After suffering a traumatic brain injury, James Piercy wanted to find out how his brain really worked. Would he recover from his accident? And how would his brain adapt to the damage it had experienced? Joined by neuroscientist, Dr Michael Grey, James invited the audience to question their understanding of how the brain forms new connections – and how this process can be exploited to aid neurological rehabilitation.
James started his talk by using the analogy of a road network to represent the billions of neuronal connections in the brain. Just like how you’d usually take the most direct route from A to B in a car, your neurons want to form quick and easy connections. However, after a brain injury, you might encounter “traffic” or a “road closure” in the brain. Although you can still get from A to B, it might take you longer than expected, or via a diversion. The brain might now have to work harder in order to relearn even ‘simple’ behaviours, such as walking and talking.
During the talk, Dr Grey took to the stage to demonstrate Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) therapy. The TMS monitor was placed on the right side of his head and as a result, stimulated different areas of his left arm and hand. Dr Grey explained that it was this technology which helped him to form a virtual map of James’ brain. Through identifying motor areas of the brain that did not function as they should, Dr Grey could ascertain which motor tasks James would require the most help with during neurological rehabilitation. Furthermore, he explained that rehabilitation must be both ‘challenging’ and ‘task specific’. This ensures that the neuroplasticity of the brain is used to the patient’s advantage, allowing them to build strong and effective new connections.
James finished the talk by touching on the day-to-day realities of recovering from a brain injury. He explained how he now understands first-hand why many people are reluctant to engage with neurological rehabilitation. It involves a lot of frustration and failure. However, as he went on to say, it is failure that teaches you the most. James closed the talk by explaining that rehabilitation has helped him to regain a sense of identity. And therein lies the beauty of the brain’s neuroplasticity: not only does it help people to recover from a brain injury physically, but psychosocially, too.