Recently, my mind has been musing on the brain. I’ve been particularly trying to understand strokes, and more importantly, how to recover from them. Dad is proving to be a remarkable caregiver as I described last week, but the other major actor in this moment is my mother’s brain.
Strokes damage the brain and cut off the connections between nerves throughout the body and the impacted part of the brain. Mom’s stroke damaged the right side of the brain, which almost entirely eliminated movement on the left side of her body. The challenge in recovery is not that the muscles weakened or that the joints are damaged. The left side of her body was completely unharmed. The challenge was that her brain lost connection and therefore control over it.
Her therapy is all about her brain relearning how to control those muscles and joints. In some cases, she might regain lost connections and, in other cases, the brain will create new connections to compensate for the areas more severely damaged by the stroke.
The important factor for any stroke recovery is therapy to help the brain restore the synaptic connections or form new ones, and to do it in the first three months, if possible. Without therapy, the patterns of inactivity and lack of control become the default. So Mom has been diligently doing her exercises.
And it has been truly remarkable to see her brain at work during therapy.
Brain Plasticity in Action
I knew a little bit about neuroplasticity before Mom’s stroke. It’s the idea that the brain changes. Every use of the brain leads to the strengthening of existing connections or the creation of news ones. I wrote about it a while back as a reason for us be hopeful about the kind of changes Christ calls upon our lives. But I had never experienced firsthand the power of that plasticity until the first week I spent with Mom upon her return from the hospital.
Our task was simple—do the exercises, trigger the nerves, and help the brain relearn control over her left limbs. So, each day, we put in the work. I was half cheerleader and half help to get the limb to make the full range of motion. I remember distinctly the simple exercise to raise her knees by lifting her foot from a seated position. It was no effort at all for her right leg, but the first day we tried it, there was nothing I could see happening in the left leg. I had to do the work for her.
The next day, when she tried the same knee lift, her knee did not raise up, but I could see slight motions in the muscles in her legs—almost like spasms. I did as I had the previous day and helped them follow through with the proper motion.
Day three, same exercise— she lifted her foot off the floor! While she expressed her delight, I think my jaw may have dropped as I realized that over the course of three days, I had just seen her brain literally relearn how to raise her knee. I imagine this is the same awe therapists and medical professionals feel when they see their efforts to heal and rehabilitate succeed.
This pattern repeats itself over and over again. Some changes happen in a matter a few days, while others take longer. I’m back home for another round of help and just a day ago, an arm exercise she has been working on for a full month had a breakthrough.
I thank God for creating brains with the ability to heal and restore themselves.
- Here is a useful introduction to neuroplasticity.
- Pioneers in neuroscience discuss neuroplasticity in this fascinating interview.
- Neuroplasticity may be a superpower, but it is not without limits.
- That previous newsletter on neuroplasticity also includes several additional links.
- “Nothing changes without neurons changing,” including spiritual disciplines.
- Pastors and counselors may find this book helpful, or perhaps the Leadership journal issue on “Neuroministry.”
Where the Power Lies
We often link brain power to intelligence or some innate talent. Things like memory, creativity, mathematical ability certainly are amazing capacities of the human brain. But I think the most amazing thing the brain does is change. It’s the power of those synapses and neurons and axons to recreate the pathways necessary for change.
Moreover, I think that innate biological capacity for change that we find in our brains probably has some divine significance. In an echo of creation, the brain makes new neurons and connections that are good. But, we also see here the fall—those changes can be for better or for worse. Think of my mother’s recovery or mastering a new spiritual discipline. Or consider addiction. The brain reflects the fall, but it also gives hope for the transformation we find in a God of second chances, of healing, and of restoration.
In my ongoing engagement with science I often ask myself, ”What kind of God would create a world like the one described by this or that particular aspect of nature?” I find neuroplasticity to be a powerful example where science affirms the God revealed to us in Christ Jesus.
Of course, for all the amazing hope this adaptability of the brain is giving my family, there are times when it does not work as wonderfully as I have described. Some stroke patients recover in part, some in whole, and others very little. That is when we must also remember that the God of transformation who created creatures capable of change and healing is also the God of compassion. And there will be full healing in the new heavens and the new earth. Now we see just a foretaste.
A God who gives us hope to be transformed, or for some to regain what was lost, who is also a God of compassion, is a God I can worship. And with each incremental synaptic connection in Mom’s recovery, that is precisely what I find myself doing. Thanks be to God!