Brain Plasticity – promoting brain healing


I fell onto my concrete driveway, snapping my leg femur bone in two; and also ended up with delayed onset traumatic brain injury.

The head injury symptoms started about 24 hours after the surgery to repair my broken leg.

While briefly alone in my hospital room, I awakened in a state of delirium, and yanked out all my IVs and catheter.  After I calmed down, I realized that my head didn’t feel right, especially the front area behind my forehead.  It wasn’t painful – but felt very strange. 

A few months later, a CT scan of my head revealed moderate-significant brain atrophy (shrinkage). And another year after that, I was experiencing serious cognitive decline.  Oh, I had multiple spells of delirium since my leg surgery, but that was always in conjunction with chronic episodes of urinary tract infections (UTI).  But it was about one and a half to two years after my surgery that my neural pathways were no longer firing optimally. 

Serious cognitive decline

I was having difficulty remembering my address, what year it was, and whether Janet was my daughter or my mother.  She gave me a beautiful plush toy cat, “Kitty Cat,” around that time, and I thought it was alive.  No one corrected me about the cat, which was a dignity-saver for me.  What harm was there in thinking my cat was alive – none at all.  That cat was my “security blanket” from that day forward to the moment I died.

A few months prior to my decline

I was at the ER with delirium from one of my many UTI episodes, a nurse brought me a baby doll. 

“Why are you handing me a doll?!” I said.

”I thought you might want to take care of it,” the nurse said.

This was puzzling to me – and I felt humiliated from what it seemed she implied.

“I’m not a child. I don’t play with dolls. Get this thing out of here!”  

I was having extreme mania from the UTI, and I think the nurse mistook it for Alzheimer’s.  True, my brain had some atrophy, but I was not yet having memory or executive functioning issues.  So I guess I resented her assumption about me that wasn’t yet true.

But just a few months later, it was true.

I welcomed Janet’s gift of “Kitty Cat” like that nurse previously expected me to want the baby doll.  She was simply a little premature about things, that is all.  My previous untreated brain injury finally affected cognitive functioning.

I was not offered any type of treatment or therapy except Aricept and antipsychotic medication.

Neither Janet nor I knew there were any possible therapeutic interventions.  Janet researched head trauma with delirium on Google, but only found that it often leads to dementia within two years, which mine did.  Then, of course, I was given antidepressant medication and Aricept for it, which didn’t do much to help – and was occasionally given antipsychotic medication in hospital settings during episodes of UTI mania.

But nothing was offered for my head trauma beyond that.  It was simply left to percolate in my brain like a cell-busting soldier.  I’m pretty sure that is because the doctors in my world didn’t know, or didn’t believe, anything could be done.

If only . . .

I know I’ve said this a thousand times before, but perhaps I would not have gone on to develop dementia had I received the right treatment.  Maybe if the doctors understood about the brain’s ability to heal itself, under the right circumstances, mine would have had the chance to do so. 

Now many doctors know that the brain has the ability to grow new cells, and establish new networks between existing cells to restore memory and functioning.  This is referred to as neural, or brain, plasticity.  Here is how it works.

Some cells are dead – and some cells adjacent to those cells are not working very well.  They are sick.  The cells still fire, but at the wrong rate.  So the healthy cells connected to those sick cells get irregular firing signals they simply can’t use.  So you’ve got dead cells, sick cells . . . and healthy cells receiving bad signals – so they send bad data. 

What you can do is try to resynchronize the cells.  There are different techniques that can be used to promote the brain’s ability to repair itself.  Light therapy.  Sound therapy.  Brain exercises.  Physical movement exercise.  Tongue stimulation (since the tongue sends messages directly to the brain).  There is no guarantee any of these things will work for every person – and I can’t make any personal claims about their success because sadly no one suggested any of these to me.  But I’ll tell you what I’ve since learned about them. 

Light Therapy

Laser light therapy is painless, non-invasive, and harmless.  It is cold light – not hot like you see on Star Wars.  Research studies have shown it to reduce inflammation and eliminate pain.  And doctors are starting to use it for migraines, stroke, and traumatic brain injury to promote natural healing by the brain, itself.  

Current study results using mice and rats in Toronto and Australia look promising for Alzheimer’s and other dementias.  Sunlight may also help promote brain plasticity, so spending time outdoors may be a healing factor.  

Sound Therapy

Autistic children receive sound therapy to reduce their sensitivity to low frequency sounds.  And successfully so.  By decreasing their sound sensitivity, the children have become more social, and shown speech improvement.   The therapy takes only 15 days – with a one-month, then annual therapy booster sessions.

Traumatic brain injury patients are also having success with sound therapy.  The therapy promotes neural plasticity where the brain grows out of the problem, and it heals itself.  

Tongue Stimulation

Another interesting type of therapy uses the tongue as a gateway to the brain.  The tongue is stimulated to send messages directly to the brain to promote neural pathway healing for things like balance issues, stroke, traumatic brain injury, and Parkinson’s rigidity.  Electrical stimulation is used on the tongue, which feels like champagne bubbles, goes directly to brain to promote healing.  

Brain HQ

Neural exercise is yet another way to improve functioning by retraining lost or faulty neuron connections.  Brain HQ is one such model.  Over 150 studies have shown that Brain HQ is helpful for many brain problems, including age-related cognitive decline.   The exercises were put together by a team of neuroscientists, with publications by NIH regarding its success.

Exercise success generalizes to everyday life.  Studies have determined that elderly people who use these exercises have fewer car accidents, and get better at processing everyday life much faster.  The exercises work by stimulating pathways in the brain.

NIH Studies of Brain HQ

Review of the NIH studies for use with Alzheimer’s patients looks promising, though so far peer review is not yet complete.  Although there is no solid proof YET, it definitely makes sense to use it as part of overall treatment.  The exercises may be helpful to some, but not for others since there are so many cause pathways in Alzheimer’s and dementia patients.

Move . . . simply move

Exercise.  Tai Chi.  Yoga.  Walking.  Basically any kind of movement assists with circulation.  If you can’t get out of your chair, or bed, simply move your arms and/or legs as best you can.  Any movement will help.  It does not have to be strenuous exercise.  Simply move.

I did not know – but now you do.

I didn’t receive any type of brain therapy – didn’t even know it existed.  But now you know they do.  Talk to your doctor about them if you or a loved one might benefit from them.  If your doctor doesn’t want to discuss them, consider hiring a doctor who will.  Remember your doctor works for you, and not the other way around.  


Dr. Norman Doidge interview September 29, 2018 “Awakening Alzheimer’s – Regain Your Brain” series. 

Below a couple of videos with Dr. Doidge discussing brain plasticity – the power of the brain:

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