In my last article I wrote about the way in which our beliefs can hold us back in terms of reaching and maintaining excellent health. In this article, I’d like to delve into one of the most exciting developments in the understanding of the brain of modern times.
The Old World View of the Unchanging Brain
For centuries, medical science has supported the belief that the brain is unchanging – that beyond childhood, the qualities, functions and abilities of the brain cannot be altered. The only exception to this is allowed in the observable decline in function and ability that is often observed in the ageing population. The overwhelming view of the brain and the rest of the nervous system was that if function was lost or impaired somehow (eg. Through injury or poor development), there was no way that the brain could alter its structure or function to compensate and recover some or all of that function. Practitioners and their patients who were interested in the possibility that function of the brain might be improved through some type of activity or exercise were told not to waste their time, that this was not possible. Hence, for centuries, many people who may have been helped were given up on, as the paradigm of the time was of the unchanging brain.
We are not a machine – the limits of mechanism
The idea of the unchanging brain comes from a ‘mechanistic’ point of view. In mechanism, the body is viewed as a machine, with component parts which have separate functions that tend to act independently. Medicine tends toward mechanism, where the body is broken down into its parts, which are then studied and treated as separate entities, rather than an intricately coordinated set of systems. Hence the tendency for specialistion (eg. Eyes, Ears, Nose and Throat or EENT specialist). This specialistion is great for deeper understanding of separate organs and systems, but leads to a loss of the bigger picture of health, where each part and system of the body is co-dependant on the proper function of every other part. Study of the brain, for centuries, has been stymied by this mechanism. Often the term ‘hardwiring’ has been used – a computer metaphor – to describe the unchanging brain. Discoveries were made of areas of the brain that were generally responsible for certain functions, such as hearing, vision or muscle activity (motor control). When people who suffered strokes, for example, were observed generally to fail to improve, it was then assumed that once certain areas of the brain were damaged, the brain was incapable of any change that might lead to recovery.
Neuroplasticity – that what and how
In more recent decades, thanks to the work of some great pioneers in medical research, this belief has given way to a view of the brain with an ability throughout our lives to change and adapt dramatically. This is what we now call neuroplasticity. ‘Neuro’, meaning the cells in our brain and nervous system, and ‘plasticity’, meaning changeable, or malleable. With the right approach, people with a great variety of conditions – from stroke to behavioural problems – can recover much if not all of their lost function .
So how does brain plasticity occur? In the words of one of the great pioneers of neuroplasticity, Paul Bach-y-Rita, ‘If you are driving from here to Milwaukee, and the main bridge goes out, first you are paralysed. Then you take the secondary roads through the farmland. Then as you use these roads more, you find shorter paths to use to get to where you want to go, and you start to get there faster’. What is actually happening is that when nerves are fired/activated in a pattern of movement, physical connections are made between those nerves associated with that pattern. One neuron has the ability to make connections with up to 250 000 other neurons! When patterns are repeated over and over, just as Bach-y-Rita described, the pathway becomes more familiar and quicker to use. This is the basis of ALL learning – repeated patterns of nerve activity creating physical changes in the brain that lead an established and comfortable behaviour.
Chiropractic and Neuroplasticity
Why am I talking about this as a chiropractor? For two reasons: Firstly, to help broaden peoples’ understanding of chiropractic from just that of a treatment for headaches and back pain. Secondly, when you understand plasticity, your vision of possibilities of health and wellbeing also broaden. As a chiropractor, I work primarily with the spine and nervous system. I work with the spine mainly as a way to access and influence the nervous system. Spinal adjustments – the brief, controlled movements that chiropractors use to restore proper motion in the spine – are an incredibly effective tool to bringing about neuroplasticity.
Spinal motion and brain function
The reason for can be explained in two parts. Firstly, all the spinal tissues surrounding each vertebra – ligaments, tendons, muscle, disc and joint capsule – are heavily laden with nerve sensors. These sensors have the important job of constantly telling the brain where the body is in space and how each body part is moving in relation to all the other parts. In fact, 90% of all the sensory information reaching the brain comes from spinal motion. This really is an amazing fact. It means that of all the information your brain collects to help form a view of your internal (inside your body) and external (outside your body) worlds, 90% of this comes from purely spinal motion. What this also means is that LACK of spinal motion will starve the brain of the vital information and stimulation it needs to stay healthy and keep you healthy.
What happens to your brain with proper spinal motion?
The second part of the relationship between Chiropractic and neuroplasticity lies in the ‘adjustments’ that chiropractors perform. These adjustments help restore lost motion and thus fire off so many more messages into the brain with each and every movement you make. Without the proper adjustment and restoration of spinal motion, any activity or exercise you perform will merely repeat the same pattern of movement and nerve activity and reinforce current lack of brain function. The chiropractic adjustment, performed repeatedly, is what creates so much of the plastic change that I observe in practice. Most people think of chiropractic as an effective treatment for lower back pain, headaches and neck pain. But the really exciting stuff I observe every day in my patients is related to the neuroplasticity their brain is experiencing through repeated input of receptor input to the brain from proper spinal motion. Changes such as improved mental clarity, better postural control, reduced anxiety and improved digestive function (to name a few) are all the result of the body learning (or re-learning) an appropriate pattern of nerve activity.
So where to from here? Hopefully this article gives you more reason for hope in relation to your body’s ability to change. Given the right stimulus in the right amount at the right time, the brain can go through enormous change and thus facilitate proper function and healing. Are chiropractors the only people who can bring about neuroplasticity? No. There are many great resources out there for retraining your brain – from stroke rehab, learning disorders, and techniques for re-patterning physical and mental behaviours. However, chiropractic can be a great tool for changing unhelpful patterns in the nervous system that have been perpetuating illness, and thus assist your body’s own healing mechanisms. If you want to change your diet, see a dietician. Teeth – a dentist. If you are interested in creating the changes to your brain and nervous system that can bring about great health, a good chiropractor would be a good place to start.
In my next article I’ll delve further into the mechanisms of change and the types of change in peoples’ health and wellbeing that defy many of our current health paradigms.