Historically, scientists have stipulated that once a person reaches adulthood, their cognitive abilities become immutable. However, commencing in the early twentieth century, there is growing research to suggest that the brain’s abilities are in fact malleable and plastic. The saying "you can't teach an old dog new tricks" has now been disproved and we most likely should replace it with "use it or lose it!"
The brain is constantly changing in response to various experiences and stimuli by remodelling and strengthening of the neural pathways. New behaviours, new teachings, and even environmental changes or physical injuries may all stimulate the brain to create new neural pathways or reorganise existing ones, fundamentally altering how information is processed.
The brain reorganisation occurs by forming new neural pathways to adopt a needed function. This mechanism called "axon sprouting" grows new nerve endings to reconnect neurons whose links were severed or impaired, but also grows nerve endings of undamaged nerve cells to compensate. For example: if damage is experienced in one hemisphere of the brain, the other undamaged hemisphere may take over some of its functions. A similarity is seen with musculoskeletal injuries because the body knows movement, not muscle. Therefore, to achieve a movement, the brain will recruit other muscles in the body to make this movement happens, even if these muscles are never recruited (or at a lesser extend) to perform the movement. For example if you sprain your ankle, your biomechanics will change when walking and you will most likely start to swing your hips and change your stride so your non-injured limb takes most of the load. Your arms will also swing more to generate momentum to help your hips transfer force to your legs as your body is adapting to a new situation. More muscles are now recruited to achieve the same movement you repeated for many years.
It takes 72 hours of immobilisation for a muscle to lose about half of its responsiveness. This is why when we get injured and stop moving a limb, it feels harder to get back to full motion and the longer we wait, the longer it takes to regain control. The muscle needs to be repeatedly challenged so the neural pathways can be recreated and strengthened
As we age, we tend to establish routines in our lives. If you consider the natural ageing process of cells, it is easier to understand why it is important to keep our brain stimulated.
For the past 3 months I have been working with Garry, a 71 year old milkman and ski enthusiast. We only train once a week on the beautiful Northern Beaches but he has gained more tone and reflex than he has had in the past 5 years. The exercise program started with basic grounded exercises and over time we have graduated to doing multidirectional, asymmetrical and balanced exercises, even with his eyes closed! This proves that the connections between brain to muscle is capable of reconnecting. Garry told me that he can now jump off a 3 foot step and has better reflexes than before. Train and challenge your brain and your body will follow.
Research1 suggests that certain types of activities may impact the brain more than others. It is postulated that as an activity is repeated it becomes embedded and the brain tends to fall back on the same set of existing neural pathways. To continue to evolve, the brain must be exposed to ongoing novel, adaptive experiences that challenge it to work in new ways. Brain exercises for neuroplasticity need to challenge different functional systems in order to maximise the potential for change and adaptation in the brain and establish new connections between neurones.
In a nutshell, don't take your brain or body for granted. Avoid routine so you can constantly challenge yourself. Simple things like taking a different route when driving to work, , take a different path on your morning run, try new foods…break the habits we have built in our lives. By utilising the right activities, our brain function can be enhanced and improved. There are many apps available now for tablets and smart phones (Luminosity is a good one) that are fun and challenging for everyone.
Exercising is also a great way to challenge the brain connections, if you are working out, make sure you change your routine every 3-4 weeks as your body will adapt. Studies have shown that learning tango, how to juggle or do crosswords can utilise the brain's natural plasticity to make positive changes and even help in the prevention of dementia and Alzheimer's disease.
Guillaume "Gee" TUAL
Personal and Rehabilitation Trainer
Registered Exercise Professional
Snow Sports Conditioning Specialist
M: 0402 215 106
1 (Mechelli et al., 2004; Gaser and Schlaug, 2003; Draganski et al., 2006)