functions and muscle movements, both voluntary and involuntary.
The brain is made up of billions of impulse-conducting cells called neurons. These neurons all use electrical impulses to transmit information signals through the nervous system. The neurons create connections of pathways that reach every part of the body. The brain is able to transmit trillions of electrical impulses through its neurons every second.
Although the neurons are linked together forming vast neural networks, they do not actually touch each other. They are separated from each other by spaces called synapses. The communication impulses between neurons over the synapses happens by means of chemical messengers called neurotransmitters.
The neuron sending a message releases its neurotransmitters, which jump the synapse and bind to, and activate on, the receiving neuron. A neuron can have thousands of connections to other neurons. The brilliant, complete intertwined network of neurons and neurotransmitters is how the brain and nervous system work.
The mystery of the brain’s unfathomable power has been a subject of wonder for centuries. Originally, it was generally believed that the brain was set at birth and that it didn’t change through life. It has however, only been over the past several decades that science has begun to better understand the brain and that it is changing constantly.
In 1948, the Polish neuroscientist Jerzy Konorski coined the term ‘neuroplasticity’. It is formed from the two parts; ‘neuro’ and ‘plasticity’. The prefix ‘Neuro’ refers to the nerves and ‘plasticity’ comes from the greek word ‘plastikos’ meaning pliable. ‘Neuroplasticity’ describes how the brain’s structure changes through usage and over time. It refers to the brain’s ability to physically change itself due to experience of new information, stimulation, damage or dysfunction. Neuroplasticity is how we are able to learn and adapt during development. It is the brain’s ability to respond, and change itself, due to internal body factors and external environmental experience.
Changes in our brain happen constantly and throughout our lives. The amount of change that occurs within the brain depends on the amount of stimulation it receives. Neuroplasticity is what happens every time we learn something. From before birth neuroplasticity is how the brain develops. As we grow it is everything undertaken by the brain; learning to talk, sit up, crawl, walk or talk for example. This means that our brain changes physically as we learn. Throughout life, everything we do trains our brain. When we think a certain thing or perform a certain task specific neurons are activated. The brain is in constant flux and every experience and action we take has a physical affect on the actual structure and chemicals in the brain. The more we do those actions, the better we should get. The more we think those thoughts, the longer we will remember them.
Neuroplasticity comes about by the activity of the neuron. Synaptic connections that are frequently used become stronger. Those connections that are less used are weakened, eventually lost. This loss is called ‘Synaptic pruning’
New connections between neurons can be generated by new activity. These connections can be temporary or longterm depending on the strength and regularity of that connection’s use. How the structure of the brain’s neurons and synapses change over time depends on the activity of those neurons. The physical changes undergone by the brain are the results of how we challenge and use our brains. The brain literally rewires itself.
A neuron is able to increase the intensity of a signal by releasing more neurotransmitters. The increased transmission of neurotransmitters may either, incite change in the synaptic receptors on the receiving neuron, or actually create altogether new receptors there. These increased chemical releases and synaptic changes result in short-term memory changes. This type of change is called synaptic neuroplasticity.
Now, because long-term memory changes require more permanent change to the neuron, the neurons themselves change. This is called Structural neuroplasticity. Long-term memory changes to the neuron are effectuated by the growth of new dendritic spines and synaptic connections but even the creation of new neurons all together.
Structural neuroplasticity which results from increased activity may result in an enlargement of the area activated, as well as a shrinkage of the area where there is less activity.
As well as structural neuroplastic change in the brain, our brains are able to change the functional areas of the brain. This is where healthy parts of the brain actually take over control and replace dead or injured parts of the brain.
Keeping the brain challenged, active and busy is the way to maintain an ever improving cognitive ability. And this is where the “Use it or lose it” rule is so important. If a memory or ability is unimportant and revisited seldom it is forgotten. ‘Memorable moments’ are stimulated by a unique pattern of neuron activity…if these moments are revisited often and are consolidated with an emotional attachment, they become more permanent memories.
Repetition and practice leads to more improved learning and ability. The more active the physical action in repetition and intensity is, the more permanent the change.
Because neuroplasticity is how our brains develop and grow, it is most prominent in young children as they grow. This is why learning things in childhood is much more fluid and easy when young than in later years. Things like learning a musical instrument or speaking another language is easier during childhood than adulthood.
"The focus of rehabilitation treatment has recently shifted to neurological rehabilitation in response to increasing evidence for neuroplasticity. This approach aims to improve development and function by capitalising on the innate capacity of the brain to change and adapt throughout the patient's life."
From The Lancet
So, in my mind, neuroplasticity is the crux of where the current medical world so drastically misses the mark when addressing CP. Since Julian's diagnosis 12 years ago, we have never once had anyone tell us about neuroplasticity. This is completely unacceptable!
The brain has been shown to rewire its circuits after a stroke, leading to improved function over a short period. Why does no one talk about it for CP? Unacceptable!
Despite the plethora of evidence proving the importance of neuroplasticity no one has ever mentioned it. Completely unacceptable!
So, I'll say it again, never ever accept it when a medical professional tells you “Let's wait and see”. If anyone tells you that…no matter who it is…tell them to read this article, and then repeat…
NO! Tell me NOW!...What can I do for my child?....NOW!