What Is Neuroplasticity?
Years ago, a traumatic injury or neurological event, such as a stroke, brain injury or spinal cord injury that caused loss of function may have been considered a permanent condition. In fact, many patients with paralysis were told they would “never walk again.” Today, neuroplasticity challenges that once foregone conclusion by suggesting that the brain has the ability to “rewire” itself, which can lead to functional return.
What Is Neuroplasticity?
Neuroplasticity is the capacity for the continuous alteration of the neural pathways and synapses of the central nervous system (CNS) in response to injury or repetitive experience. The CNS may respond to a stimulus, such as physical rehabilitation, by reorganizing its structure, function and/or neural connections. New neural connections may form in order to compensate for injury or loss of function or in response to one’s environment.
Is Neuroplasticity a New Theory? Why Now?
Mounting evidence that the brain and spinal cord are “plastic” and capable of recovery has spurred the development of numerous rehabilitation strategies and technologies for patients who have paralysis or other functional deficits, including vision loss, due to traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury, stroke or other neurological illness.
To take full advantage of neuroplasticity, rehabilitation strategies must be:
- Task specific
- Meaningful and challenging
- Repetitive and intensive
- Offered in a managed environment under the watchful eye of a highly specialized therapist
- Performed in a relatively normal biomechanical position and manner
How Do Rehabilitation Technologies Trigger Neuroplasticity?
Robotic devices deliver exercises in a consistent and repetitive fashion. A physical therapist cannot manually repeat an exact motion with a patient hundreds of times without tiring, but rehabilitation technology can.
Clinicians at Good Shepherd Neurorehabilitaiton use several leading rehabilitative devices to trigger neuroplasticity, including Ekso Bionics’ exoskeleton. The Ekso is a wearable robotic exoskeleton that allows individuals with lower body weakness or paralysis to stand up and walk with a natural gait. As the user's weight shifts, sensors are activated in the device, which initiate steps. Battery-powered motors drive the legs, replacing deficient neuromuscular function.
Because the Ekso challenges balance, the user is better able to understand where his or her body is in space, move in more normal patterns and consume less energy. Patients who have used the Ekso at Good Shepherd have improved ability to sit and stand, increase steps and slowly alter their assisted walking environment from a managed therapy gym to hallways, ramps and outdoor spaces. Many users have shed the robotic device and are walking using their own manpower.
Neuroplasticity is a life-changing concept. Where once there was a permanent injury or physical deficit, now there is hope and the potential for recovery.