Neuroplasticity Training: A Missing Piece to Chronic Illness

Neuroplasticity Training Can Be Used for Brain Trauma and Chronic Illness. 

Key Points:

  • Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to rewire itself in order to improve functioning in daily life.
  • Neuroplasticity training is anything that helps create or change neural connections in the brain. This can range from occupational therapy exercises for stroke patients, to mindfulness for anxiety.
  • Different parts of the brain are trained depending on what you are trying to improve.
  • Neuroplasticity training requires repetition, meaning you train the brain over time, so consistency is key.

Neuroplasticity training may be a missing piece in chronic pain, chronic illness, anxiety, trauma, and even food reactivity that has not improved with diet and gut healing. It can also help to improve cognitive function. So how does it work?

The brain has the amazing ability to rewire itself so that we can learn new skills, function better, decrease chronic pain, and even regain functioning after a stroke or traumatic brain injury. This ability is referred to as neuroplasticity. In this article we will discover how to harness the power of neuroplasticity to improve our cognitive abilities, mental, and physical health.

neuroplasticity training: illustration of the human brain

What Is Neuroplasticity?

Simply defined, neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to rewire itself. The brain makes structural, functional, and connective changes based on internal and external stimulus, thus changing the way we mentally and physically function [1 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. 

A neuroplastic change can be helpful, neutral, or harmful. When it is helpful, it might make us better at something (like a chosen sport), and when harmful, it might result in a trauma response or phantom limb pain after an injury. Neuroplasticity training is when we do things to help the brain rewire itself. It is a form of training because it must be done repeatedly over time, because the brain learns and rewires through repetition. 

There are two primary ways that the brain changes:

  • Neurons: Neurons are cells in the brain that take in information from our environment as well as send motor signals to the rest of the body. There are three types of plasticity of the neurons [1 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]:
    • Neuronal regeneration (when neurons are regrown or repaired)
    • Collateral sprouting (when the axons of healthy neurons (brain cells) grow into nearby damaged nervous tissue.)
    • Neurogenesis (when the brain makes new neurons in adulthood.) 

When we are babies, we have plenty of neural connections (synapses). As we interact with our environment, our brains keep the synaptic connections we use a lot and prune off the synapses we do not use. This is why it may be harder for adults to learn a musical instrument. As a child, those synaptic connections were pruned away. However, thanks to neurogenesis (the brain’s ability to make new neurons in adulthood,) we still can learn to play music as an adult [1 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

  • Functional reorganization: This occurs when a functional part of the brain takes over the functions lost by another part of the brain, often due to damage to part of the brain.

The human brain has a few different ways that the neurons can rewire and help us function better in our everyday life.

What is Neuroplasticity Training?

There are many different types of neuroplasticity training that may be used to achieve different goals. 

Occupational therapy is one form of neuroplasticity training often used to train a different part of the brain to take over functions (such as using utensils) that were lost due to brain damage from stroke. 

Brain training games aim to rewire the brain to help increase cognition. Learning a new instrument or a new sport can improve visual input and processing, increase cognition, response time, and spatial awareness. Meditation can even train the brain to decrease pain signals in chronic illness [2 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].    

Many neuroplasticity training programs aimed at healing involve specifically targeted mind-body modalities including meditation or mindfulness training, breathwork, visualization, cognitive behavioral therapy, and emotional restructuring therapy.

colorful illustration of the brain

The Regions of the Brain

Before we try neuroplasticity training, it is helpful to know that different parts of the brain control different parts of our physical and mental health. When choosing what kind of neurological training programs you want to try, you want to know what brain region and/or function you’re targeting.

Neuroplasticity training generally targets the limbic system, a set of brain structures including the amygdala and the hippocampus [3 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source], which together are responsible for emotion, behavior, and memory [4 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

Here is a simplified chart of some of the regions of the brain and how they affect our daily functioning.

Brain RegionWhat It DoesWhat Happens When It Is Damaged or Not Functioning Well
Prefrontal cortex (PFC) [5 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to sourceThis area gives us our personality. It is where we process environmental input, compare it to past experience, and make choices in how to respond or react. This is also where our beliefs form about how the world works. The PFC is the site of insight, foresight, and long-term planning. Lack of inhibition, indifference, loss of motivation, and personality changes.
Hippocampus and Amygdala [6 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]Located together near the bottom of the brain and part of the limbic system, they are instrumental in regulating emotion, memory, and the autonomic nervous system.Anxiety, PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder,) emotional dysregulation, poor digestion, chronic pain, inability to regulate blood pressure and body temperature, staying in survival mode (fight, flight, or freeze).
Cerebral Cortex: Frontal, Temporal, Parietal, and Occipital Lobes [7 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]All four lobes of the brain are part of the prefrontal cortex. Each lobe not only has a role in mood and behavior (as noted in the prefrontal cortex section above), but each one takes care of different types of physical input.Frontal: motor skills and language
Temporal: visual memory, language comprehension, and sound (auditory) processing
Parietal: integrates sensory system with the visual system and affects the use of the hands and eyes as well as ability to understand mathematics
Occipital: processes visual input
neuroplasticity training: hands holding an illustration of the brain

How Can Neuroplasticity Training Help?

There are many ways that neuroplasticity training can help us with everyday life functioning or with more serious issues such as stroke, chronic pain, cognitive decline, anxiety, and depression. Let’s look at the neuroscience supporting the benefits of neuroplasticity training:

  • Increases learning ability. Synaptic plasticity is important in the processes of learning and memory. It allows us to learn new skills [8 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source], which helps support synaptic plasticity. 
  • May improve cognitive function. Even though older adults with cognitive decline, such as mild cognitive impairment found in early stage Alzheimer’s disease, may have less ability to create new neural pathways, there are ways to activate neuroplastic reorganization to help improve cognitive function [9 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
  • May help to treat psychosis. While the research is still preliminary, neuroplasticity-based cognitive training (NBCT) has shown promise in treating major psychotic disorders [10 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
  • May help to improve brain function after traumatic brain injury or stroke. Cognitive rehabilitation therapy, such as training to improve executive function, cortical plasticity, language and memory, has shown a moderate ability to improve memory after traumatic brain injury and stroke [11 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
  • May decrease pain, fatigue, and anxiety. Amygdala-focused neurofeedback has been shown to decrease chronic pain, fatigue, and anxiety in fibromyalgia patients [12 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 13 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
stressed woman holding her head while sitting on the couch

Neuroplasticity Training for Chronic Illness and Pain

One of the areas of neuroplasticity training I have found particularly helpful for my patients is in treating chronic illness

For some people, diet, supplements, gut healing, and treatment for gut bacteria have not helped resolve their symptoms. In these cases, neuroplasticity training is often the missing piece of the puzzle.  

In this type of neuroplasticity training, we are really looking at training the limbic system (which includes the amygdala) to improve health outcomes. We focus on the limbic system because past physical and emotional trauma, including, chronic health issues may trigger limbic system imbalances.

How does this happen? Our brain is always trying to keep us safe by assessing our environment for threat. When the limbic system (in particular the amygdala) perceives a threat, it will trigger a defensive response. This is the fight, flight, or freeze response which often shows up as physical pain or emotional response. 

Every time an event triggers a fear response, the brain remembers that. The limbic system is wired, through neuroplasticity, to have a threat response any time a similar event happens, whether it is threatening or not [14 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. 

For example, let’s say you have been dealing with chronic health issues of bloating, joint pain, brain fog, fatigue, and stomach pain for a few years. You tried many different treatments to resolve these issues, and they did not get better. 

Eventually you start a low-inflammatory diet, heal your gut, and you do start to feel better. You have energy, no stomach pain, and your brain fog is gone. But then you try to introduce a new food and you bloat a little. This bloating is often normal in digestion, but since bloating in the past has been a sign of threat to your body, the limbic system may have an overactive response and send additional signals of pain to your stomach and joints [15 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. You may also experience anxiety and fear. 

Retraining the limbic system to respond less defensively to these past triggers can therefore be an important part in healing chronic illness.   

This does not mean your symptoms or pain are “all in your head.” It means that the brain is very good at doing its main job — keeping you safe. Just like it took repeated experience for the brain to have an immediate threat response to anything in the past that caused stomach pain and brain fog, it will take time for it to rewire to know you are safe now.

neuroplasticity training: illustration of the limbic system

Neuroplasticity training for the limbic system may help to reprogram overactive limbic system responses and overstimulation of the nervous system and bring your systems back into balance. Let’s look at some of the research: 

  • A 2020 pilot randomized controlled trial with 41 fibromyalgia patients found that eight months of mindfulness plus amygdala and insula retraining (MAIR) led to not only less functional impairment, anxiety, and depression, but also significantly less pain catastrophizing and psychological rigidity — even three months after the study was over [13 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
  • Amygdala retraining techniques (ART) for chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) led to improvements in daily functioning by as much as 80-100% [16].
  • In fibromyalgia patients, body awareness interventions including mindfulness meditation, massage, tai chi, craniosacral therapy, breathing/posture techniques, guided imagery, relaxation programs, yoga, and hypnotherapy had positive effects on fibromyalgia impact, pain, anxiety, depression, and quality of life [2 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. These exercises all target calming the limbic system.

I recently spoke with Dr. Ashok Gupta about how he has been using the Gupta Program Brain Retraining™ limbic retraining system to help people improve chronic illness when other methods have failed, and he helped to shed some more light on how and why this type of neuroplasticity or amygdala training can be so effective. This type of brain training has certainly been helpful and powerful for my patients in the clinic when introduced at the right time.

Everyday Neuroplasticity Training Exercises

In more severe cases, such as with stroke or brain injury, it is best to work with a doctor to find what type of neuroplasticity exercises will target specific areas of the brain.

However, there are many things that we can do every day (which makes the repetition needed to rewire the brain easier) to increase neuroplasticity, make new neural connections, and improve wellness. 

man playing the piano

Learning New Things Can Strengthen Neural Networks

Learning new things strengthens existing neural connections and forms new neural connections between the different brain areas [1 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. It also helps improve cognitive skills and support both short-term memory and long-term memory. Learning complex new things uses different brain functions all at once, increasing activation and connectivity between neurons. 

Ways to Learn New Things

  • Physical exercise: Learning a new physical activity that includes hand-eye coordination, change in direction, and aerobic exercise creates new pathways between different brain regions [1 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. It also increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which is important in supporting neuroplasticity [17 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
  • Creativity: Take up a new creative hobby, such as learning a new instrument. 
  • Brain games: Apps like BrainHQ, CogniFit, or Cogmed Working Memory Training can offer great brain exercises that may help improve cognitive skills.

Calming the Limbic System

Using neuroplasticity to decrease the threat response in the brain and calming the limbic system may help you heal from chronic illness and decrease anxiety and other psychological and physical pain.

Ways to Calm the Limbic System

  • Gupta Program Brain Retraining™: A comprehensive program, available online, focusing on the mind-body connection and neural pathways that can help to resolve chronic illness.
  • Mindfulness: Can include any type of meditation or mindful exercise (tai chi). Mindfulness not only helps increase grey matter in the brain. It increases brain volume and reduces the brain shrinkage that can happen with aging [18 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 19 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
  • Breathwork: There are many types of breathwork, but it is important to start with one that does not trigger a fear response for you. For many people, holding their breath or breathwork that involves fast breathing triggers fear. A simple practice is making the exhales longer than the inhales. Start by breathing in for three counts and out for four, and repeat 10 times.
  • The Apollo Neuro is a wearable device that senses when we are experiencing stress and uses touch therapy, through gentle vibration, to calm our nervous system and retrain it over time to manage stress better.
neuroplasticity training: hands holding puzzle pieces

Neuroplasticity for Healing

Decades ago, neuroscientists used to believe that the brain never changed. Now we know that is not true. Harnessing brain plasticity can dramatically improve our quality of life, and there are many ways to incorporate neuroplasticity into our everyday lives. 

It is important to remember that all healing starts with good overall health, with an anti-inflammatory diet, gut healing, good sleep, and exercise. We always want to start with that stable foundation and then add in techniques such as neuroplasticity training. 

However, if you are someone who has chronic mental and/or physical illness and you have already tried a low-inflammatory diet, healed your gut, and treated any gut imbalances but you are still struggling, neuroplasticity might be the missing piece to your wellness.

If you are struggling with your health and would like a more personalized treatment plan and to talk about neuroplasticity, reach out to our clinic.  

➕ References
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