My Plastic Brain

My intellectual crush….Professor Eagleman, I am all ears!!

Your brain’s fitness is largely overlooked. Most of us focus on cardiovascular exercise for a healthy heart and strength training for a healthy musculoskeletal system. The mass of nerve tissue in your skull also needs its own training regimen. The “use it or lose it” adage is often quoted, but it wasn’t until I did some focused reading on the living organ that is our brain that I truly understood how this works (or doesn’t). The brain is comprised of precious real estate maps that correspond to regions of the body, as well as various cognitive activities. Should that particular region of the body become useless or an activity cease, the real estate doesn’t die off, but gets replaced by another area altogether. And in cases where are a part of the brain dies or is damaged, other parts are recruited to compensate for that loss. No corner of the working brain is squandered. Here’s an example:

A man working a job site accidentally saws through his hand, severing the nerve that feeds his pinky and ring fingers. After recovering from the initial trauma, he begins doing physical therapy to strengthen his hand and get the rest of his fingers to work without the 4th and 5th fingers. If we cut open his brain and mapped out the region that represents those two useless fingers with little lights, you would see a pretty amazing thing happen. Every time he recruits his other fingers and working parts of his affected hand, the region representing the two appendages that no longer receive commands from the brain will light up. How is this possible? In a remarkable feat of engineering, the silenced region of the brain is over grown by the working areas around it. They take over and grow stronger, thus maximizing their neurological property.

This is just one demonstration of the brain’s adaptability. Calling one’s brain “plastic” means that with the right exercises and activities, we can train our minds to circumvent any issue, like say a stroke, allowing us to recover lost function by recruiting other regions’ maps to take over those activities. Here’s another example:

Acclaimed American nueroscientist, Paul Bach-y-Rita, was a pioneer in the field of nueroplasticity. Early in his career he created a system of vibrating plates that were attached to a blind individual’s back. The plates would vibrate in connection to a forward facing camera that “observed” objects in what would be one’s visual field. The patterns of vibration were different depending on the object, but what ended up occurring was the ability for the blind person to “see” the world surrounding him. His skin sensors sensing the vibrations were sending the information to his visual cortex. One sense, touch, compensating for the other sense that did not function.

Further along in his career, he created a device that helped people whose vestibular systems (i.e. what helps us maintain balance and spatial awareness) were damaged. These people literally couldn’t stand upright; their world was in perpetual motion, like being on a rocky boat. The device attached sensors onto the patients’ tongues, which is a region saturated with sensory receptors, that interpreted forward, back and side to side movement. Accelerometers attached to them and linked to a computer would give the “position” in space of the patients and allow them to stay balanced. After using the device initially, a patient would experience the residual affects for many hours, despite still having a damaged vestibular system. Used for several weeks and many patients were completely cured. This just shows how the brain is able to reorganize itself and adapt to new information from an unlikely source.

Perhaps the best example from Bach-y-Rita’s career was his father’s massive stroke. After his father passed away years later, an autopsy indicated a large part of his brain stem had died, which would have left him unable to do most basic functions. However,  through neuroplastic exercises that Bach-y-Rita and his brother gave to their father, he was not only able to recover the basic functions, but more complex ones as well, which allowed him to return to teaching. His brain reorganized itself on very large scale.

After reading so much about nueroplasticity, I can’t help but think about my grandmother and how her brain was eaten away by a combination of stroke, Alzheimer’s and Aphasia; the latter two being a one two punch of memory loss, dementia and the inability to speak. I wonder if nueroplastic exercises done early after the stroke that started the ball rolling would have helped her brain remap itself enough to prevent many of the symptoms of the other two neurological diseases to manifest. There is some fascinating research out there that makes a brilliant case for this.

I guess the “use it or lose it” adage should be changed to just “USE IT!!!!” Crack open some of the below books if you are as intrigued as I am and get started this new year.

Recommended Reading List:

http://www.normandoidge.com/normandoidge.com/ABOUT_THE_BOOK.html

http://www.amazon.com/Incognito-The-Secret-Lives-Brain/dp/0307389928

http://www.amazon.com/Sum-Forty-Afterlives-David-Eagleman/dp/0307389936/ref=la_B001JRX0OQ_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1387720746&sr=1-2

Models and Problems

This is my brain performing “massage”….any questions?  🙂

There is nothing better than a person who is health and wellness minded coming to me for massage. You don’t really have to convince them of the benefits or teach them about its affects on their body because they are already informed and on board. Instead, as you work with them, they learn more about their body’s movement patterns and underlying stored tensions, making release and corrective care all the more possible. After a series of sessions they will be right at home in their new state of being and come to you for follow ups whenever they feel the need for them. Sigh…if only all client situations were like this.

One client that I have been working with now for a few weeks fits the model client moniker to a tee. He comes in with stories and updates on the results of his last session and what his activities/work/lifestyle have procured for me this time around. I share him with another therapist. We both approach his motley crew of issues with different perspectives and techniques, but always end up with some kind of change/result. This weekly challenge is such a learning process for myself. Having to get creative in order to circumvent limitations and other obstacles takes me away from my usual approach to a particular muscle issue and brings back the spark of why I got into this profession in the first place. It also makes me hungry for more education, which (lucky me) New York State is going to require in just a few short months to renew my license. I do my little happy dance post session, when I can see the effects of the work; a little less rounding of the shoulders, an arm fully flexing up to one’s ear, a little pain free spring in one’s step. It’s a great feeling.

In contrast to the model client, is the problem client. They come in many forms, sometimes seeking out massage on their own or having it forced on them by a health care professional or a loved one. They almost never feel comfortable with anything you may try out to address their issue(s), that is if they can pinpoint what it/they are in the first place. They don’t communicate their feelings easily or over communicate as in “choreograph” the entire massage session. On the one hand, I welcome clients being specific about where their trouble spots are and what they prefer me to do; however, one has to be a little reasonable. After all, there is a flow involved with a good massage and jumping back and forth between body parts, over flipping from supine to prone or over working a particular region or muscle kind of kills that vibe.

A funny thing happened a few weeks ago with one such problem client. After a handful of sessions where said client answered all my intake questions with shrugs and my inquiries on our work with a down-tempo “it’s ok” I had become a little more than frustrated. I was starting to gas out completely and couldn’t count down the minutes until our session ended. No longer client centered and feeling drained, I stopped focusing and sort of mindlessly moved about the tissues and musculature I was addressing. My zombie massage was, to me, the worst massage I could ever give a person. However, in this state, my problem client finally let go. In my daze, I heard a comment on how sore the front of their thighs were. At first, I thought the voice came from the inner recesses of my head…or the television blaring in the client’s family room. When it dawned on me that the client was actually communicating with me, I snapped out of my zombie mind and asked where they felt the soreness might have stemmed from (activities, diet, etc.) In three minutes, I received more feedback than in all the weeks I had been working with this individual. My crappy massage was this person’s saving grace. I know now to start off in a general way with said individual and allow them to lead me where they need. This problem turned out to be a model – a learning experience to challenge my approach to different personality types. Sometimes the egg can be cracked without too much force or effort. Take that, brain!!