If you’ve ever had a nerve or brain injury, you would know that it is scary. Usually, the moment you suspect that nerves could be causing your problem, it feels much more serious and severe. You might feel worried and wonder: “what if I lose all feeling” or “what if I can’t move and end up in a wheelchair”. Most people think that nerves and the whole nervous system is something that does not recover easy.
However, there is good news. I’m here to tell you more about how resilient your nervous system really is and how it can heal itself in wonderful ways without you even knowing. Neural plasticity is a term to describe just that.
Neural plasticity is also known as neuroplasticity or brain plasticity. It can be defined as the ability of the nervous system to change its connections and re-wire itself in response to changes or injury happening in your body.
Let’s take a few steps back to look at what exactly is your nervous system. Your nervous system consists out of your brain, spinal cord and nerves. You can think of it as the electrical wiring system that keeps your body going.
- Your brain is the centre of control, the place where all nerves come together. It sends messages, it saves information and manages all the systems in your body. Without it, you would not survive.
- The spinal cord is a thick bundle of nerves that connects directly to your brain. It is the highway for messages to be sent to and from your brain. From it you have smaller nerves that branch out to the rest of your body.
- Nerves run directly from your spinal cord and form a whole network throughout your body. It ranges from thick nerves, to the smallest and finest nerves and nerve endings. All these nerves connect to each other in the end.
That is why we talk of it as your nervous system. It contains all nerves in your body. And when one part gets injured, the rest is affected as well.
To really understand neural plasticity, you must first understand what happens with a nervous system injury. This is a broad topic, so let’s break it down in easier sections.
This is an injury that directly affects and injures your brain. It can range from a bump to your head, to a stroke (due to bleeding in your brain) or even an infection like meningitis. Depending on exactly where in your brain the injury takes place, it will affect certain functions in your body. Our brains are responsible for managing everything from breathing, to digestion, to movement, to thinking or speaking. And because of this, a brain injury is likely to affect one or more of these skills. Often, a brain injury will lead to some of the affected brain nerve cells to die completely.
An injury to your spinal cord is typically caused by a traumatic injury, like a car accident or falling from something very high. You do get certain infections and diseases that could attack your spinal cord, but that is very rare. When your spinal cord is injured, it usually affects the rest of the spinal cord and nerves below where the injury took place. For example: if someone damages their spinal cord in a motorbike accident, they could be paralysed from the place of the injury and down. Mostly spinal cord injuries lead to changes in your ability to feel different sensations and ability to move, all depending on the severity of the injury.
Injuring a nerve will usually just affect the rest of the nerve below it. This will change your ability to feel sensations like pressure, temperature and soft touch and it might affect your ability to move the bodypart where this nerve is found. Don’t think a nerve injury is less significant, it could just as easily give you just as much pain and problems as a brain injury.
Putting it into perspective
Even the smallest injury to a nerve will affect your brain as well, because that nerve won’t be able to transmit messages to your brain the same way as it used to. The same can be said of a brain injury. Even though the injury might be to your brain itself, it will affect the type of messages being transmitted to the rest of your nervous system. This brings us back to the point. You need to think of your nervous system as a whole.