I keep reading about neuroplasticity in the news. What is it exactly, and how does it help those of us recovering from a brain injury?
Neuroplasticity is the brain's amazing capacity to change and adapt. It refers to the physiological changes in the brain that happen as the result of our interactions with our environment. From the time the brain begins to develop in utero until the day we die, the connections among the cells in our brains reorganize in response to our changing needs. This dynamic process allows us to learn from and adapt to different experiences.
Neuroplasticity is definitely a factor in recovery from brain injury. In fact, it is the basis for much of our cognitive and physical rehabilitation practices. Part of rehabilitation is aimed at trying to rebuild connections among the nerve cells — or neurons. This "re-wiring" of the brain can make it possible for a function previously managed by a damaged area to be taken over by another undamaged area. The connections among the cells are infinitely receptive to this type of change and expansion.
In addition, we are now learning more about neurogenesis — the actual generation of new brain cells. Recent research has demonstrated that neurogenesis does indeed continue into and throughout adult life, although only in specific areas of the brain. Researchers are exploring ways to identify those areas of the brain where new cells are developing, to discover how to promote or inhibit neurogenesis, and to learn how new neurons may become part of the working brain. The hope is that this information will ultimately help people better recover from brain injury.
Dr. Celeste Campbell is a neuropsychologist in the Polytrauma Program at the Washington, DC Veterans Administration Medical Center. She has a long history of providing cognitive psychotherapy and developing residential behavioral management programs for children and adults.