Brain Plasticity and Rehabilitation

Who Says You Cant Teach The Old Maestro A New Tune?

What changes in our brain as we get older and how do those changes affect our abilities to learn, develop new skills, and rehabilitate from injury?

In the last few years, Brain Plasticity has been the focus of a growing body of research with significant implications for Rehab clinicians.

During most of the 20th century, the consensus among neuroscientists was that brain structure was relatively set and unalterable after the early childhood years. However, this belief has been challenged by findings revealing that many aspects of the brain remain plastic – even into adulthood!

And this, needless to say, has HUGE implications for all of us immersed in the field of Rehabilitation.

Fast and furious, Neuroplasticity has replaced the formerly held position that the brain is a physiologically static organ, and explores how – and in which ways – the brain changes throughout life.

Neuroplasticity has been established to occur on a variety of levels, ranging from cellular changes due to learning, to large-scale changes involved in cortical remapping in response to injury and, passionate about rehabilitation as I am – I’m really into it.

There are a couple of books worth reading that do a great job explaining and clarifying how the latest research findings can impact our clinical practices. Among them, Sarah Raskin’s “Neuroplasticity and Rehabilitation”, a truly engaging compilation of current approaches to rehabilitation that speaks our “rehab language” and presents ways in which individuals may be helped not only to compensate for their loss of cognitive abilities, but also possibly to restore those abilities.

This is valuable information for rehab professionals at all levels of care because understanding how neuroplasticity informs our treatment choices, allows us to make cutting-edge and evidence-based clinical decisions and that, necessarily, reflect in better patient care and ultimately, in better outcomes.

For years, it fascinated me to learn how the rehab experts could assess the extent to which individuals could actually recover and resume previous functions.

Today’s leading edge research in brain plasticity goes beyond that and informs us as to how intact regions of the brain are recruited to take on tasks previously mediated by the damaged region, clearly establishing that the message of Neuroplasticity to the field of Rehabilitation is not only that our brains are more plastic than we ever suspected, but mainly, that we can now learn how to influence this plasticity, through informed treatment, to achieve truly significant rehabilitation outcomes.

No doubt Brain Plasticity will impact cutting edge patient care for years to come or, as Jill Winegardner, Lead Psychologist at the Oliver Zangwill Centre for Neuropsychological Rehabilitation in the UK proclaims, “The future of rehabilitation has now been linked inextricably to the growing field of neuroplasticity.”

We are definitely entering a new and very exciting era in Rehabilitation – and I find this momentous!

23. December 2014 by Ruth Folger Weiss
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