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Episode 1 - Neuroplasticity

Read a transcript of the podcast here.

The number one topic stroke survivors ask us about is neuroplasticity, and how to take advantage of the brain’s amazing potential to change itself. But there’s still a lot of confusion about what it actually entails, what to expect, or even who can help you with it. We speak to physiotherapy lecturer Michelle McDonnell, neuroscientist Lavinia Codd, stroke survivor Karen Bayly and occupational therapist Simone Russell about their experience of retraining the brain.

bio-laviniaDr Lavinia Codd is a stroke survivor and neuroscientist from the Queensland Brain Institute, who is studying how exercise helps mice grow new brain cells.


bio-michelleDr Michelle McDonnell is Senior Lecturer in Physiotherapy Rehabilitation at the University of South Australia, who’s researching how neuroplasticity works after stroke and whether exercise helps.


bio-karenKaren Bayly, a stroke survivor and strong advocate for improved stroke treatment, who took part in the Study of the Effectiveness of Neurorehabilitation on Sensation (SENSe) project at the Florey Institute in Melbourne.


bio-simoneSimone Russell, an occupational therapist and one of the health professionals who answers questions on the Stroke Foundation’s Strokeline and at enableme.org.au.


 

Bonus questions

Due to time constraints, we couldn’t answer all the questions that were submitted through our website and Facebook. But we still passed them on to our experts, and here are their responses:

Q: Does neuroplasticity happen everywhere in the brain?
Dr Lavinia Codd: New connections can probably form anywhere, but neurogenesis, or the growth of new brain cells, is mostly restricted to the hippocampus and subventricular zone. These are involved in learning and memory, spatial navigation, and mood regulation. Studies on mice show that neurogenesis is required for the normal functioning of these areas.

Q: What techniques help regain finger dexterity?
Dr Michelle McDonnell: It has to be something you want to do that’s meaningful to you. For instance, you might want to be able to do up buttons so you can dress yourself. If you tell this to your physiotherapist or occupational therapist, they’ll give you an exercise program at the right level of difficulty. It might involve starting with really big buttons and progressing to smaller buttons, or going from one to two hands. And you then need to practise it over and over again. But everyone’s impairments are different, whether it’s in the range of motion, strength, coordination, or sensation, so the program needs to be tailored for you.
Karen Bayly: I’d like to add that you should do whatever you love doing and do it a lot! Incorporate your practice into the things you enjoy doing, such as cooking or craft.

Q: Are their similar ways to recover speech?
Dr Michelle McDonnell: People with aphasia, or speech problems, can regain speech even years after their stroke. One technique that’s been shown to help some people is a form of constraint-induced speech therapy. This is where people play cards in a group, and to win the game you have to ask for a card you need. Similar to trying to move an affected arm, this helps you exercise the connections in your brain by forcing you to speak, whereas at home you can often get away with nods and other signals to your loved ones.

Q: Can neuroplasticity help with mood and personality changes?
Dr Michelle McDonnell: The short answer is maybe, but it’s very difficult. Rehabilitation requires motivation, so if someone isn’t aware they have problems, or even that they’ve had a stroke, then everything is harder. Post-stroke depression can also make it very difficult to get motivated, so it takes longer to recover. Passive treatments like brain stimulation don’t make meaningful changes without exercises. However, there is some promising research into anti-depressants, even for people who aren’t depressed, so there might be some progress in that area in the next few years.

Q: Do brain training apps help?
Dr Michelle McDonnell: Neuroplasticity has to be specific, so you have to train what you want to get better. So brain training apps for memory might work, if you want to improve your recall of phone numbers and names. But that probably won't transfer to things like speeding up your thinking or your ability to put things together. However, there is also research being done on Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia on combining brain training with exercise for added benefit for learning and memory skills. So physical activity might promote neuroplasticity and improve your mood, as well as keeping you healthy and helping to prevent another stroke.

Episode 1 - Neuroplasticity

Read a transcript of the podcast here.

The number one topic stroke survivors ask us about is neuroplasticity, and how to take advantage of the brain’s amazing potential to change itself. But there’s still a lot of confusion about what it actually entails, what to expect, or even who can help you with it. We speak to physiotherapy lecturer Michelle McDonnell, neuroscientist Lavinia Codd, stroke survivor Karen Bayly and occupational therapist Simone Russell about their experience of retraining the brain.

bio-laviniaDr Lavinia Codd is a stroke survivor and neuroscientist from the Queensland Brain Institute, who is studying how exercise helps mice grow new brain cells.


bio-michelleDr Michelle McDonnell is Senior Lecturer in Physiotherapy Rehabilitation at the University of South Australia, who’s researching how neuroplasticity works after stroke and whether exercise helps.


bio-karenKaren Bayly, a stroke survivor and strong advocate for improved stroke treatment, who took part in the Study of the Effectiveness of Neurorehabilitation on Sensation (SENSe) project at the Florey Institute in Melbourne.


bio-simoneSimone Russell, an occupational therapist and one of the health professionals who answers questions on the Stroke Foundation’s Strokeline and at enableme.org.au.


 

Bonus questions

Due to time constraints, we couldn’t answer all the questions that were submitted through our website and Facebook. But we still passed them on to our experts, and here are their responses:

Q: Does neuroplasticity happen everywhere in the brain?
Dr Lavinia Codd: New connections can probably form anywhere, but neurogenesis, or the growth of new brain cells, is mostly restricted to the hippocampus and subventricular zone. These are involved in learning and memory, spatial navigation, and mood regulation. Studies on mice show that neurogenesis is required for the normal functioning of these areas.

Q: What techniques help regain finger dexterity?
Dr Michelle McDonnell: It has to be something you want to do that’s meaningful to you. For instance, you might want to be able to do up buttons so you can dress yourself. If you tell this to your physiotherapist or occupational therapist, they’ll give you an exercise program at the right level of difficulty. It might involve starting with really big buttons and progressing to smaller buttons, or going from one to two hands. And you then need to practise it over and over again. But everyone’s impairments are different, whether it’s in the range of motion, strength, coordination, or sensation, so the program needs to be tailored for you.
Karen Bayly: I’d like to add that you should do whatever you love doing and do it a lot! Incorporate your practice into the things you enjoy doing, such as cooking or craft.

Q: Are their similar ways to recover speech?
Dr Michelle McDonnell: People with aphasia, or speech problems, can regain speech even years after their stroke. One technique that’s been shown to help some people is a form of constraint-induced speech therapy. This is where people play cards in a group, and to win the game you have to ask for a card you need. Similar to trying to move an affected arm, this helps you exercise the connections in your brain by forcing you to speak, whereas at home you can often get away with nods and other signals to your loved ones.

Q: Can neuroplasticity help with mood and personality changes?
Dr Michelle McDonnell: The short answer is maybe, but it’s very difficult. Rehabilitation requires motivation, so if someone isn’t aware they have problems, or even that they’ve had a stroke, then everything is harder. Post-stroke depression can also make it very difficult to get motivated, so it takes longer to recover. Passive treatments like brain stimulation don’t make meaningful changes without exercises. However, there is some promising research into anti-depressants, even for people who aren’t depressed, so there might be some progress in that area in the next few years.

Q: Do brain training apps help?
Dr Michelle McDonnell: Neuroplasticity has to be specific, so you have to train what you want to get better. So brain training apps for memory might work, if you want to improve your recall of phone numbers and names. But that probably won't transfer to things like speeding up your thinking or your ability to put things together. However, there is also research being done on Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia on combining brain training with exercise for added benefit for learning and memory skills. So physical activity might promote neuroplasticity and improve your mood, as well as keeping you healthy and helping to prevent another stroke.