Multiple Sclerosis and Neuroplasticity
Last updated: April 2022
If you live with multiple sclerosis, you’ve probably learned, or at least heard, more about the brain and nervous system than you ever imagined. If you haven’t yet, I’m sure you will. There are some terms and concepts that are really interesting and integral to living your best life with MS. One of these is the concept of neuroplasticity. So in the following piece, I will talk about what neuroplasticity is and why it’s so important to those of us with multiple sclerosis.
What is neuroplasticity?
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to continue growing and evolving through life’s experiences. In the past, scientists thought this occurred only during childhood; however, they now realize that the brain has the ability to continue this process throughout its life. The “evolving” part of that definition is really important for those with MS. Basically, that means that the brain has the ability to reorganize itself to help compensate for injury and disease. This means that, with some help, the brain can actually rewire itself in an attempt to keep functioning as desired.1
When talking about neuroplasticity, you may hear the reference to two different types, “structural” and “functional”:2,3
- Structural neuroplasticity is our brain’s ability to change its physical structure as it learns new things. This means we can actually improve the wiring of our brain by exercising it.
- Functional neuroplasticity is our brain’s ability to move function from a damaged area to an undamaged area. This is the brain taking care of itself, doing damage control, and rewiring the areas that need it in order to maintain function.
What does neuroplasticity mean for those with MS?
The neuroplasticity of the brain is massively important to those with MS. The disease is destroying the wiring in our brain, but neuroplasticity allows us to compensate for that damage. It’s a key part of coming back from a relapse, as our brain learns to work around the damaged sections. Neuroplasticity is also very important because it proves that we can actually take efforts to lessen our levels of disability. Studies have shown that we improve and even recover some of the motor functions we’ve lost due to MS through rehabilitation, all because of the neuroplasticity of the brain.3
Examples of neuroplasticity
I’ve long been a proponent of a full team approach to fighting MS. By that, I mean, in order to live our best lives with this disease, we need more than a neurologist who specializes in MS. We need physical, occupational, speech, and mental health therapists to help us adapt to the damage the disease does to us. All of those disciplines have proven exceptionally helpful in helping those with MS improve both their physical and cognitive issues.4
The neuroplasticity of the brain is a reason for hope. It’s why we can sustain tremendous damage to the myelin surrounding our nerves and yet still adapt and regain function. It also gives us some say, some control, with a disease that takes so much of that from us. It means that we can rehab, we can put in some work, and improve our levels of disability. We may never be what we’d like, but the science of neuroplasticity has proven that we can improve ourselves.
FYI, I once wrote an article that demonstrates one way that neuroplasticity can help us with droop foot via mirror therapy.
Thanks so much for reading and feel free to share! As always, I would love to hear about your experiences in the comments below!
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