“That’s just the way I’m wired.” Has anyone said this to you before? We grew up under the impression that your brain is what it is – a final product that cannot be altered. However, recent research indicates this is far from the case. Let me introduce you to the concept of neuroplasticity. This phenomenon describes how your body can “re-wire” itself. Essentially, your brain adapts to stimulation and alters its electric circuits. This may be an important concept for treating patients with autism and other sensory processing disorders that are not the result of structural damage to the brain.
Nervous system 101
To understand neuroplasticity, we need a quick review of how your nervous system (your body’s electric wires) works. Basically, your brain is the master computer that sits inside of your skull. It constantly receives input from the cells of your body. After analyzing this information, your brain sends out the appropriate response to bring your body toward something known as homeostasis. It is similar to how the thermostat in your house works. Is it getting too cold? Your thermostat will inform the heating unit in your house to turn on and bring your home to the set temperature.
An extension of your brain, known as the spinal cord, transmits information from the nerves in your body to the brain, and then from your brain back to your body. The nerves that branch from your spinal cord carry electric signals from your fingers, joints, intestine, heart and every other organ. These electric signals not only tell your brain what is going on – but also provide stimulation. Your brain needs two major things to develop:
- Nutrition – Glucose, oxygen, etc.
- Stimulation – Playing, reading, engaging your senses.
Fortunately, both of these are easily accessible.
How do your senses stimulate the brain?
Basically, every sense in your body follows a particular tract to your brain. For example, pain follows a tract known as the lateral spinothalamic tract. Receptors in your hand for pain fire when you put your hand on a hot stove. These receptors send messages through the nerves to the spinal cord. There, these nerves connect with another tract – kind of like an extension cord. This new electric circuit carries this information to a part of your brain known as the thalamus. From there, another extension cord is connected and the information is routed to the appropriate places in the brain.
As you can see from the example, there is a particular circuit that carries pain messages. However, there are many senses other than pain that are constantly monitored by the brain. So, how does this contribute to neuroplasticity?
Stimulating the brain – the key to neuroplasticity
Neuroplasticity means that your brain can modify its electric wiring. What is one way to do this? Through stimulation via the 6 senses:
- Extrasensory perception – This one people aren’t as familiar with. Basically, this sense is how you can close your eyes and still point to your thumb without seeing it.
The theory is that most children and adults with autism and sensory processing disorders have “disconnected brains”. What does this mean? Maybe part of your brain did not mature with the rest of it. Also, there may be insufficient wiring between important parts of the brain that should be in constant communication. Your brain is like an orchestra and needs to be in perfect synchronization.
Either way, if it is possible to determine which parts of the brain are not working as they should – then we can use our knowledge of these electric circuits to stimulate those parts of the brain. This can bring these parts of the brain “up to speed” and allow them to mature. There seems to be some evidence that suggests this approach works. However, it should be understood that this requires a multi pronged approach that addresses all the factors that can obstruct the nervous system.
In conclusion, neuroplasticity may be a useful weapon in treating people with autism and other sensory processing disorders. However, it may not be as useful if there is a permanent structural problem with the brain. The good news is, the brain can alter its electric circuits. With a comprehensive plan, it may be possible to allow the brain to function like the synchronized orchestra it should be.