What Is Brain Plasticity, And How Can It Help My Child with a Brain Injury?

Brain plasticity, or neuroplasticity, is defined as the brain's ability to learn and change in response to the environment. From the Greek word “plastos,” meaning “molded,” it refers to the way the brain can modify its own structure and function following changes to the body. Brain plasticity theory is nothing new, but in the last couple of decades it has become a fundamental theme in neuroscience research. It is of utmost importance in relation to hope and direction for brain injury recovery.

Dr. Michael Merzenich and the Elastic Brain

Dr. Michael Merzenich, PhD, is Emeritus Professor at the Keck Center for Integrative Neurosciences at the University of California, San Francisco, co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Posit Science, which develops brain-training software and therapies, and Director/Founder of the Brain Plasticity Institute is a neuroscientist renowned for his research on brain plasticity.

During his TED talk titled Growing Evidence of Brain Plasticity (2004), Merzenich addressed the lifelong capacity for plasticity, for brain change. He reported you could look down in the brain of an animal engaged in a specific skill and witness or document change on a variety of levels. That realization represents reliable changes of hundreds of millions of synaptic connections in the brain. Merzenich further challenged, “Think about the changes that occur in the brain of a child through the course of acquiring their movement behavior abilities in general. Or acquiring their native language abilities. The changes are massive.”

The brain is still a mystery in many ways, but has been proven to be capable of miraculous things. One of Merzenich’s primary contentions is that change is dependent on things that are important to the brain. Most of the brain is controlled by the behavioral context, so changes in the brain—new learning and function—come from what stimuli the person pays attention to. Therefore, what the brain finds rewarding, positive, or and/or important, will more likely trigger rewiring. So the key here is to find things that excite the child and use them as tools to re-teach, and thus retrain, the brain.

How Does Merzenich’s Research Apply to My Child with a Brain Injury?

Merzenich’s research was not only used to understand how the typical person develops their skills and abilities, but also to “try to understand the origins of impairment, and the origins of differences or variations that might limit the capacities of a child.” He used the strategies to design a brain plasticity-based approach to “drive corrections in the machinery of a child that increases the competence of the child...” The healthy parts of a brain have been known to take over the functions and responsibilities of the compromised areas. Merzenich’s main interest was how to elaborate the science to address maladies such as autism and cerebral palsy, among other childhood catastrophes. His research supports that healthy parts of a child's brain can become high functioning when the compromised areas cannot support the child’s normal development.

Attention and Lasting Brain Change

Norman Doige, psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and author of The Brain that Changes Itself, postulates that “brains have the remarkable power to grow, change, overcome disabilities, learn, recover, and alter the very culture that has the potential to deeply affect human nature.” No longer do researchers and physicians believe that brain functions are localized and specialized; they now embrace the recognition of brain plasticity and the brain’s ability to change itself with exercise and understanding. Like Merzenich, Doige found that attention is essential to long-term plastic change. Doige writes, “I would add here that enthusiasm, often involving falling in love with a person, teacher, or game, is an important ingredient in paying close attention."

Rebuilding Connections

Parents should strive to engage and support all aspects of their child’s brain to continue a healthy and balanced development of the healthy areas of the brain and pattern the compromised areas. Dr. Celeste Campbell, neurophychologist, agrees that neuroplasticity is a definite factor in brain injury recovery. She says, “Part of rehabilitation is aimed at trying to rebuild connections among the nerve cells —or neurons. This ‘re-wiring’ of the brain can make it possible for a function previously managed by a damaged area to be taken over by another undamaged area. The connections among the cells are infinitely receptive to this type of change and expansion.”

The Kavli Foundation brought together three experts in brain plasticity and what emerged was a question/answer platform entitled “The Fantastic Plastic Brain.” Randy Nudo, PhD, Director of the Landon Center on Aging and Professor in the Department of Molecular and Integrative Physiology at the University of Kansas, said, “Brain injury amplifies the whole process of anatomical rewiring and alters the normal connection pattern. The injured brain is not simply a brain with a hole in it. It’s a completely rewired system... The proliferative growth of connections (synapses) between neurons and their pruning that we see in early brain development may be repeated after brain injury.”

Practicing Patience and Persistence to Maximize Function

Researchers have long debated the issue of early neuroplasticity (greater capacity of the brain to adjust to changes following injury) versus increased vulnerability following early traumatic brain injury. On a very encouraging note for those coping with very young children with brain injuries, the prevailing view, particularly following very early injury, has been that the rapid developmental change characterizing the pre-school period reflects unlimited neuroplasticity. There is so much hope in this finding!

Very rarely does the mapping/re-learning process happen at the same rate as initial learning. Sometimes, something that takes a healthy child ten repetitions to learn—to solidify a pattern in the brain—will take a child with a brain injury hundreds or even thousands of times for the mapping to stick, to where the child does something automatically. Neuroscience for Kids points out that following brain injury, plastic changes are focused on maximizing function in spite of the damaged brain.

At one time, the brain was thought to be a rather static organ, but it is now clear that the organization of brain circuitry is constantly changing as a function of experience. There is no question that brain injury changes every life it touches; however, the brain’s ability to reroute its functions, over time, is a game changer. As evidenced by neuroscience research, brain plasticity provides real hope for brain healing.