Tips for Unlocking Neuroplasticity After Stroke Part 1

Almost 800,000 people suffer from a stroke in the United States each year, making it the primary cause of disability among adults 1 Strokes often cause damage to areas of the brain resulting in loss of movement, sensation or language skills. Although it is impossible to fully reverse the damage, current research has shown that the brain is capable of relearning lost skills even years after a stroke through a process called Neuroplasticity.

The word Neuroplasticity is a fancy way of saying that the brain (neuro) can change (plasticity). After a stroke, neuroplasticity can help the brain to work around the damaged areas in order to regenerate, re-establish, and rearrange the neural connections related to function.

With a little work and a lot of commitment, the amazing power of Neuroplasticity can be activated at any time, even years after a stroke. In this series of blog posts we will look at 10 tips for unlocking the power of retraining the brain and body and neuroplasticity after stroke. Check out the five tips below. Make sure to check back in for tips 6-10 in the next installment!

1. Use it or Lose it
You may have heard the expression “use it or lose it”, meaning that if we don’t use a muscle for a long time, it can atrophy (waste away). This principle applies to the brain as well. When a stroke affects an area of the brain controlling one arm many people compensate by relying on the unaffected or “good” side for most tasks. This compensatory reliance on the unaffected hand can lead to “learned non-use” of the affected side. The longer this disuse goes on, the harder it can be for the brain to regain control of the affected arm.

Preventing learned non use involves working to incorporate the affected side into your life as much as possible and as often as possible.

2. Use it and Improve it
The magic of neuroplasticity is that the brain can remap itself. If an area controlling movement is damaged it is possible for a neighboring area to rewire itself to control the movement that was lost. This remapping won’t happen spontaneously, however. You have to use it to improve it! The brain is made up of axons that send electrical signals to each other to communicate. Every thought and action involves communication between axons. When we repeat a movement or thought, axons from previously unconnected areas of the brain can link up, creating a new network. This connection formation principle is explained best with the phrase “what fires together, wires together”, coined by neuropsychologist Donald Hebb in the 1940s.

3. Repetition Matters
Repetitive practice of desired movement patterns helps the brain become stronger by rewiring and reinforcing newly formed neural pathways. But how much practice is enough? Studies in humans and animals have shown that hundreds of repetitions are required per day to elicit change(2). This much repetition can seem daunting, but with the help of technology such as rehab based apps and stroke rehab devices like the Neofect Smart Glove you will be surprised how easily you can fit repetitive movement exercise into your daily routine.

smart-glove-estim-stroke-rehab

4. Intensity Matters
Anyone that has learned to play the piano can tell you that you have to practice every day to get better. The same is true of making changes in the brain after a stroke. No matter how many repetitions you do in one sitting it takes more than one day of practice to change your brain. So how quickly could you see progress? Large studies of patients who were weeks to years past their stroke have reported long-lasting functional improvements after completing 2–12 weeks of intensive repetitive skilled motor practice programming (3).

5. Focus Matters
Think about learning a new route to work. Initially you will need to pay close attention and use directions to get to where you are going. After repeating the route daily it will become habitual and you may be able to complete the drive without too much active thought. The same is true for relearning to use your body after a stroke. In the beginning you will need to pay close attention to your movements and use directions given by therapists. Once you have unlocked neuroplastic change in your brain through practice and intensity you may be able to complete activities with much less thought.

Here at NEOFECT, we're committed to supporting you in your stroke rehab journey. If you have had a stroke and are looking for an effective solution for your rehabilitation needs, please look into NEOFECT's line of Smart Rehabilitation Solutions.

To learn more, please call (866) 534-4989 or email contactus@neofect.com.

Nudo RJ, et al. Neural substrates for the effects of rehabilitative training on motor recovery after ischemic infarct. Science, 1996;272(5269):1971-94.

Kimberley TJ, et al. Comparison of amounts and types of practice during rehabilitation for traumatic brain injury and stroke. J. Rehabil Res Dev. 2010; 47(9):851-62. Rehabil Res Dev. 2010; 47(9):851-62.

Dobkin, Bruce H, et al. “New evidence for therapies in stroke rehabilitation.” Current atherosclerosis reports vol. 15,6 (2013): 331. doi:10.1007/s11883-013-0331-y

Lo AC, Guarino et al. Robot-assisted therapy for long-term upper-limb impairment after stroke. N Engl J Med. 2010;362(19):1772–1783. [PMC free article] [PubMed] [Google Scholar] *

Taub E., Uswatte G., Mark V. W., Morris D. M. (2006). The learned nonuse phenomenon: implications for rehabilitation. Eura. Medicophys. 42, 241–256 [PubMed] [Google Scholar]

Sousa et al. (2018) Interventions involving repetitive practice improve strength after stroke: a systematic review. Journal of Physiotherapy. 64, 4. [Science Direct]

For more information on Neuroplasticity:
Brainworks - What is Neuroplasticity
ScienceDirect - Neuroplasticity
Stroke-Rehab - Neuroplasticity

Siena Conde
Clinical Manager / Occupational Therapist

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