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10 Principles of Neuroplasticity

If you’re familiar with functional neurology, a term that you’ve probably heard before is neuroplasticity. Up until relatively recently, it was the general consensus among the scientific community that our brains couldn’t change once we reached adulthood. After all, they do say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks… or can you? 

As we develop, the functional cells of our nervous system, known as neurons, branch and form connections to other neurons. These specific connections between neurons create what are known as pathways within the brain and nervous system, and each thought, sensation, movement, and skill that we have is associated with one or more of these specific pathways. 

While our brains are most malleable and adaptable when we are in our childhood developmental years, we now know that we continue to develop new neural connections within our brain and nervous system throughout our entire lives! 

Once we understand how the brain changes and responds to treatment, we can utilize its incredible resilience and adaptability to maximize your recovery and promote positive changes in the function of your nervous system.

According to researchers Kleim and Jones, there are 10 principles that we must consider when it comes to neuroplasticity: 

  1. Use It or Lose It: Your brain is all about efficiency and does not like wasting energy on maintaining unnecessary cells or pathways. If you do not practice a task or skill for a prolonged duration, the pathways associated with that task will begin to weaken and that skill will become more difficult to perform. 

  2. Use It and Improve It: Conversely, the more you practice something the more these neural connections will grow, the associated pathways will become stronger and more efficient, and the skills/actions will become easier!

  3. Specificity Matters: In order to be specific in the pathways that you are working to strengthen, you need to be very specific in the activities that you are performing. This includes how you are performing them. 

  4. Repetition Matters: They say “repetition is the mother of all learning.” This is because your brain relies on repetition in order to build stronger connections; it is these reinforced neural connections that ultimately lead to long-term changes. 

  5. Intensity Matters: Just like your muscles, these pathways won’t strengthen unless you challenge them! Intensity can be in the form of how difficult the activity is, how often you perform it, or both. You should be doing the most difficult activity that you are able to perform with perfect form to ensure appropriate intensity. 

  6. Time Matters: Rome wasn't built in a day” is a common phrase that conveys the idea that significant achievements or processes often require time and patience to complete; changing the brain is no different. Some skills may take longer than others to develop and strengthen, and that’s okay!

  7. Salience Matters: It is much easier for you to change your brain when the skill you’re practicing has relevance or importance to you. This is why having specific goals and incorporating your hobbies and interests into your treatment is so important for optimal outcomes. 

  8. Age Matters (But Not As Much As You Think!): Younger brains tend to change faster than older brains, but your brain is still capable of changing no matter what age you are. We often see that age has a less profound effect on individuals who are more physically and mentally active.

  9. Transference: Practicing one skill can improve other related skills. Similarly, working to improve the integrity of the neural pathways in one area of the nervous system can result in improvement of the other functions that area is responsible for as well. 

  10. Interference: There is such a thing as “Bad” neuroplasticity - just as our brains can undergo positive change with enough time and repetition, bad habits can lead to negative changes as well. These negative (or maladaptive) neuroplastic changes can interfere with the positive changes we are trying to make if we do not address them. 

At CFNC, we bear all of these principles in mind when we are developing care plans for all of our patients with their unique conditions and circumstances. The brain is incredibly resilient and can adapt and change even after injury or insult. With all that being said, I guess you could say we have found that with the right tools and strategies you most certainly can teach an old dog new tricks!

Source: Kleim JA, Jones TA. Principles of experience-dependent neural plasticity: implications for rehabilitation after brain damage. J Speech Lang Hear Res. 2008 Feb;51(1):S225-39. doi: 10.1044/1092-4388(2008/018). PMID: 18230848.


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