Neuroplasticity: Building Better Brain Health Through Exercise
What is neuroplasticity?
Very simply, neuroplasticity is the ability for the brain to change continuously throughout an individual’s life. This process typically happens in response to learning or as a compensation for injury or disease. The process of neuroplasticity can happen structurally or functionally within the brain. In layman’s terms, you can think of structural changes as building new pathways in the brain to accomplish a task. Structural changes typically involve developing or growing new brain cells (also known as neurons) in a way that helps you to perform a task or function that may be new to you or may have been disrupted by disease, injury, or the aging process. Functional changes occur when you alter or adapt existing pathways or structures to perform a task in a new way.
Neuroplasticity related to disease processes
There are many examples of utilizing the process of neuroplasticity in the field of physical therapy. Neuroplasticity helps patients with cognitive impairment secondary to Alzheimer’s or dementia improve their memory and executive function. It allows patients with concussions to improve the coordinated function of their eyes, vestibular system, and regulation of heart rate and blood pressure. It allows patients who have suffered a stroke to relearn and adapt to losses of strength, cognitive function, speech, and more. It assists patients with other motor disorders like MS or Parkinson’s disease to find new ways to accomplish a task. It allows patients with balance disorders secondary to brain or vestibular damage to accommodate to the force of gravity and prevent falls.
Neuroplasticity and Exercise
There are countless studies to date proving that neuroplasticity is enhanced through exercise. Exercises that should be considered are aerobic, strength training, and dual-task exercise. Increasing your heart rate through aerobic exercise is good, challenging your brain to perform a novel physical task is better, and requiring your brain to perform a challenging physical task while also performing a cognitive task is best! The more we require our brain to do, the more it ultimately WILL BE ABLE TO DO. The simple process of increasing your heart rate releases powerful chemicals in your brain called growth factors which help the brain to literally grow in size and in the number of neurons which allow you to more efficiently perform a task. If we exercise to release these growth factors AND challenge the cognitive centers in our brain at the same time the effects are even greater.
Knowing that your brain is plastic, can learn new tasks, and adapt to injury or disease is extremely promising, especially to those who struggle with activities of daily living as compared to their prior level of function. Your brain can learn and adapt no matter your age or diagnosis. Exercise plays an integral role in improving your brain health. Physical therapy is the foundation for initiating task specific training in an exercise setting to improve the pathways in your brain. We utilize these concepts for patients with simple complaints like shoulder pain and in more complex cases like for patients diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease or traumatic brain injury.
Written by: Courtney Dedda PT, DPT OCS, Vestibular-certified Specialist
Lin T-W, Tsai S-F, Kuo Y-M. Physical Exercise Enhances Neuroplasticity and Delays Alzheimer's Disease. Brain plasticity (Amsterdam, Netherlands). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6296269/. Published December 12, 2018. Accessed May 22, 2020.