Thursday, 7 March 2013

What is Brain Plasticity?

Brain plasticity, also known as neuroplasticity, is a term that refers to the brain's ability to change and adapt as a result of experience.  In the case of brain injured children on the Snowdrop programme, that experience comes through the repetition of the developmental activities within the child's programme. 

Up until the 1960s, researchers believed that changes in the brain could only take place during infancy and childhood. By early adulthood, it was believed that the brain's physical structure was permanent. Modern research has demonstrated that the brain continues to create new neural pathways and alter existing ones in order to adapt to new experiences, learn new information and create new memories.

Psychologist William James suggested that the brain was perhaps not as unchanging as previously believed way back in 1890. In his book The Principles of Psychology, he wrote, "Organic matter, especially nervous tissue, seems endowed with a very extraordinary degree of plasticity." However, this idea went largely ignored for many years.  It is still not accepted and largely ignored by the medical community in the UK who adopt an attitude of "once a brain is injured, there is nothing which can be done," - consigning children to the 'scrapheap' of life whilst refusing to accept the evidence of plasticity and what that could mean for the child and his / her family in terms of recovery of function.  This is where the Snowdrop programme comes in, - stimulating plasticity and consequently directing the child down the correct developmental pathway. 

In the 1920s, researcher Karl Lashley provided evidence of changes in the neural pathways of rhesus monkeys. By the 1960s, researchers began to explore cases in which older adults who had suffered massive strokes were able to regain functioning, demonstrating that the brain was much more malleable than previously believed. Modern researchers have also found evidence that the brain is able to rewire itself following damage.

How Does Brain Plasticity Work?

The human brain is composed of approximately 100 billion neurons. Early researchers believed that neurogenesis, or the creation of new neurons, stopped shortly after birth. Today, it is understood that the brain possesses the remarkable capacity to reorganize pathways, create new connections and, in some cases, even create new neurons in structures such as the hippocampus.

The first few years of a child's life are a time of rapid brain growth. At birth, every neuron in the cerebral cortex has an estimated 2,500 synapses; by age of three, this number has grown to 10,000 synapses per neuron.

The average adult, however, has about half that number of synapses. Why? Because as we gain new experiences, some connections are strengthened while others are eliminated. This process is known as synaptic pruning. Neurons that are used frequently develop stronger connections and those that are rarely or never used eventually die. - 'Used frequently,' that is a key term - This is why the repetitive nature of the programme is important, so that synaptic connections associated with the developmental functions we are trying to stimulate are strengthened.  By developing new connections and pruning away weak ones in this way, the brain is able to adapt to the changing environment, - in the case of our children, the developmental environment provided by the programme.

Anyone wanting to learn more about the Snowdrop programme should email