Canada: Understanding The Healing Brain: Neuroplasticity-Based Research Blossoms

Last Updated: October 31 2017
Article by Neil E. Sacks

Earlier this year Howie, Sacks & Henry co-hosted an event called Understanding the Healing Brain. Exploring cutting-edge treatment involving neuroplasticity, the conference brought together individuals who have sustained traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), their medical and legal support teams, and leading practitioners/writers in the field, including the renowned Dr. Norman Doidge, to learn and discuss how this concept is revolutionizing recovery plans and therapies.

It's clear that attendees left the conference feeling inspired and hopeful about how neuroplasticity can help people whose lives have been altered by a brain injury. As many of my own clients might benefit from these types of cost-effective treatments, I always keep an eye on emerging news in the field. Although it's only been a few months since this event was held, the steady stream of positive developments definitely warrants an update to a  blog post I wrote at the time.

In this post, I review some of the promising new research and projects underway. After learning about some of these initiatives and findings, I hope you'll agree with me that, now more than ever, stakeholders in the personal injury field must show support to TBI survivors by urging our government to commit to funding neuroplasticity-based treatments.

Identifying Cerebral Palsy and Starting Treatment Early

One of the most exciting projects now underway is a new mobile application designed to identify and treat cerebral palsy in children at a much younger age (six months) than the previous standard (19 months) to reach a diagnosis.

Australian researchers are conducting a trial with some children most at risk of the condition – premature babies born before 28 weeks or weighing less than one kilogram. Parents will submit a three-minute video of their baby lying on a floor without any distractions to the app. Specially-trained experts will then assess the quality of the child's movement with a focus on gauging complexity and fluidity of movement.

Lead researcher and physiotherapist Alicia Spittle, says that with early detection, medical professionals could likely identify emerging problems with the central nervous system and use neuroplasticity to assist with brain and muscle development.

"Traditionally, if we haven't started interventions until the baby is one or two years old, they've already got muscle contractions, spasticity, and the brain has already wired in a way we don't necessarily want," she told reporters. "We want to get in early to encourage the brain and muscles to develop as well as they can, and to change their trajectory so they'll have better functions."1

"Brain Glue" That Helps Rebuild Neural Function In Injured Tissue

A research team at the University of Georgia's Regenerative Bioscience Center recently announced a gelatin-like hydrogel matrix they've dubbed 'Brain Glue' that could eventually aid in neuroplasticity-based treatments.

Describing the substance as a unique kind of scaffolding, Brain Glue will provide a more natural environment for stem cell transplants to grow, repair, or replace damaged brain tissue. The researchers suggest this substance has a unique ability to take the shape of voids left in the brain when surgeons remove damaged or dead tissue following a TBI.

Lohitash Karumbaiah, the research team leader, explains that Brain Glue is part of a bigger project exploring neuroplasticity and the brain's regenerative ability, including studies into neural network formation and alterations in response to traumatic injuries, and therapeutic electrical stimulation to help regions of brain to regain function.

The Fountain of Youth in The Brain

Finally, researchers at the University of Utah recently announced they have identified a specific gene that may hold the key to  reversing age-related decline of neuroplasticity in brains. This is one of several breakthroughs in recent years aimed at restoring youthful neuroplasticity.

It's been long known that the brain retains its ability to change throughout a person's life. However, younger brains have greater neuro-malleability.

Researchers at the University of Utah identified activation of the Arc gene as prime factor in the peak of neuroplasticity in mice. Using a virus to deliver the Arc gene to older mice, they discovered these fully developed and mature mice began responding to stimuli just as their younger counterparts did.

Much remains to learned about this gene, but if therapeutic use is possible in humans, the full power of neuroplasticity could be available to older brains, including ones that have sustained traumatic injuries.

Funding Treatments, Not Just Research

These exciting discoveries offer great hope for people who have sustained of traumatic brain injuries. Research, often supported by government funding, provides the basis for future treatments.

Yet, as I mentioned in  my previous blog post, many existing neuroplasticity-based treatments and therapies are already available to aid TBI patients in their recovery – but not covered by public or many private health insurance plans. Moreover, government cuts in Ontario to the  statutory accident benefits schedule have dramatically reduced the funds motor vehicle accident victims with TBIs can access for these types of treatments.

As we learned during the Understanding the Healing Brain conference, neuroplasticity-based treatments can greatly improve the quality of life of people with TBIs. As stakeholders and supporters of people with TBIs, we must redouble our efforts to persuade governments that these treatments are worth every penny and worthy of their attention and support.



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