«Nerve cells do not regenerate.» We have heard this expression many times and are used to believing it. Even in the late 20th century, scientists believed that the human brain was static. It was believed that there are a limited number of brain cells that die with age and do not recover. And since the functions of the brain are strictly localized, this means the following: if any part of the brain is damaged, its functions will be irretrievably lost. Victoria Stepanenko, Founder of Neuro Implant Clinic CMN, talks about the amazing properties of neuroplasticity and cases of unexpected recovery.
In 1913, the Spanish physician Santiago Ramón y Cajal argued that the nerve pathways in the brain centers of an adult are something fixed, finite, immutable. But now this information is considered outdated. As it turned out, our brain is flexible. This is a wonderful tool that can do real miracles. Interestingly, the first doubts about the «static» nature of the brain arose in the 19th century.
Norman Doidge, in his book The Plasticity of the Brain, describes the research that the French neuroscientist Jules Cotard conducted in 1868. He examined children with a disorder in which the left hemisphere of the brain is damaged, including Broca’s area. Broca’s zone is responsible for regulating the motor side of the speech process. If the brain were static, children with this disease would have severe speech problems. However, during the examination, the neurologist found that his young patients could speak normally.
«Although speech is actually processed in the left hemisphere, the brain has enough plasticity to regenerate itself if necessary,» writes Norman Doidge. This ability of the brain to regenerate itself is called neuroplasticity.
What is neuroplasticity and how is it manifested?
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to adapt when a person interacts with the outside world. Its essence lies in the fact that if a certain part of the nerve cells dies, the remaining neurons take over their functions and form new connections. As a result, lost connections are compensated.
Thanks to neuroplasticity, people recover from serious illnesses and complex surgeries. For example, in 2010, the medical community was shocked by the story of a 9-year-old girl, Cameron Mott. She suffered from a rare inflammatory brain disease and doctors had to remove her right hemisphere. However, they believed that Cameron would be completely paralyzed. However, a few weeks after the operation, she was released from the hospital and after a course of physical therapy she was able to move, run and jump. The functions of the right hemisphere were assumed by the left hemisphere.
The founder of neuroplasticity is the American neurophysiologist Paul Bach-y-Rita. He managed to rehabilitate his own father, whose face and one side of his body were completely paralyzed after a massive stroke. Doctors believed that Paul’s father would spend the rest of his life bedridden and would never be able to speak. However, through long studies and training, Paul ensured that his father not only made a full recovery, but also returned to teaching and was able to travel. After a stroke, Paul’s father lived another 7 years and died in the mountains of a heart attack. His autopsy revealed catastrophic brain damage: 97% of the nerves running from the brain to the spine were destroyed. It seemed incredible that this man could lead such an active life after a stroke.
Naturally, changes in the brain that can improve the condition of patients do not occur quickly and require prolonged training. So, Paul’s father first trained in bed for a long time, then he learned to crawl, and then he was able to walk. Therefore, it is very important not to expect quick results, but to continue exercising and move steadily towards the goal.
Brain plasticity and neurodegenerative diseases
Let’s consider how neuroplasticity manifests itself using examples from neurodegenerative diseases. With such disorders, neuronal death occurs, leading to degeneration of nerve tissue. The most common neurodegenerative diseases are Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Due to the plasticity of the brain, the symptoms of some neurodegenerative diseases sometimes appear at a later stage. Thus, the disease can develop for 20-30 years, but thanks to the compensatory abilities of the brain, a person feels healthy and leads an active lifestyle. Consequently, the ability of the brain to recover from one or another damage can be used in the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases.
For example, it is known that in patients with Parkinson’s disease, neurons that produce dopamine are destroyed. In this case, the dopamine production function is assumed by other neurons.
There are special trainings that can improve the condition of patients with Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease.
So if you suffer from any of these neurodegenerative diseases there is no reason to fall into despair. In our center we have seen the recovery of many patients and a return to the quality of life of our patients.
Call us for more information.