International Brain Week

March 18, 2015

Professor Michael Nilsson
Professor Michael Nilsson

Enriched environments – including social interaction, music, movement, keeping the mind active, visual stimulation and good food – offer people who have suffered stroke or brain trauma the chance to forge new neural connections and brain cells, dramatically improving recovery.

Dr Andrew Clarkson and Prof Michael Nilsson told the audience of over 80, from high school students to senior citizens, that research with mice, rats and people all pointed to significant plasticity of the brain and opportunity to recover function. But hospitals and institutions were ‘de-enriched’ environments, with minimal stimulation and social interaction “and then we wonder why people don’t get better.”

Dr Andrew Clarkson
Dr Andrew Clarkson

Using the analogy of the Christchurch earthquake, they said scientists did not yet know exactly how the “recovery crew” worked after brain damage. And many did not yet acknowledge that men and women required different treatment because of the impact of the different sex hormones on the brain and drug interactions with it.

Physical, social and cognitive stimulation are known to be the pillars of enriched environment stimulation. The first three months’ rehabilitation are the most vital.

Culture – art, music and dance – also acted in a hugely positive way on our central nervous system and brain, they said. “Music and rhythm – nothing activates the brain quite like it. It liberates so many good substances.”

A research programme Prof Nilsson has been involved with in Spain for the past nine years has shown through its work with more than 300 patients the importance of an enriched environment and outdoors activity on brain recovery.

Medical institutions and governments were decades behind the research on this – and the huge cost of implementing such programmes on a large scale would mean some resistance. Much could still be done at the community and individual level, however.
In the future, rehabilitation for stroke, dementia and brain trauma sufferers should be highly individualised, in response to their particular brain, cultural and body make up – rather than the generic and minimalist approach now undertaken.

Research with 1.2 million Swedish military conscripts also showed that higher physical fitness levels at age 18 were highly correlated with higher IQ and lower dementia, stroke and depression incidents in later life. Physical activity levels at this age set up central nervous system resiliency for the rest of an individual’s life, they said.