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: