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A Closer Look at Neuroplasticity

By Wendy Williams, Thinking Coach, CONNECT

A few years ago I attended a seminar about neuroplasticty.  The main focus of the talk was about the "aging brain" but several references were made about TBI and ABI.  The presenter was Max Cynader, Director of the Brain Research Centre at UBC.  The concept of neuroplasticity has been around for a few years but is still relatively a new science topic.  In simple terms, neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to change and form new neuronal pathways or connections, a very important process as we age and heal from brain injury!  Dr. Cynader had the following recommendations:

  1. Choose good genes.  Even neuroscientists have a sense of humor!

Although we didn't choose the genes we have, it's important to understand that if you have a genetic predisposition to having, for example, alzheimers, there are a few things you can do to slow the disease process.  The following steps are instrumental for that process.

  1. Keep the brain engaged – cognitively and socially.

Puzzles are good but doing them with someone is better.  Learn something new but do it in a social setting such as a class room.  I love it when I pop in to Tim Horton's and see all the seniors visiting - Neurogenesis in the works! 

I know most of you have heard me talk about the great job we do at CONNECT to get the residents engaged in activities to enhance their cognitive abilities.  I believe that a person is far better off to be challenged at a riveting game of "connect 5" than spending alone time challenging the computer to a game of chess/scrabble/sudoku. If you really want to kick it up a notch – try playing a board game in a different house or going to a coffee shop in the community for a game of crib.  

  1. Get a good night's sleep.

We spend 1/3 of our time sleeping so make it count. Research shows that when we sleep we relive the day's events and deeply store the memories. The basis of cognitive rehabilitation is repetition so it's very important to sleep and, according to the research, have more rehearsal of the day. Sleep is the foundation of the slogan:  neurons that fire together = wire together. 

  1. Physical exercise.

Each day we make new neurons.  When we exercise we make three times more neurons.  As we age we don't make as many new neurons but we still make some.  Exercise actually changes the chemistry of the brain in a positive way.  What type of exercise and how much?  The best type of exercise is "resistance training", yes even better than doing cardiovascular weight training exercise.  Researchers are still trying to identify why resistance training is so valuable to neuroplasticity, they just know it works.   It's difficult to say for how long one should exercise as it depends on your age and physical abilities.  Dr. Cynader commented that when he gets asked for how long a person should exercise his answer is always "more". 

  1. Avoid stress. 

There has been a lot of research on stress and the effects it has on our body and brain.  Dr. Cynader didn't go into too much detail except to reinforce step #2, 3, 4, & 5! 

  1. Eat well.

Again, the research on this topic is overwhelming.  It really comes down to the equation of input = output.  Eat organic colorful food.  Enough said!

I don't believe there is anything in this short blog that is overly surprising. We all know we should eat better, exercise more and avoid stress. But maybe the reasons behind why we should do these things is what's new; better thinking as we age and/or recover from brain injury. 

For more information on this interesting topic, I encourage you to listen to a podcast with Max Cyndaer:  www.ubc.ca/2013/events/how-to-keep-our-brains-strong-and-healthy. I also highly recommend that you read the book "The Brain That Changes Itself" by Norman Doige. 

Wendy brings over 20 years experience working with people who have sustained brain injury.  Her speciality consists of looking at real life impact of cognitive impairments in the areas of memory, attention, planning, problem solving, impulsivity and other areas of executive functioning.  Wendy is a published author in the area of memory and her work is often cited in cognitive rehabilitation text books and journals.