When we hear the phase “use it or lose it” we can be talking about so many different things: maintain physical activity or you’ll start to become weak; continue to practice your second language or you’ll forget specific words; drink up your oat milk or it will go sour. When we hear it in the neuro field, we’re often referring to your brain: continue to use your brain or you’ll start to lose it.
What does it mean to “lose our brain”?
The brain consists of over 100 billion neurons and each of these neurons have thousands of connections to other neurons. When we learn something new, many new connections are made. As we continue to practice and become better at the new skill, these connections become stronger, activate more easily, and become more efficient (i.e. it takes less brain resources to complete the skill). If we imagine a child learning how to walk, at first the child’s walk is incomplete and messy. There’s a lot of falling, wide stepping and arms are either raised up or out to the side. Oftentimes, if you distract the child or ask them to do something else at the same time, they stop walking or they fall over. Walking at this stage requires a lot of effort from the brain. As they get older, their walking becomes more refined and efficient, and so does the brain. Decades of studying the brain have shown us that the brain is plastic; it’s malleable and ever changing. We can learn new skills no matter how old we are. However, in the same fashion, we can lose skills. When we don’t practice a skill enough, the neuronal connections required to perform that skill weaken and it becomes harder to activate them. We lose efficiency. We require more resources to activate the neurons and we may exhaust our resources, resulting in us only partially completing the skill or not completing it at all.
Brain health as we age and in neurological populations
When we look at how the brain responds to aging, we generally witness a decrease in number of connections between the neurons, an over activation of brain regions required to complete a skill, or an inability for the neuron to activate sufficiently. As a result, skills that were once easy, become more difficult, become “messy”, and fatiguing. Because the brain naturally decreases efficiency with aging, it is even more important to use it and continue to create new connections.
A similar phenomenon occurs in the neurological population, and in some cases, this occurs more rapidly. If your injury was directly to your brain (e.g. an acquired brain injury: stroke, concussion, head trauma), then neurons or neuronal connections in the area are lost and you have a lower pool of neurons/connections to work with. New connections then need to be made to replace those that were lost. Because we have so many neurons within our brain, we also have a lot of redundancy. Depending on your injury, neurons that were previously dormant or not involved in a refined skill, can become active and create new connections.
How can we help you maintain or improve brain health?
Neuroplasticity is the term people commonly use to refer to the brain changing. In order to promote neuroplasticity, research has shown us that there are several key principles we should follow (Kleim and Jones 2008). I like to use these principles to guide my sessions. When I first meet with a new client I always like to come up with very specific and meaningful goals. This provides SALIENCE to the treatment; we create a meaning, or an importance to why we are working on what we work on. Once we begin working on a goal, we practice, practice, practice. We do multiple REPETITIONs to strengthen the neural connections and make it more efficient. Once the task becomes easier, we then practice the task in different ways so the goal TRANSFERs to different situations. It is also important to make sure that we continue to maintain an appropriate amount of challenge; an optimal INTENSITY is required to continue strengthening and enhancing the neural connection. Once a goal is achieved, we then start working on another goal, but periodically come back to or integrate the previous goal to ensure that the goal can still be achieved with INTERFERENCE from other tasks. We do this to also ensure that you continue to USE IT and don’t LOSE IT. Of course, your time with me with only a small portion of your day. So it is important that you also work on components of these tasks when we are not together. By doing this, you are further strengthening the neural connections through increased repetition, reinforcing the connections through introducing interference from other things in your environment and working on the transference of your goal.
Overall, the key is to find a challenging goal and continue to find challenging goals. Challenge your brain by doing something new. This is how we exercise our brain.
If you’d like more information about brain health I recommend looking into these other brilliant resources:
Book: The Brain’s Way of Healing by Norman Doidge
Book: The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge
Podcast: A Grey Matter, episode 13, What happens to your brain as you age?
Shannon Lim, Registered Physiotherapist
Disclaimer: This blog is meant to provide a brief and oversimplified overview on why and how we can maintain and improve brain health. Many studies have investigated how specific treatments may be more appropriate for some populations. For more detail on how brain health impacts you, how you can improve your function after a brain or neurological injury, and reach your goals, please contact a healthcare professional.
Reference: Kleim, J. A., & Jones, T. A. (2008). Principles of experience-dependent neural plasticity: implications for rehabilitation after brain damage. Journal of speech, language, and hearing research.