By Lee Vander Loop
CP Family Network Editor
As a parent of a child with cerebral palsy, you’re always researching therapies and interventions that may be helpful to your child. You listen to the professionals, run from doctor appointments to therapy appointments, and research all the latest interventions. You talk to other parents about what therapies and interventions they’ve tried and their opinions as to the benefits.
When our daughter was young and receiving the allotted physical and occupational therapies, the focus was at the muscular-skeletal level with the goal of enhancing life skills and range of motion, and the prevention of complications such as contractures and scoliosis. Children with cerebral palsy were assumed to be able to reach a predetermined potential, but nothing beyond. Clinical data now supports the theory that there are clinical interventions that can impact development beyond the muscular-skeletal level and, in fact, increase the developmental potential of children.
Technology has enabled these new interventions. As a result of the development of advanced imaging technologies, such as MRI, researchers can now look into the brains of infants and children with cerebral palsy and gain new knowledge about how their brains function. One of the most fascinating areas of research has to do with neuroplasticity, or the brain’s natural ability to form new connections in order to compensate for injury.
Neuroplasticity and the Brain
Scientists estimate that the brain contains more than 100 billion neurons that form trillions of connections with each other and that it is possible to form new brain cells even in adulthood.
In children with cerebral palsy, the lesions that result from cerebral injury may have damaged pathways and critical junctures by which neurons travel. Depending on the severity of cerebral injury, neurons that are next to damaged brain areas can reconnect pathways between other neurons, forming new circuits that can resume some of the lost function. According to Dr. Bradford Thompson, director of the Division of Neurocritical Care at Rhode Island Hospital in Providence, the smaller the lesion, the better the chance the brain will perform in this way.
Scientists have also learned that the brain continues to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. Studies show that the activities listed below stimulate these new brain connections.
- Physical activity
- Social interaction
- Intellectual pursuits
Activities that are considered obstacles to developing these new connections include:
- Poor health
- Poor sleep habits
- Inadequate nutrition
- Substance abuse
- Depression and anxiety
In other words, “brain workouts” help the brain reorganize connections more quickly and stimulate reorganization when the brain is not capable of reorganizing on its own. Conditions or disorders that slow brain function work against the building of new brain connections.
Importance of Physical Activity
Scientists generally agree that physical activity is good for our brains, especially benefiting our moods. But it wasn’t until fairly recently that studies confirmed a link between exercise and the creation of new neurons. According to a 2008 article in Developmental Neurorehabilitation titled, Exercise is Brain Food: The Effects of Physical Activity on Cognitive Function, “Exercise increases brain volume in areas implicated in executive processing, improves cognition in children with cerebral palsy and enhances phonemic skill in school children with reading difficulty.”
The article also advises that exercise to benefit brain function needs to be done in moderation. “Sustained increases in neurotrophin levels occur with prolonged low intensity exercise, while higher intensity exercise, in a rat model of brain injury, elevates the stress hormone, corticosterone. Clearly, moderate physical activity is important for youth whose brains are highly plastic and perhaps even more critical for young people with physical disability,” it notes.
A 2008 review of medical literature on the link between neurogenesis and exercise reveals that exercise seems to be most successful at building brain connections when it involves cognitive challenges. This would include any sport or play with other children or adults, moving in a defined way to rhythm, aiming at targets and the like. Obviously, any activity that also involves interaction with others has social and developmental benefits to a child.
Ways to Boost Your Child’s Physical Interactions
- Schedule physical therapy on a regular basis, even for an infant. Make sure that therapists engage the child with words, sight, and touch. Learn the routines so you can do the therapy when the therapist isn’t scheduled.
- Make sure your child has plenty of supervised “tummy time” to actively work muscles of the neck, arms, and stomach. Get down at eye level and engage your child in play, encouraging him to lift his head to look at you.
- Enroll your child in an Early Intervention Program at the earliest age possible. Some programs can begin as early as age two.
- As much as possible, actively play with your child. Don’t use an infant swing, television, or computer as a baby sitter.
- At school, make sure an appropriate level of engaging physical activity is part of your child’s Individual Education Plan.
- Communicate with your child’s physical education teacher. All structured in-school activities involve “lesson plans.” Communicate with the instructor and discuss the need for possible appropriate and challenging alternative instruction for your child when the “lesson plan” doesn’t fit your child’s abilities.
- Encourage your child to participate in some type of year-round sporting or exercise regimen. The challenge of trying new experiences is developmentally beneficial. Encourage your child to persevere through challenges.
Join Our Family
Sign up for our free enewsletter for more blogs, articles, and news about CP kids and their families.