Strokes are the third-leading cause of death in Canada and occur when blood flow to the brain is disrupted (Public Health Agency of Canada, 2016). This interruption can be classified in one of two ways. An ischemic stroke, which occurs when a physical blockage, such as a blood clot or piece of plaque, obstructs a blood vessel in the brain, or as a hemorrhagic stroke, which occurs when a blood vessel in the brain bursts and leaks blood into adjacent tissues (Columbia University Department of Neurology, 2019). Strokes cause severe and long-lasting side effects and can impact the quality of life of stroke survivors, but with the help of a process known as neuroplasticity, survivors can make a full recovery.
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The human brain requires a continuous supply of oxygen in order to function and interruptions to that flow, such as those caused by strokes, can cause severe and long-lasting side effects. The length of time in which the brain is deprived of essential oxygen and nutrients and when treatment of the injury occurs can impact the extent of damage to brain tissues (Ludwig & Terry, 2016; Columbia University Department of Neurology, 2019). Brain cell death occurs after even just a few minutes, and accumulation of damaged areas can continue to occur over a period of several days, known as a stroke-in-evolution (Columbia University Department of Neurology, 2019).
Strokes damage a portion of neural connections in the brain, but they can reform through a process known as neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity can rewire functions to new and healthy areas of the brain, such as the opposite hemisphere to where the stroke occurred, to help compensate for the damage sustained after a stroke (Flint Rehab, 2020). The brain region next to the area that was damaged during the stroke is called the peri-infarct zone and has increased ability for neuroplasticity that can aid in recovery, due to the presence of trophic factors which stimulate the growth of new dendrites and axons (Hutchinson, 2011). This ability, however, is limited by the presence of inhibitory chemicals in the injured area and inhibits the growth of new axons around that area to prevent the brain from forming rushed or incorrect connects between new brain areas.
The most effective way to stimulate the brain and activate neuroplastic response to enable stroke recovery is through repetitive motion, or massed practice, and is at its peak immediately after a stroke (Flint Rehab, 2020; Hoffman, 2019). This is why stroke survivors start rehabilitation immediately after being treated. Massed practice helps to initiate spontaneous recovery and forces the brain to retrain itself and create new neural connections and pathways (Hoffman, 2019). Additionally, brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) supports and encourages growth of new neurons and synapses, making it critical in neuroplasticity. Stroke patients can boost BDNF levels with anaerobic exercise or by eating foods rich in omega-3s. Exercise and BDNF support the development of new nerve cells in the hippocampus—a region critical for memory and cognitive area which can help stroke patients improve their cognitive ability (Flint Rehab, 2020).
In conclusion, stroke survivors can make a full recovery with the appropriate rehabilitation that forces patients to continuously repeat exercises to form new pathways in their brain, thanks to the neuroplasticity process present in the human brain.
- Columbia University Department of Neurology (2019). Overview of Stroke. http://www.columbianeurology.org/neurology/staywell/document.php?id=33442
- Flint Rehab. (2020). Neuroplasticity after stroke: how the brain rewires itself to bounce back from injury. https://www.flintrehab.com/2020/neuroplasticity-after-stroke/
- Hara, Y. (2015). Brain Plasticity and Rehabilitation in Stroke Patients. Journal of Nippon Medical School, 82(1), 4–13. doi: 10.1272/jnms.82.4Hoffman, H. (2019, April 26). Neuroplasticity: Stimulating Your Brain to Enhance Stroke Recovery. https://www.saebo.com/blog/neuroplasticity-stimulating-your-brain-for-stroke-recovery/
- Hutchinson, E. (2011). Functional recovery after stroke. Nature Reviews Neuroscience. 12(4), 1-1. http://dx.doi.org.subzero.lib.uoguelph.ca/10.1038/nrn2965
- John Hopkins Medicine. (2020). Effects of Stroke. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/stroke/effects-of-stroke
- Krause, M., Corts, D., Smith, S., & Dolderman, D. (2015). An Introduction to Psychological Science (1st ed.). Toronto, ON: Pearson.
- Ludwig, B., & Terry, J. (2016) What happens during a stroke? Premier Health. https://www.premierhealth.com/your-health/articles/women-wisdom-wellness-/what-happens-during-a-stroke-
- Public Health Agency of Canada. (2016). Stroke in Canada: Highlights from the Canadian Chronic Disease Surveillance System. https://www.canada.ca/content/dam/phac-aspc/documents/services/publications/diseases-conditions/stroke-vasculaires/stroke-vasculaires-canada-eng.pdf
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