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Teaching Your Brain New Tricks Neuroplasticity in Brain Fitness and Recovery

 


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Old notions that brain function inevitably declines as we age and we become less creative and sharp are being turned upside down. In fact, the brain continues to reorganize throughout life by creating new connections between brain cells, or neurons, a phenomenon called neuroplasticity. Brain fitness has become a hot new phrase. Now we can apply it to healthy aging, and recovery from illness and addiction.

Recent scientific studies have shown that that by middle-age, the functions of the left and right brain hemispheres become more integrated. Gene D. Cohen, M. D. , PhD. author of The Creative Age, described it this way: the brain goes on “all-wheel dive. " We can become more, not less creative in expression and solutions. In fact, when we challenge our minds, the neurons, or brain cells grow extensions that communicate with each other, forming new synapses. New ideas spring from the exchange of information between brain cells.

These findings have real implications for everyone as they age, as well as therapists and those in recovery from the disease of addiction. We know that brain pathways change as a response to alcohol abuse, because we understand what parts of the brain comprise the “reward" system. Cravings develop because repeated stimulus and response of alcohol and chemical use creates a strong habitual memory. Alcohol's affect on neurotransmitter systems causes sedation and impairs memory and learning in brain areas such as the hippocampus.

Therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy within a holistic treatment program help change the way people think and react to stimuli, and retrain the brain pathways. Psychotherapeutic medications may also be appropriate in reducing withdrawal symptoms and cravings as the brain retrains itself. We believe in possibilities for new neural pathways being formed and even the reactivation of existing neural pathways that are inactive, or used for other functions. In fact, studies with those who had lost sight later in life found that the brain has an ability to readjust circuits to process language, and that special brain exercises could help retrain people to regain language functions in spite of deficits.

The urge for expression, for purpose and for creative solutions doesn't ebb with age, but it can be buried or subdued by difficult life circumstances or the pressures of juggling family and financial pressures. Coping often leads to the attempt to find release and relief through alcohol and chemical abuse. When the disease of addiction results, creativity and experiencing purposeful living lie in a heap with other good intentions.

In treatment, it is exciting to see how creative therapies and gentle brain games can stimulate brain activity and cognition, personal expressions, creativity and problem solving. Spirituality can be explored in new ways through expressive outlets. Creative therapies can also help control anxiety, obsessive thoughts and cravings, and be significant relapse prevention tools when incorporated in a holistic, Twelve Step program.

Brain fitness, that is, stimulating the brain's plasticity, can be enhanced with brain games and creative therapies as well as with physical exercise. In fact, technology can guide exercise. For example, the Wii exercise program is geared for various levels of fitness, and has found great success in a number of older adult education venues. It's easy and fun to use. Brain games or brain aerobics sources can easily be found on the Internet, such as brainingle.com SharpBrains.com and BrainMetrix.com New names have popped up in this explosion of brain fitness options, such as Neuroboticsê.

Then there are print versions of brain games, and there's nothing like the good old crossword puzzle, available in degrees of difficulty. A major factor in stimulating the brain is to challenge it in new or unfamiliar ways in order to solve problems. Keeping the exercise brief and fun is most successful in recovery. Brain games can tap into the brain's adaptive capacity and address some cognition problems. Learning a second language is an excellent example of training the brain to think, and may be explored in later recovery.

When engaging in brain games and brain fitness exercises, the individual increases the number of connections of brain neurons. This is encouraging, because it helps to build up a brain reserve. Dr. Pacale Michekon of Sharpbrains.com also noted that a person who continually stimulates a special area of interest, such as music, will have more brain vortex volume (the gray matter) in areas of the brain involved with music, such as motor regions. Those involved with learning abstract information stimulate changes in areas of the brain that involve memory retrieval and learning.

People who suffer from the disease of addiction lose meaningful relationships, energy, creative thought and a sense of purpose in life. Treatment can help reclaim health in a holistic sense, addressing physical, spiritual, emotional and mental aspects. Recovery truly can incorporate brain health and fitness for rejuvenation and meaning. Now we know we can be more, not less creative.

Dr. Barbara Krantz, Chief Executive Officer and Medical Director of Hanley Center, West Palm Beach, Florida, is a noted addictionologist. Hanley Center is a premiere treatment facility for the treatment of addiction. Hanley Center specializes in holistic, age and gender-specific programs based on the Twelve Step philosophy, as well as family therapy, co-dependency, education and prevention services. Hanley pioneered older adult treatment, and has developed an innovative treatment model for Baby Boomers.

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