Brain Plasticity (or neuroplasticity or cortical plasticity or cortical re-mapping) is the ability of the brain to change- for better or worse- throughout life. The brain is not a static, fixed structure, but is quite dynamic and adaptable. Brain plasticity is a physical process. Gray matter can literally either shrink or thicken, neural pathways can be developed and improved or even weakened or disconnected. The change may result in an improved skill such as learning how to play the piano, or in a weakening of a skill such as forgetting someone’s name.
This new area of research has had far-reaching implications in brain health and science. Scientists around the globe have been looking to plasticity-based therapies for treating a wide range of cognitive problems such as strokes or traumatic injuries.
More recently, the principles of brain plasticity have been applied to help people recover from ME/CFS, Fibromyalgia and related illnesses. Much of this research is centered on the amygdala- a small, almond-shaped structure connected to the autonomic nervous system. There are two amygdalae in our brain, one on either side.
The primary role of the amygdala is to protect us from danger. It interprets stimuli to determine if they are dangers. If so, it sends a message to another brain structure called the hypothalamus, which turns on the fight or flight response (also known as the sympathetic nervous system response or the stress response).
In people with ME/CFS, for example, it seems that the amygdala, with even a minimal amount of stimulation, gets stuck in a state of high alert and continues to send a danger signal to the hypothalamus, thereby continuously releasing stress chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol into the body. This process becomes harmful to the body and adversely impacts the immune and hormonal systems, leading to the myriad of symtoms ME/CFS patients experience.
Researcher and therapist, Ashok Gupta, developed a technique called the Amygdala Retraining program, based on brain plasticity. Gupta hypothesized that recovery from ME/CFS might involve the development of neural pathways from the medial prefrontal cortex to the amygdala, which can control the amygdala’s over-sensitivity. This hypothesis was based on evidence from the work of Professor Joseph Ledoux, whose animal experiments over the past two decades linked the amygdala function to the monitoring of threat, and emotional responses including fear.
The Amygdala Retraining program employs the power of the mind to heal the body, using techniques derived from Neuro-Linguistic Programming, meditation, breathing techniques, and visualization to connect neurons “from the pre-frontal cortex to the amydgala, to subdue and control its reactions.”
It’s not that difficult to understand brain plasticity and how brain retraining programs may yield beneficial results. It’s important, however, to remember that what works for some people may not work for others. You need to be ready to think outside the box in order for this type of technique to work for you.