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Neuroplasticity




Introduction

I am currently doing a sensory integration module and I have chosen to develop an article to help my learning. Neuroplasticity is a core concept which I will explore further during this article. I will summarise some of the key learning points to consolidate my knowledge. This feels highly relevant to my role, in relation to trauma and mental health.



The brain can change


Neuroplasticity refers to the ability of neurons and neural networks to alter and adapt behaviour as a consequence of new information, such as sensory messages, damage or dysfunction (Britannica Academic, 2022).


This can take place throughout the human lifespan, but is particularly prominent at key developmental milestones, such as early childhood or puberty (Erikson, 1982). Throughout the lifespan, synapses strengthen or weaken neural connections and we are able to update our knowledge and adapt our behaviour in context to the environment. There are many different theories of development, including the nature vs nurture debate (Bundy et al., 2020). However...



Recent literature suggests that gene expression is based upon the specific environment within which one lives, which ultimately influences brain function and behaviour (Nelson et al, 2006).


Research suggests that we maintain the neuronal connections and pathways that are most useful to us - and lose those that are less helpful. If someone experiences early adversity, their cortisol levels increase and act as a way to self-protect. Instinctive ways of behaving, such as fight or flight reactions, are formed in the amygdala and hypothalamus (Gerhardt, 2011). This results in the strengthening of neuronal pathways and synapse connections in these areas. Consequently, young children who live in an environment with angry or aggressive people will keep pathways that help them become alert to anger and danger (Gerhardt, 2011).




This function also serves to impede the development in other areas of the brain, that relate to social, emotional, sensory and cognitive connections (Ward, 2017). Even when the threat has reduced, a child can maintain higher levels of stress/cortisol into later years, which impacts the parasympathetic system and immune functioning (e.g. rest and digest). It can also impede social and emotional learning, as the brain is preoccupied with managing stress.



Scientific research highlights the key role of the social brain in controlling our emotions and determining behaviour.


Neural pathways are formed as a result of environmental factors and situational experiences (Barker et al., 2018). The brain develops in response to social experiences and learned behaviour, a good example being emotional control. It is the primary caregiver who provides initial experiences of emotions being managed, before the baby can learn to self-soothe and manage her own feelings well (Gerhardt, 2014).




 

My Practice


I have always been interested in the impact of the environment on early development, due to my role in mental health. However, I had not realised the relevance to neuroplasticity. It has been helpful to review the evidence, to better support my practice. I was interested in some of the benefits of calorie restriction and intermittent fasting, due to a reduction in inflammation and oxidative damage (Zhu et al., 2012). From a neuroscience perspective, reducing calorie intake seems to improve synaptic resilience to damage and modify the number, architecture and performance of synapses. There were also noted improvements in sleep (Fusco and Pani, 2013) and verbal memory (Witte et al., 2009). This challenges our current perceptions on the importance of promoting regular meals. However, the authors did recognise that calorie restriction remains poorly understood, recommending more research before making conclusions.


I was also interested in the value of promoting 'newness' and challenge, due to the benefits of environmental stimulation on cognitive function. A study found that music enhanced activation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, to support retrieval of information and memory functioning (Ferreri et al., 2013).





I think that the value of occupation on memory is rarely promoted in my area of practice (mental health), although perhaps more so in others (e.g. stroke or rehabilitation).

We tend to promote diet, music and learning opportunities, but it is helpful to see the evidence here to support that. This research provides good evidence to support the role of neuroplasticity in everyday practice.




Summary of importance


This learning has helped developed my knowledge beyond a superficial level. The latest research explores the use of neuroplasticity and for promoting lifestyle changes (diet, sleep, relationships, exercise, etc) and improving general health, even in the later years. It is through enriching environments (e.g. learning opportunities), that neuroplasticity can occur.





 

References


  • Barker, Roger A., et al. (2018) Neuroanatomy and Neuroscience at a Glance. John Wiley and Sons.

  • Britannica Academic (2022) 'Neuroplasticity'. Britannica Academic, Encyclopaedia Britannica. 3 September 2020. academic-eb-com.hallam.idm.oclc.org/levels/collegiate/article/neuroplasticity/442801. Accessed 3 February 2022.

  • Bundy, Anita C., et al. (2020) Sensory Integration: Theory and Practice. F. A. Davis.

  • Erikson, E. H. (1982) The life cycle completed. New York, NY: WW Norton.

  • Ferrarelli F., Smith R., Dentico D., Riedner B.A., Zennig C., Benca R.M., et al. (2013). Experienced mindfulness meditators exhibit higher parietal-occipital EEG gamma activity during NREM sleep. PLoS ONE

  • Fusco S. and Pani P. (2013) Brain response to calorie restriction. Cell. Mol. Life Sci. 70 3157–3170

  • Gerhardt, S. (2011) Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain. Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist and Author of ‘Why Love Matters’ and ‘The Selfish Society’. https://files.cdn.thinkific.com/file_uploads/472793/attachments/366/abf/b8e/QOC10Gerhard.pdf. Accessed 3 February 2022.

  • Gerhardt, S., 2014. Why love matters: How affection shapes a baby's brain. Routledge

  • Nelson, C., Johnson, M., Thomas, K. and de Hann, M. (2006) Brain development and neural plasticity. In Nelson, C., de Hann, M. and Thomas, K. (Eds.), Neuroscience of cognitive development. New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons Inc.

  • Ward, J. (2017) The Student's Guide to Social Neuroscience. Psychology Press.

  • Shaffer, J. (2016) Neuroplasticity and Clinical Practice: Building Brain Power for Health. Front Psychology. 7: 1118. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4960264/. Accessed 14 September 2022.

  • Zhu B., Dong Y., Xu Z., Gompf, H.S., Ward S.A., Xue Z., et al. (2012). Sleep disturbance induces neuroinflammation and impairment of learning and memory. Neurobiology. Dis. 48 348–355.

4 Kommentare


Brilliant article. Thank you for sharing.

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Monique Singleton
Monique Singleton
17. Okt. 2022

I have shared this interesting article, thank you.

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Great article I remember and still do practice brain re wiring after my stroke

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Really good article. Thank you!

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