Everyone is born with billions of neurons that form pathways in our brains, exchanging information constantly, enabling us to function properly. When these neurons are damaged, the brain and body show signs of dysfunction and orderly brain development is hampered. When this occurs, our brain attempts to create new ways to connect the dots. This forming and pruning of neural pathways is called neuroplasticity; it’s done at the quickest pace during the first five years of life. It is a complicated scientific term but also the secret developmental ingredient for children with special needs.
When the brain is growing abnormally or has suffered some injury because of which the neurons are altered, damaged, or have lost their ability to transmit, a healthy part of the brain can relearn, strengthen, and take over connections, forming a new pathway to replicate the function of the lost one – through neuroplasty.
According to research conducted on cross-modal neuroplasticity focusing on blind individuals, it was observed that they had enhanced auditory capability to compensate for the loss of an essential sensory perception. Hearing loss often leads to heightened peripheral vision in the deaf and the blind experience increased sensitivity to sound and touch.
Neuroplasticity is all about practising skills that allow the brain to reinforce neural connections to learn new habits, new skills and new ways of thinking. There are several techniques and methods for assessing the parts of the brain that need strengthening.
Neuroplasticity be maximized with early intervention
In cases of neurological disability or brain injury, the more you practise a certain skill, the more you will recover as new pathways will be formed enabling a lost function.
According to research, it is seen that the more you increase the ability of a brain to rewire and relearn with early interventions, the more you can start learning skills. Early intervention with treatments and therapies under the supervision of appropriate medical professionals helps in reaching and improving the goals.
There are certain of course methods that aid in maximizing the early interventions introduced for enhancing neuroplasticity:
Diagnosis: Diagnosis of a specific injury and the specific functional deficit in children is key. It helps in the identification of specific difficulties that can interfere with learning skills.
Real training skills: Focus on real training skills like cognitive skills, motor skills, communication skills, sleeping and reading skills.
Enhance learning opportunities: Maximise the learning opportunities for children by using the environmental factors at preschool, school and home.
Parental support: Is key to the success of neuroplasticity while reducing stress, depression, and anxiety.
10 proven principles for the facilitation of neuroplasticity:
According to a paper by researchers Jeffrey A Kleim and Theresa A Jones, 10 proven principles help in facilitating neuroplasticity in the therapeutic environment:
1. Practice: Children should regularly practise with goals in mind if they want to enhance neuroplasticity. You can learn new skills, but those who avoid practicing might lose those goals.
2. Use it regularly: Regular practice and training of the skills are essential for improving function.
3. Specific training and practice of skills: The practise of skills should be specific to inducing neuroplasticity. For instance, if a child is learning to read, write, walk, talk, and so on, they should specifically work on walking, reading, and talking respectively.
4. Repetition: Repetition is the key to neuroplasticity. Sufficient repetition helps in refining the memory and skills of a child.
5. Intensity of practice: The intensity of practice matters a lot for inducing neuroplasticity. The more you practice, the better you learn the skills.
6. Time: Time is another important factor that affects neuroplasticity. It has different forms, which occur at different stages of life. For instance, if a child is learning a new task, refining it might take some time.
7. Motivation: Motivation is another important factor in inducing neuroplasticity. Parents should motivate their children to not give up, no matter how hard the situation becomes.
8. Age: The younger the brain, the greater the ability of neuroplasticity. Younger ones have a higher number of neurons and synapses, especially from birth till two to three years of age. Between adulthood and youth, pruning starts to appear when there is a reduction of synapses and neurons.
9. Transference: It is important to practise skills in multiple settings so that your children are capable of executing different tasks in different environments according to their demands. Transference is all about applying your learning to real-life situations.
10. Plasticity can be negative: For example, some children have bad habits, and it is difficult to unlearn them. It might take your child’s dedication and time to alter that habit or to learn a different habit.
- UAE-based Dr Arif Khan is a Paediatric Neurologist and Founder of Neuropedia, Children's Neuroscience Center.