BRAIN PLASTICITY/ NEUROPLASTICITY
-Triveni Goswami Vernal
(Registered Special Educator, CRR No. A64010)
Brain plasticity, also known as neuroplasticity, refers to the brain’s ability to change and adapt as a result of experience. It can also be referred to as brain malleability. According to the website http://www.sciencedirect.com, Neuroplasticity is a continuous process allowing short term, medium term and long-term remodelling of the neurosynaptic organization, with the aim of optimizing the functioning of neural networks. Scientists believe that exercise as well as cognitive stimulation increases neurogenesis (formation of new nerve cells), which in turn enhances neuroplasticity (Brain Facts: A Primer on the Brain and Nervous System, 2018, pg.58).
“NEURONS THAT FIRE TOGETHER WIRE TOGETHER”
The neuropsychologist Donald Hebb first used the phrase, Neurons That Fire Together Wire Together in 1949 to describe how pathways in the brain are formed and reinforced, through repetition. When a particular action is repeatedly performed, the neural pathway for that action/skill is strengthened. In other words, the more the brain performs a certain task, the stronger that neural network becomes, which subsequently makes the process more efficient for successive trials.
According to the article “Hebbian Theory” (taken from the website https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hebbian_theory ), “Hebbian theory is a neuroscientific theory claiming that an increase in synaptic efficacy arises from a presynaptic cell’s repeated and persistent stimulation of a postsynaptic cell. It is an attempt to explain synaptic plasticity, the adaptation of brain neurons during the learning process.”
For example, if we see a new animal in the zoo, we can come back home and look it up on the internet/ read some books on it. We can look at photos of the animal, read about it and also look up videos of its particular call/ sound it makes. With new information, new connections will be made among specific neurons. Neurons in the visual cortex will determine its colour, the auditory cortex will identify its particular call, as well as the name of the animal. When its attributes are repeated many times over, neural pathways pertaining to that information, will be strengthened. Subsequently, the efficiency of the synaptic transmission will be enhanced. This will help us identify the animal based on its characteristics. It is widely believed that synaptic plasticity is the foundation for the brain’s malleability.
The effects of neuroplasticity can also be widely seen in patients who have suffered from life altering conditions such as stroke. When areas of the brain undergo damage, resulting in the loss of movement in a limb/s, repeated work on that part of the body might help in the partial, if not full, recovery of the limb’s function. For example, occupational therapy can help a stroke patient with limited movement of their arms (post stroke) to wear a shirt or fine motor skills such as holding a fork /spoon to feed themselves.
“IF YOU DON’T USE IT, YOU LOSE IT”
If neural circuits are not actively engaged in the performance of a task, for an extended period of time, it may begin to degrade or deteriorate. In the 1960s, Hubel and Wiesel, first demonstrated this through their visual discrimination experiments. In their experiments, they found that depriving a kitten’s eye of light reduced the number of neurons in the visual cortex that responded to light (Hubel&Wiesel,1965).
For example, before the advent of the popularity of cell phones, most households depended on a landline phone. Each house had a gigantic copy of a telephone directory to look through the names and phone numbers by locality in a given area in the city. Other than the directory, one had to depend upon one’s memory to retrieve information regarding phone numbers. But with the use of cell phones, people have almost lost their ability to memorize numbers. This shows how not engaging the neural pathways to recall phone numbers from memory for an extended period of time, has weakened the neural circuits, thereby affecting our ability to memorize phone numbers and recall them at will.
It is in this context that the significance of Brain Gym has emerged. It is now believed that one can improve the neuroplasticity of the brain by exercising it. Cognitive stimulation in the form of doing puzzles, Sudoku, reading books, acquiring a new skill, picking up a new hobby, can help in creating new neural connections and re-wiring the brain.
SIGNIFICANCE FOR REMEDIAL INSTRUCTORS
Neuroplasticity has significant implications for learning and thus, plays an important role for Remedial Instructors. The dynamic nature of the brain and its malleability lends itself to bringing about modifications, changes and adaptations in its internal wiring /neural networks, thus paving the way for the acquisition of new information, knowledge and skills.
In the article, Principles of Experience-Dependent Neural Plasticity: Implications for Rehabilitation After Brain Damage (Klein et al., Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research , Vol. 51 , S225–S239 , February 2008) , the authors have provided ten principles of experience based plasticity—
1. Use It or Lose It: Failure to drive specific brain functions can lead to functional degradation.
2. Use It and Improve It: Training that drives a specific brain function can lead to an enhancement of that function.
3. Specificity: The nature of the training experience dictates the nature of the plasticity.
4. Repetition Matters: Induction of plasticity requires sufficient repetition.
5. Intensity Matters: Induction of plasticity requires sufficient training intensity.
6. Time Matters: Different forms of plasticity occur at different times during training.
7. Salience Matters: The training experience must be sufficiently salient to induce plasticity.
8. Age Matters: Training-induced plasticity occurs more readily in younger brains.
9. Transference: Plasticity in response to one training experience can enhance the acquisition of similar behaviours.
10. Interference Plasticity in response to one experience can interfere with the acquisition of other behaviours.
In the article, Neuroplasticity and Young Children with Autism: A Tutorial (Losardo A, McCullough KC, Lakey ER 2016). Anat Physiol 6: 209), the authors quoting Kleim and Jones state the following, “Learning is the by-product of neuroplasticity. Said another way, neuroplasticity is experience dependent, and behavioural training is key to promoting brain reorganization. The brain needs training to maximize its potential for appropriate functional reorganization.”
Neuroplasticity can contribute towards changes in learning and acquisition of new information within the framework of remedial training. Intervention techniques that are focused on developing basic fine motor or gross motor skills, cognitive skills as well as memory and processing skills often rely on the plasticity of the brain to re-wire itself by creating opportunities for repeated performance of a task related to the targeted skill.
The website of the Dyslexia Association of India (https://www.dyslexiaindia.org.in/trai.html) throws light on this issue by stating the following, “..with regular intervention and cognitive practice the receiving neurons get activated or reinforced and strengthened as they are used. The activation and reinforcement process that happens when neurons fire together to create new routes for signal transmission is generally thought to be one of the principal ways in the plastic brain reorganizes itself.”
For example, when my son was diagnosed with Regressive Autism around 2.5 years of age, he had lost all skills –verbal and social communication, and was taken to a special educator, one of the first skills that was worked on, was imitation (both fine motor and gross motor). The skill of imitation, that most of us take for granted, is the bedrock of all forms of subsequent learning. The imitation skill was taught through various activities, repeated frequently. Over time, he began to acquire the skill of imitation and could demonstrate it, when given the specific instruction. Also, more importantly, across time and situations he could generalize what he had learned. For example, he could use the skill of imitation to learn new actions (wiping the mouth with a napkin after food) or sounds he had heard in a song /rhyme. This shows that neural pathways pertaining to this skill, were laid down and strengthened over time, with the repeated performance of the task related to the skill.
During the Parent Child Training Program (PCTP) at Action for Autism (New Delhi), for three months, they worked intensively on sign language and communication. He was taught simple signs for water and food and toys he liked. The frequent and repeated performance of the task, helped him form an association between the sign as a mode of communication and his need (eg., jam). For example, they asked us to keep a small bottle of his favourite food, in his line of vision but out of his reach. At a given time, the bottle would have no more than 2-3 spoons of jam. So, the child was encouraged to request for jam (by signing), and a little bit of jam was given to him. This was repeated constantly till the amount of jam was completely exhausted (that is why the portion of jam was kept small). This kind of requesting sessions were done several times in a day, till the child realized that signing could help him communicate his need for a particular item. Speech was very limited then, just a few sounds of animals.
After the PCTP, he underwent Speech Therapy in Hyderabad with a Speech Language Pathologist. His therapy also included The Listening Program (TLP), that is known to lay down new neural pathways, and his vocabulary dramatically improved after that. He could blend sounds, his pronunciation improved for many words. He could say one phrase (along with sign language) – “I want xyz.”
The progress in his ability to communicate has been slow but steady over the years. He can now read books, type independently, and communicate via echolalic phrases. I think it is extremely important to explore new ways of working with the child—work on their executive functioning, various perceptual processes (especially auditory and visual), do a lot of activities with the child, explore art, music, play and crafts with them.
Neuroplasticity is at the heart of Remediation Training. When an individual comes for any form of remediation (could be cognitive skills, fine motor skills or processing skills etc), the plasticity of the brain shapes the ability of the individual to acquire new information and skills, thereby bringing about marked changes in their lives. Frequent, repetition of tasks related to a particular skill in remediation, can do wonders in the acquisition of that skill.
I truly believe that it is neuroplasticity that has helped Kabir, to acquire new skills and bring about changes in the quality of his life!
**Apart from being a Registered Special Educator (under Rehabilitation Council of India), the author is also Certified in Dyslexia Teacher Training. An earlier version of this paper was written as part of an assignment for the certification for Dyslexia Teacher Training at Ripples Centre for Enhanced Learning, 2019.
Author Triveni Goswami Vernal
Triveni Goswami Vernal is an Autism advocate, registered Special Educator (CRR A64010) and an Independent Researcher. Her areas of interest include Autism, Disability Rights, Gender, Art and Northeast studies. She is a mum to an 11 year old on the Autism Spectrum.
Creative representation for this blog is done by our extremely talented CreativeSaathi associate Kabir Vernal