Wednesday, June 13th, 2018
The plasticity of a cell refers to its ability to change. Every time you make a movement (or your brain thinks you are), the brain is building connections. In the case of a stroke survivor, parts of the brain may have experienced damage and thus new connections are being formed. When a person loses the ability to move part of the body due to damage, those areas must be repopulated with healthy connecting neurons to regain full movement. The brain repurposes cells that control other parts and trains them to be used for new tasks. In the case of stroke survivors, neuroplasticity can be harnessed to their advantage in rehabilitation. Approaches like mirror therapy and visualization use neuroscientific principles to rehabilitate areas of the brain so survivors can regain control of their thinking and independent ability to complete daily tasks.
Mirror therapy is a therapeutic approach that uses a mirror box to regenerate neural networks that control limbs and other parts of the body. Developed by Vilayanur S. Ramachandran at University of California San Diego to address phantom limb pain, a mirror box utilizes mirrors to give the impression to the user’s brain that they are moving an affected limb. In mirror therapy, a patient performs exercises with an unaffected limb but because of the reflective surfaces inside the box, it appears as though the affected limb is being exercised. A 2016 study supports the use of mirror therapy to encourage motor recovery in poststroke hemiparesis. The theory behind mirror therapy is that positive visual feedback will encourage neuroplastic change, leading to a more swift recovery for survivors. A mirror box can be purchased, or made for those with a preference for DIY.
Another rehabilitation technique that is based on similar science is visualization. An article in the Stroke journal states that mentally rehearsing or visualizing a task can have effects similar to performing the task. Another study concluded that visualization “performed in conjunction with physical practice is more effective than physical practice alone or conventional rehabilitation alone”. Visualization has its most powerful effects when the visualized scenario is rich with sensory details: smells, feelings, sights. If a survivor has an affected walk after their stroke, for example, they can vividly imagine strolling through a park while they do their rehabilitative exercises.
Stroke survivors know that the journey to full recovery can be a long one. It is important to remember that repetition is key. In grade school, when learning fundamentals like multiplication tables, children do many repetitive drills. This is a form of memorization training. Training the brain to relearn tasks follows a similar process. A way to think of the science behind repetitive practice is like growing a garden. Seeds are planted and require watering on a regular basis. As time goes on, the seeds grow into seedlings and continue to be watered so they grow and flourish. The brain is similar but, instead of water, it needs constant reminders of how to do things. For stroke survivors, the brain needs to constantly be reminded how to move a part of the body. With every reminder, connections are reinforced and the ability to successfully complete the action becomes more certain.
Consistent and repetitive practice encourages neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to regenerate and reestablish connections. This ability is critical to the brain repairing itself after injury or trauma. The general goal of rehabilitation programs is to relearn skills and regain independence after an adverse event. The sooner a stroke survivor is able to start and keep to a rehabilitation program, the better. The longer the brain sits dormant before beginning rehabilitation or the longer a patient waits between rehabilitation sessions, the longer it will take for the brain to establish the necessary connections to drive body parts. The sooner after a stroke event a survivor begins mirror therapy or visualization, the quicker they are able to begin reaping the benefits.
The human brain is a powerful muscle that can recover from significant trauma, if tended to properly. A thorough and personalized rehabilitation program, coupled with exercises and therapies, can help rebuild lost function. The journey to a full recovery may be long but, with the right tools and techniques, the future can be bright. Here at Saebo, we are committed to stroke support and recovery for all survivors and their families. Saebo offers a wide range of products that combine cutting-edge technology with evidence-based rehabilitation techniques like the facilitation of neuroplasticity. Our offerings and network of Saebo-trained therapists can help you or a loved one in the journey to full rehabilitation.
All content provided on this blog is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. If you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor or 911 immediately. Reliance on any information provided by the Saebo website is solely at your own risk.