NEUROPLASTICITY WHAT IS IT? AND HOW CAN WE USE IT IN DEMENTIA TREATMENT?
I recently watched an excellent TED talk by Dr Lara Boyd on neuroplasticity within Stroke rehabilitation and what struck me was the similarities between dementia and stroke rehabilitation. Although, before someone calls me out, I am aware that dementia is degenerative (with no cure) and Stroke rehabilitation is regenerative with the aim to improve brain function ,but that said I strongly believe that dementia treatment should, like stroke, have it’s foundations in neuroplasticity.
What is Neuroplasticity?
This is a fancy way of saying ‘Plastic Brains’ and an explanation can quickly become complex. However, modern science today recognises that all human brains are made up of billions of networks of neural pathways – connections. These networks of neurons are constantly changing, sometimes being removed if under used, and often being added to, to create new connections and learn new skills. This adaptive quality of our brain is called neuronal plasticity, allowing our brains to take in new information and to utilise our current experiences as efficiently as possible. If our brains get damaged we have the ability to form new pathways and potentially maintain functions and memories. I am going to leave the explanation at that simple definition but if you are interested there is a huge amount of research into neuroplasticity and how our brains can adapt and recover (I have added below a link to a quick video if helpful).
How can we use this amazing healing power with dementia?
Dementia is an umbrella term for multiple different types of neurodegenerative diseases that include Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia. However, all types of dementia cause damage to the neural pathways that I mentioned above, and eventually can damage large parts of our brain causing loss of memory, loss of function and the lost ability to manage complex tasks. However, what research has shown is that the progression of the disease is not the same for all individuals and that if you can work to maintain brain stimulation, be encouraged and supported to form new connections, to repeat (called memory stamping) actions and stimuli then despite the dementia your brain will continue to show neuronal plasticity, and continue to form new connections. This neuroplasticity lies at the heart of the theory that backs up cognitive stimulation therapy, reminiscence therapy, creative therapy and many other stimulating therapeutic actions.
The good news is that this isn’t school. For those living with dementia there is no expectation they should be spending hours learning a new language or practicing maths to improve their brains and achieve neuroplasticity. We are social animals designed to learn from each other and our brain function improves the more we interact and connect. Cognitive stimulation therapy takes into account social learning/connection, memory stamping (repetition and routine), and concentrating on a specific part of your brain like language, facial recognition, numbers, complex tasks and makes it fun. Behind the scenes a good facilitator is utilising CST to strengthen neural pathways and maintain brain function.
Although the opposite is also true. For those families and individuals who get a diagnosis of dementia and become more isolated, spend more time alone or in a couple with only the TV for stimulation the faster the deterioration and the less neuroplasticity occurs. There is no fix for dementia, there is no pill that can cure the disease but equally we should not ignore the amazing piece of equipment that sits between our ears. A diagnosis should immediately be followed by a prescription for cognitive stimulation and encouragement by doctors and nurses to seek out and find stimulating, fun groups that can encourage new brain pathways and allow neuroplasticity maintain our current function.
That is what we do at The Ness, we work with individuals and families to improve a persons neuroplasticity and maintain their memories and brain function. This treatment can and does slow the disease progression!