One of the buzz words within the rehabilitation world at the moment is “Neuroplasticity”. Yes plastic is terrible for the environment, but in the brain it can be a good thing.
So what exactly is it? And what on earth does it have to do with exercise? We’ve dug into the research to shed some light.
What is Neuroplasticity?
The brain is an impressive yet complex machine. Amusingly, so impressive and complex that our own brains struggle to completely understand how they work – wrap your brain around that!
Neuroplasticity has nothing to do with physical plastic polluting our world, but is named so due the malleable neural pathways.
Neuroplasticity is a concept we are understanding more and more. It was first observed in the early 1900s however research has only gained significant traction over the last 40 years, when it was “re-discovered” by Professor Merzenich, who was actually trying to disprove it!
Put simply, neuroplasticity refers to our brains’ ability “re-wire” itself. It does this by re-organising neural pathways (the connections between nerves) or even creating new neurons.
This ability to re-wire is important in the rehabilitation of various conditions which effect the brain including stroke, brain injuries, mental illness, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s Disease and even chronic pain!
A simple analogy which explain neuroplasticity, is to consider our neural pathways as a road. When these neural pathways are damaged, or the road is closed, we need to find another road to travel. This is where neuroplasticity comes into effect. Our neurons reroute along a new neural pathway (we go down a different road, or build our another), although we may not reach the exact same destination. Which is why rehabilitation is important – guidance to the best destination.
Exercise and Neuroplasticity
Neuroplasticity is driven by biochemicals we refer to as “neurotrophic factors” (NTFs). Examples of these include BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor) and Nerve Growth Factor, amongst many others.
Exercise enhances the concentration of these NTFs in various parts of the brain, including the hippocampus and motor cortex.
The hippocampus is a key structure of our brain involved in learning and memory. Hence the importance of exercise for Dementia, Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease, Depression, and acute or traumatic brain injuries, where learning, memory and concentration etc. (i.e. “cognitive function”) is reduced.
The motor cortex is involved in the planning and execution of voluntary muscle movements. Hence the relevance of neuroplasticity in the rehabilitation of conditions causing difficulty with movement such as stroke and Parkinson’s Disease.
What’s the best exercise?
Higher intensity aerobic exercise has been shown to elicit the most neuroplastic activity.
When considering rehab and health there is more to life than neuroplasticity.
We recommend that in order to best take advantage of the wonders of neuroplasticity a well as reap the other benefits of exercise, regular performance of a combined exercise program including both aerobic and resistance-based exercises will give our brains and bodies the “best bang for buck.”
The best exercise depends on what the goal is!
🏃♂️ Moderate to high intensity aerobic exercise has the most evidence supporting increased neuroplasticity.
🏋️♀️However, resistance training has also been shown to induce increased NFTs as well, although, not to the extent of aerobic exercise. Due to muscle deconditioning in rehab environments, it is important to include resistance training for these populations.
🤔Dual-task activities (simultaneous exercise and cognitive training), particularly in stroke patients, have also been shown to enhance neuroplasticity (you can incorporate these into the aerobic or resistance training program). One example is counting backwards from 100 while you walk (forwards!).
*For severe and acute cases (stroke, traumatic brain injury) where they need to relearn movements, the more specific rehabilitation exercises with physiotherapists and occupational therapists cannot be missed!!
The physical, metabolic, and cardiorespiratory implications for chronic conditions such as stroke, brain injury, depression, and other neurological conditions need to be considered and a referral to an Exercise Physiologist would ensure that an exercise program is both safe and achievable within this population.
If you want to know more about how an Exercise Physiologist can help feel free to contact us here
and checkout other articles on important issues such as this here
For more about stroke
Check out Michael’s previous article on Stroke and Exercise
For more about mental health
Check our article: PTSD - The Role of Exercise
Lead Author: Michael Czaplowski
Exercise Physiologist (Melbourne)
Secondary Author: Biara Webster
Exercise Physiologist and Content Manager
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