Thursday, 16 February 2012

Plasticity in brains of middle age and older adults

Following on from our last post about brain neuroplasticity, this blog focuses on the ability of the brains of middle aged and older adults (ages 50 +) to change in response to environmental input.

This is particularly good news because of all individuals who were told their brain was fixed, none were given this message more so that people in this age group!

Initial evidence that brain training works!

The data came from the Iowa Healthy and Active Minds Study and investigated the efficacy of attention-based visual 'brain training' exercises. Brain training exercises are typically computer based programs which present activities that aim to restore or improve cognitive functioning in various areas, usually: attention, memory, communication and planning/organisation. They can be used as part of a program of cognitive remediation for people who have sustained brain damage, or to miminise cognitive decline that occurs naturally with age.

Participants in the experimental groups underwent brain training exercises with different levels of supervision and follow up. The training came in the form of a game that challenged participants to visually process multiple things on the screen at once. A control group underwent crossword puzzle training sessions. Progress was measured by assessing particiants' "useful field of view", what they are able to attend to out of the corner of their eye, which is known to shrink with age.

Initial findings showed improvements in the useful field of view and performance on other cognitive tests of the experimental groups compared to the control group. This distinction indicates that it is the content of the training itself that is having the effect, rather than general stimulation.

The findings add to what scientists are beginning to learn: brain training has the potential to strengthen neural connections in the brain and may help to keep people of all ages mentally sharp! There are a broad range of online options for brain training exercises for those of us trying to keep our brains active and 'plastic'.

If you have sustained a brain injury and are looking for a specific treatment program, please contact us to find out more about our cognitive remediation services.

And stay tuned for more information about neuroplasticity...

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

What do you mean my brain is plastic?

Plastic brain image It's strange but true, our brains are like plastic!

What this means is that our brains can be 'moulded'. As we learn, think, grow and gain new experiences our brains change and reorganise themselves. The fancy scientific term for this is "neuroplasticity".

While the neuroplasticity of children's brains has been well established, until fairly recently it was thought that adult's brains were fixed or hard-wired and unable to be moulded. Hence cliches like "you can't teach an old dog new tricks".

Well, luckily for anyone over the age of 18, it it turns out that you can!

The next series of blogs focuses on research and case studies that demonstrate that our brains have the ability to adapt to our environment and that we can keep on learning and improving throughout out lives. Another big thanks to ANTS-er Karen who is on top of all the fascinating neuro news!

Brain adapts when a limb is damaged

A fascinating study undertaken by Prof Lutz Jancke and colleagues at the University of Zurich in Switzerland has shown that when a limb is damaged and immobilised the thickness in the cerebral cortex (brain matter) associated with that part of the body reduces.

In a study that is the first of its kind, 10 right-handed people who had broken their dominant (right) arms had MRI brain scans within 48 hours of their accidents before their arms where placed in plaster/slings and again 16 days later while immobilised. The researchers also measured signals sent from brain to the right arm and the dexterity of their non-dominant left hand.

They found that the thickness of the motor cortex (brain cells that control movement) on the left side of the brain (which controls the right arm) decreased significantly in response to the arm's lack of use, and the signals from that part of the brain to the hand reduced. Whereas the dexterity of the left hand increased, as did the thickness of the part of the brain controlling movement in the left hand - in this case particularly the pre-motor cortex, which is involved in planning complex movements.

Dr Penelope McNulty of Neuroscience Research Australia said about the study:

"It just shows how dynamic the brain remodelling really can be. As far as I'm aware, this is one of the first studies to show that inactivity produces plasticity in the human brain."

This study has implications for the treatment of many conditions where there is loss of use of a part of the body, such as strokes.

It also reinforces that when it comes to the brain you need to use it or lose it!

We'd love to hear from you! Maybe you have a story about how your brain has changed, or maybe you'd like to know more about how to make the most of your exceptional brain. You can post a comment below or contact us here.