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Neuroplasticity and its impact on senior living

February 7, 2013
by Lisa M. Cini
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Our brains were thought of in the past to be trainable up to a certain age and then fairly set. Quotes like "you can't teach an old dog new tricks" exemplify this thought. Trying to learn a new language at forty cements the idea. 

However, lately no matter where I am at or what article I am reading the word neuroplasticity: neuro (meaning nerves and/or brain) and plastic (meaning changeable or pliable) is popping up. The impact of this term on everyone is tremendous but especially for seniors, stroke victims or anyone with a desire to get smarter, faster and better.

The brain was once explained to me as waterways that are like rivers. The more we do something over and over again the deeper the carving out of the land that the water is flowing through. If we do it often enough we could do it in our sleep. This type of deep-rooted neural connection would be like the Grand Canyon. If we rarely do something the pathway or connection is more like a creek that is only active during a heavy rain. It can easily be overgrown and difficult to find again if water does not periodically flow in that same exact area. 

While understanding this is great, we now know that we can retrain the brain and create new connections or reroute around broken ones. Say you lose a portion of your brain due to a stroke. Think of this being a river and it just dried up. However, the water source is still there and if you can create a new path and then train the water to go down this new path you can regain the brain function that you have lost. Pretty awesome! I wish my computer worked like that when it broke.

The concept is simple but elegant and entrepreneurs realized the impact of this and were off to the races before many of us had even heard of the word. Examples of this in action are: Lumosity.com, mind360.com, brainmetrix.com and seniorbrains.com, to name just a few.

Physical therapists and doctors now are doing brain training with patients to improve vision and balance and reduce stress. Just as there are games to help keep the brain fit there are also products and methods. Two examples come to mind:

Excerpt below from Andrew Weil, MD's website:

"The Feldenkrais Method claims to be successful in training the nervous system to find new pathways around areas of damage. Patients with orthopedic problems in bones and joints can use the Feldenkrais Method to assist in correcting poor posture or habits of movement that may cause pain. The exercises can re-educate the brain and nervous system to develop new ways of moving and perceiving the body, as well as elevating mood and increasing overall feelings of well-being."

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Thank you Lisa for this article on neuroplasticity and using sensory-motor learning for engaging the whole brain/body. After nearly thirty years in the field of bodywork and Feldenkrais Method®, I have found few other modalities as effective as Feldenkrais for re-wiring the nervous system. I do see many, many modalities-- including physical therapy applying more sensory learning. Our last national Feldenkrais conference included a symposium on the latest neuroscience research that demonstrates what we are doing in our work with Feldenkrais. I wrote about this in an article http://sensingvitality.com/2012/09/06/embodying-neuroscience-feldenkrais-symposium-2012-highlights/

The results with Feldenkrais seems like miraculous work-- sometimes immediately helping children or adults with brain injury or stroke (often makes me cry to watch their progress!), or people with trauma, chronic pain, or with athletes or musicians who are at an impasse with performance find themselves creatively moving again. What makes this work effective and lasting is the "awareness" piece of the puzzle. Becoming aware while moving engages much more of the nervous system over longer periods. This is what all the hubbub and research over "Mindfulness Meditation" is doing these days. I'm grateful that science is confirming that awareness works! There are many great forms of this-- such as Qigong and TaiChi and many other mindful movement practices out there.

Thanks for writing this article, your visionary work and for your endorsement of the Feldenkrais work. I have many lessons and articles on my site that are designed for the general public as well as special classes for elders.

All the best!
Annie Thoe, www.sensingvitality.com

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Lisa Cini

President and CEO

www.mosaicdesignstudio.com

Cini is president and CEO of Mosaic...