Stretching Long Unused Parts of My Brain
Just some food for thought…
I live in a neighborhood that’s placed right on the edge of a golf course, and our home is not in the middle of this neighborhood, no, it’s on the very edge - the wrought iron fence in our backyard is literally the only thing separating us from the green. Well, what used to be the green. You see, several years ago, when California first started to experience a drought, they shut it down because the water cost was just too high. Everything dried up and died. Now that they have been preparing to reopen it, there is always some kind of work going on back there, whether it’s just an immense amount of watering or actually reshaping the land with huge tractors.
Back to my high school engineering days
This has caused the occasional field mouse to flee into our garage, and because I’m not trying to kill them, this has resulted in me trying to make little mouse traps to capture them. I spent a few hours the other day creating a new one consisting of a bucket, trap doors, and small counterweights. When I finished it, I felt pretty good, like I had just stretched a part of my brain that has been unused since my high school engineering days. This got me thinking about neurogenesis vs. neuroplasticity in multiple sclerosis (MS).
I’m about to start connecting some dots that may seem to be all over the place at first, but I’m just walking you along my thought process so that hopefully, towards the end, I can tie it all together in a way that actually makes sense.
Rebuilding vs. rewiring
Neurogenesis is the creation of new brain cells, and neuroplasticity is basically the brain’s ability to change itself. An extreme example of this is when they have to remove half of someone’s brain (a hemispherectomy) which should leave half of their body paralyzed (each half of our brain controls one half of our body), but incredibly, in some cases, the remaining half of their brain learns to do the job of the missing half. It essentially rewires itself so that the parts of the brain that were previously used for one thing are now used for another in order to compensate for what’s missing. It would kind of be like working in an office with 10 other people, but one day, 5 of them are laid off. In order to keep the office running, the remaining employees simply divide the extra work among themselves. Again, this is an extreme example, but it perfectly depicts how the brain can change in ways that allow it to work around a deficit.
Guess I’m a little rusty
Now, after reading about this, my train of thought arrived at the phrase “if you don’t use it, you lose it.” I had made a simple little mouse trap which required me to use my creativity and ingenuity, as well as my hands (to craft and assemble it), which were skills that I often used in my high school engineering program when making things like little mousetrap-powered cars or balsa wood gliders. It felt like I had finally stretched that part of my brain because I haven’t used it in forever! So, I started to wonder, how literal is the concept of “if you don’t use it, you lose it”? When you don’t do something for a long enough time, do you really lose the ability to do it?
Pruning the garden in your brain
After doing a little more reading, it turns out that you do! Well, kind of… I’m now going to introduce you to a concept that’s relatively new to me. But first, everything you do, everything you smell, taste, hear, see, or even think about involves your brain creating a pathway. Let’s say you meet someone new. You see their face and hear their name. If you see them every day, then the pathway in your brain connecting the sight of their face to the sound of their name will become stronger, and so their name is easy to remember. But what if it’s years before you see them again? That pathway will not have been strengthened, and you might have a hard time remembering their name. OK, still with me? This is where I learned something new. Apparently, after a long enough period of time, your brain does a little spring cleaning and tries to clear out all the unused connections in your brain to make room for new ones. This is referred to as synaptic pruning. Your brain finds pathways you haven’t been using and gets rid of them.
Doing some neurological road work
Anyway, back to MS. MS causes lesions in the brain to form, which are basically just little spots where myelin is damaged, right? If the trillions of connections in your brain are like the intersections on a map of a city, then the myelin and nerves they protect would be the roads in between these intersections. Once a lesion forms, that “road” can no longer be traveled across, preventing nerve signals from traveling from one connection to the next. So, if your destination requires you to cross a specific intersection but the roads leading to it are damaged, does that mean that the only way to possibly get to your destination is to rebuild that particular stretch of road (neurogenesis), or is it possible to simply build a new one around the damage? To practice doing a task differently until those pathways in your brain have been strengthened enough that it feels natural?
Think of it like this; if you’re right-handed, you probably brush your teeth with your right hand. Trying to brush your teeth with your left hand feels odd, right? That’s because the pathways responsible for allowing your left hand to perform all the tiny, intricate, movements that are required to brush your teeth are not that strong. They say that brushing your teeth every morning with your non-dominant hand is actually good for your brain because it helps strengthen pathways that are typically not used.
Our brains need exercise, too
To wrap my little thought journey up, there are lots of things that I have stopped doing since the time I was diagnosed with MS because they became too difficult. I now wish I could go back and tell myself not to give those things up just because they were getting tough because doing so would only mean that the pathways and connections which allowed me to do them would only grow weaker. It’s just like how not using your arm after breaking it causes the muscle to atrophy after a while. You got to keep using it or it will waste away…
I should have kept trying when it came to my hobbies despite the growing difficulty because it probably would have either strengthened the pathways involved enough to overcome the damage MS did, or possibly, created new ones to work around it. With enough exercise, maybe I would be far better off today, or maybe, it would have made absolutely no difference, and I would be in exactly the same place as I am now. Who knows? Regardless, I now plan on reintroducing myself to old tasks and hobbies that used to be part of my life in hopes of strengthening the old pathways in my brain that are used for them or possibly creating new ones over the years. I mean, worst case scenario, nothing happens, so what do I have to lose?
If you don’t use it, you lose it
So, my whole point here is that you shouldn’t give something up just because MS has made it more difficult. That’s what I did, so instead of spending the last 8 years trying to strengthen those connections, I guess I basically just let them shrivel up. I obviously am no doctor and definitely haven’t read about this enough (yet) to totally know what I’m talking about, but so far? It looks like it’s true; if you don’t use it, you lose it. In addition to physical exercise, which has been shown to promote neurogenesis, shouldn’t we be trying to work out our brains in ways that help strengthen all the connections we already have? So much focus is placed on neurogenesis, but maybe the research community should also focus on the role of neuroplasticity in MS.
I don’t know how much of a role this all plays in MS, this was all just some food for thought. Do you do anything to help keep your brain well-exercised? How aware of neuroplasticity and synaptic pruning were you? Has any medical professional ever talked to you about these concepts? Share in the comments below!
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