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You can teach an old dog new tricks, and this old dog wants to learn – Thomas P. O’Neill

In February 1983, my grandmother had a stroke that paralysed the right side of her body. The doctors, physiotherapists and family members focused on helping her learn to live with just her left side. They succeeded: she lived another 30 years, mostly without help. She was a tough woman who grew up on a ranch where there was no running water or time to complain. According to conventional medical thinking at the time, she was a success story.

Trying to get her to use her right hand would have been pointless (they thought), since the part of her brain that operates the right side of the body was damaged by the stroke. At the time they believed that the brain was ‘hard wired’: one part of the brain to control the right hand, one for the left hand, and so on. If one part of the brain was damaged, that was it. Yet unbeknownst to my grandmother’s therapists (science can move at a frustratingly slow pace), researchers had already discovered that the brain wasn’t completely hard wired.images

It all started in 1958, when University of Wisconsin Professor Paul Bach-Y-Rita‘s father Pedro suffered from a stroke. Like my grandmother, half of Pedro’s body was paralysed. Pedro also lost his ability to speak. But Paul’s brother George refused to believe his father would spend the rest of his days in that condition. Instead of ignoring the paralyzed side, George encouraged Pedro to try and use it. He tried again and again (and again), and after a lot of hard work, he succeeded. Pedro got to the point where he could walk and hike normally. After he died, scientists did an autopsy and were surprised by what they found.

The part of Pedro’s brain that was damaged during the stroke, was still damaged. Instead, other parts of the brain had reorganised itelf so that he could use both sides of his body. Eventually, Bach-y-Rita’s (and other scientists‘) research was adapted for stoke victims in a kind of treatment called Constraint Induced Movement Therapy (CIMT). CIMT involves restricting the limb that can be used by placing it in a sling or splint for 90% of the patient’s waking hours for about two weeks. The therapy has helped people who suffered a stroke to regain use of their ‘paralysed’ limb. Had the therapy been available to my grandmother when she had her stroke, I have no doubt that with her determined character she would have recovered most of the use of her right side.

This kind of research developed into a new field called ‘neuroplasticity‘, which means the science of how the brain can change (‘neuro’=brain, ‘plastic’=changeable). Neuroplasticity is pretty sexy so it shouldn’t surprise you that some commercial programs claim to use neuroplasticity ‘techniques’ that help you think yourself into becoming a new and improved person. These commercial programs are rarely based on good evidence. What good science has shown is that the brain can generate new neurons (albeit in a limited way), even in elderly people. These brain changes can occur faster than was previously believed. Scans on medical students before and after they studied for exams found the volume of grey matter in their brains increased significantly in a just a few months.

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Basically, you can teach old dogs new tricks.

This is good news for our health because the biggest cause of death in developed nations is heart disease. Changing the way we eat, think, and exercise can reduce the risks of heart disease. Learning about neuroplasticity is even motivating me to try (again!) to stop eating chocolate cake.

This and other ideas discussed in Jeremy Howick’s latest book Doctor You