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August 6, 2010 / Mark Kerrigan

What Is Self-Directed Neuroplasticity?


Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to reorganize itself to continue doing certain things or to make itself more efficient. After someone sustains a traumatic brain injury (TBI), whether the result of stroke, motor vehicle collision, or hypoxia, some portions of the brain are compromised. They have been injured, and therefore don’t work the way they should.

Let’s suppose that Billy (totally fictional character) was in a car wreck and sustained a TBI as a result of not wearing his seat belt. Billy’s in a coma for several weeks while his brain is trying to get all his systems back online. So when he finally wakes, Billy finds that he can’t walk. Let’s just focus on the walking part of Billy’s recovery. I’m sure there are dozens, even hundreds of other issues, but right now, we’re going to pretend that the only thing which changed for Billy is his ability to walk.

Billy’s family and therapists tell him what to do, “Billy, just pick up your left foot and move it in front of the other one,” but still he can’t figure out how to move his foot. The problem is that the brain knows what it wants his body to do, it just can’t get the message to his muscles–giving them their instructions.

Billy’s brain has the information needed to get him to walk, but it just has to find a new pathway around the damaged part–essentially it needs to create a new synapse or connection between neurons. So when the brain finally creates the necessary synapses, which probably number in the thousands given the brain’s complexity, Billy finds that he can move his left foot and even make it go in front of the other one.

The more Billy concentrates on getting himself to walk, without assistance, the better his brain’s new connections will become, enabling him to walk better than he ever thought possible. Focusing our attention on what we want to do better, faster, or more efficiently is the key to Self-Directed Neuroplasticity.

Just last week, I decided it was time to replace the bulb in the left turn-signal of my car. I had all the necessary equipment, and even got some pointers from the guy at Autozone where I bought the bulb. So I read the directions about replacing the turn signal bulb–they’re found in the owner’s manual, which I didn’t know before last week–I began removing the plastic fasteners from the inside fender. The entire process took me about 25-30 minutes because I had never done it before. I told my friend who used to work at a car manufacturing plant about the whole experience, and he said, “It’ll probably take you five the next time you have to do it, now that you know how.”

I bet it takes him about 45 seconds to swap out a turn signal bulb because he’s done it so many times and for so long. He has focused his attention on fixing and assembling cars, and therefore his brain has created synapses between the neurons that mine simply lacks. What we need to do in order to effectively engage in self-directed neuroplasticity is to focus on the things we want to improve.

Whether it’s walking, talking, playing chess or writing a creative story, we simply have to focus our attention on it in order to get better at doing it.

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14 Comments

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  1. Steve Rains / Sep 13 2010 2:29 am

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  2. chrisele / Jul 13 2011 2:38 pm

    Can self-directed neuroplasticity (SDN) be needed years after a TBI? I am almost an 8yr survivor who had a very extensive injury but remarkably was able to regain a new way of life. I just completed my bachelors degree in nursing and it was very hard. I just read this article and am curious if it explains why it takes me so long to learn or follow something. I need lots of constant repetition, is that included with SDN? Thanks

    • Patrick Girardeau / Apr 20 2012 6:33 pm

      Hey my name is Patrick and I had an MVA on July 13, 1986, spent 28 in a coma in Vermont, was a madic for a about 12 – 13 years on and off. I just turned in my lisence last year, no time to work on the anbulance anymore! I currently own an Occupational Health and Safety Company in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Cabada. I work with my wofe and she is very supportive of my brain injury. I had the aspiration of becoming an MD. Now that have found that site, all hopes are revived again, I think it might be possible after reading your story! I will give you my contact info I would not mind talking to you about this. Patrick 1-866-975-0046 office, 780-975-4039 cell, email: girardeau66@hotmail.com . Thganks in advance.

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  6. Sharon Joy / Aug 26 2014 12:58 pm

    A recent speaker at the Portland City Club, a General in the Armed Services, spoke about traumatic brain injuries. He said that many were found that occurred long before they joined the army, such as during high school football games.
    My first memory was of amnesia, when i was three years old.
    Ten days in a nursing home twenty five years ago made me unable to recognize recent friends, and old friends couldn’t recognize me after going into the same one. Everyone there soon acquired Alzheimer’s after taking their medication.
    i haven’t been able to move my legs since 1989 but affirmations have helped in other ways so I am telling myself that I am finding ways to stand up for myself.

  7. Junior / Aug 27 2014 12:38 pm

    Howdy! This blog post couldn’t be written any better! Going through this post reminds me of my previous
    roommate! He continually kept preaching about this.
    I am going to send this article to him. Pretty sure he’ll have a very good read.
    Thank you for sharing!

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