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Neuroplasticity - the brain's ability to adapt - offers hope to those with debilitating diseases

Neuroplasticity - the brain's ability to adapt - offers hope to those with debilitating diseases
In the 2014 film "Still Alice," Julianne Moore portrays a professor with early-onset Alzheimer's disease. Researchers are finding new ways to harness the brain's own adaptability to address brain injury and disease. (Linda Kallerus / Sony Pictures Classics)

Oscar winners Julianne Moore, who portrayed a woman battling early-onset Alzheimer's disease, and Eddie Redmayne, who played Stephen Hawking, a theoretical physicist with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), have helped shine a light on debilitating brain diseases that affect millions of people around the world. There's no cure for either disease (the writer and co-director of Moore's "Still Alice" died of complications from ALS just weeks after the Academy Awards), but there is hope from neuroplasticity.

" 'Neuro' stands for neurons, the nerve cells in the brain that generate electrical activity, and 'plasticity' means changeable, adaptable and modifiable," explains Norman Doidge, a psychiatrist and author of "The Brain's Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries From the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity." "It's that property of the brain that allows it to change its structure and function in response to activity and mental experience. And it's a revolutionary discovery, because for many decades it was believed that the circuitry of the brain was formed and finalized in early childhood."

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In his book, Doidge, a faculty member at Columbia University in New York City and the University of Toronto, profiles specialists and patients who've harnessed the power of neuroplasticity to treat severe brain injuries and illnesses, including Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, autism, multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy. But the possibilities extend to more common concerns such as weight loss, addiction and depression.

Leslie Carr is a San Francisco-based clinical psychologist who says her work wouldn't be possible but for neuroplasticity. "As a therapist, I think of it in terms of recognizing the way your brain has been wired in the past and rewiring your brain by shifting those experiences," she says. "If you can step back for a moment and recognize that every experience you've ever had is shaping your view of the world, and your expectations of it, you can make a shift and view the world differently as a result."

"We're all works in progress," says David Eagleman, neuroscientist at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and author of the bestseller "Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain." Eagleman and his team have been working with crack cocaine addicts to develop a new strategy for rehabilitation. "By taking advantage of plasticity, we're giving them the cognitive tools to overcome their craving," he says. "This could also be used as a preventive measure for people who are overweight and can't stop eating, or for any addict who wants to develop better control over his impulses."

How to retrain your brain

Doidge profiles cutting-edge treatments, including light, sound and vibration therapies. However, anyone can improve the plasticity of the brain simply by adjusting daily habits.

"One of the most important things you can do is seek novelty," Eagleman says. "I try to drive a different route home from work every day because that shifts me out of autopilot mode and helps build new roadways in my brain." Other suggestions include wearing your watch on the opposite wrist, brushing your teeth with your other hand, completely reorganizing your desk, and putting it in a different place in your office. "They sound trivial," Eagleman says, "but when you make it a habit to challenge yourself, you keep the brain constantly fighting to figure out the new rules of the world, and that's what keeps it plastic."

Doidge is a big fan of the brain exercises developed by neuroscientists and found on sites like BrainHQ.com. If brainteasers aren't your thing, "find something challenging that requires focused concentration," Doidge says, "like learning a new language or a musical instrument, and do it for extended, uninterrupted periods of time."

And don't forget the fun factor. Says Carr: "People don't give themselves permission to seek out joy and pleasure partially because they underestimate the potential benefit. If you were to focus on experiences that give you joy with a decent amount of consistency, you would quite literally change the way your brain is wired."

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