What is Neuroplasticity? Understanding the Brain’s Remarkable Ability to Change

Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to change and adapt. Through the process of growing new or strengthening existing neural pathways, the brain is capable of wiring and rewiring itself depending on the stimuli it is fed. 

Here’s the interesting part: for the purpose of influencing beneficiary change, it does not matter if that stimuli is real or imaginary. And it’s this latter mode of influence that allows us, through the process of brain retraining, to create positive effects that alter our brain chemistry, hormones, and even our immune system function.

Neuroplasticity offers a gateway into brain and nervous system rewiring.

For many years it was thought by neuroscientists that beyond childhood, the brain was no longer plastic — or able to be changed. Whilst its true that the brain is more plastic during childhood than adulthood, we now know that the brain is not as hardwired as we once thought. When influenced in the right way, our brain and in turn our nervous system, can rewire itself and nerve cells can be taught how to change and express. 

Why is Neuroplasticity Important When It Comes to Chronic Health Issues?

When we become chronically ill with un-resolving symptoms, such as for example Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Post-Viral Fatigue, Long Covid, Multiple Chemical Sensitivities, Mast Cell Activation, and many other chronic viral or even pathogenic infections, there is an element of that illness that has become wired in the brain and nervous system. This can happen for a few different reasons. 

Firstly, often an illness of this nature started with an acute infection or some kind of biological contamination or toxic exposure that assaulted the body and created shock, or trauma. There could have been a high fever or other immunological response mounted by the body, and whilst appropriate to the acute illness phase, this alarm bell signalling danger never got turned off, potentially even after the body had dealt with the infection etcetera. It’s why we say in Primal Trust™ that actually a lot of chronic symptoms can be a rehearsal of memory structures. Yes, they are real, but they’re now being manufactured from the brain and nervous system who first registered this biological attack, and they never got the memo that the threat has now passed.

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An initial infection, toxin, or chemical exposure can often trigger a chronic illness, but the biological trauma it caused can create changes in the brain, nervous system, and cellular expression.

Secondly, there can of course still be stealth infections, chronic infections, or toxins present in the body. The result is the same: the brain and nervous system, and even the cells themselves, are still detecting the presence of a foreign material that is not conducive to health, and so they continue to fire danger signals biochemically throughout the body. (Look into Cell Danger Response by Robert Naviaux for more on this — blog post coming soon.)

The brain through biofeedback with the body – specifically the limbic system and the amygdala therein – have detected threat, and they inform the nervous system and thus the rest of the body that things are not okay. However instead of optimizing bodily functions to deal with the exposure, this chronic stress state has a negative impact on the immune system, detoxification system and other systems, effectively immobilizing effective responses and impeding the body’s ability to clear the lingering pathogens, virus, mold, and chemicals.

Now it’s important to add that for most people, there has always been present an element of that alarm call for many years, if not all of a person’s life, up until the “straw that broke the camel’s back” of that infection or virus or whatever major trauma or shock that was enough to now throw the whole system into a permanent high alert stage. This is largely due to trauma and other psycho-emotional factors that make 20-30% of the population more susceptible to complex health conditions due to long term stress and emotional sensitivities.

Neuroplasticity therefore is so vitally important for healing from long-term health issues: because learning how to turn off that alarm through practices such as brain retraining and visualization (neuroplasticity) rewires the brain instead for balance, calm, and ultimately wellness. It does not matter what the physical circumstances or environment is (obviously there are limits), but we can influence our brain to change through modifying our thinking, behaviors, and even engaging our imagination to repeatedly choose to signal safety over danger. Individuals begin to reduce the dominance of maladaptive neural pathways in the limbic system, and instead strengthen neural connections and synaptic structures in specific areas of the brain such as the prefrontal cortex and insular cortex.

Getting the prefrontal brain and insular cortex to come back online and be more active than the fear-centres in the limbic system is a fundamental part of brain retraining, made possible through neuroplasticity.

Prefrontal Cortex Activation and Insular Cortex Engagement

The prefrontal cortex is associated with functions in the brain such as decision making, emotional regulation, goal-setting, rational thinking, and the option of choice. One of the mechanisms of brain retraining is enhancing the activity and connectivity of this region through neuroplasticity, whilst dampening the maladaptive pathways that had previously been firing limbic system overactivity.

The limbic system includes structures such as the amygdala, which is involved in emotional reactivity, processing fear and stress, and scanning our environment for potential threats and dangers. It acts instinctually and on autopilot, and since its primary function is to keep us away from danger and alive, the signals firing from this part of the brain trump all others until we learn how to make those prefrontal neural pathways stronger. 

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This infographic gives a simple explanation of how we can turn on the body’s self-healing mechanisms through activating neuroplastic changes within the brain and nervous system.

The insular cortex also plays an important role when rewiring the brain. It’s not as often talked about as the limbic system when it comes to brain retraining, but it’s crucial for interoception, which is the perception of internal body states, such as hunger and thirst. The insular cortex also integrates sensory information with emotional responses and contributes to empathy and self-awareness. If it’s not functioning properly, sometimes we have reduced awareness of our needs.

Your brain is constantly paying attention to all sorts of things like your heart rate, your breathing, your body temperature. It’s getting information from organs, and in addition to that, it’s also paying attention to your needs if it’s functioning properly. So your needs might be, do I need to pee? Am I thirsty? Am I too hot? Am I too cold? Am I tired? Are you feeling your needs? Are you paying attention to that?

Why Decision Making and Knowing Our Needs Can Be So Hard 

It’s a common narrative in the brain retraining communities when people approach learning how to retrain their brain and self-regulate that they feel overwhelmed, unable to make choices, unable to discern their needs, and even fairly co-dependent. Now you understand why, when the limbic system is hijacking the rest of the brain and nervous system, and prefrontal cortex and insular cortex activity is dampened.

This is our work with neuroplasticity: to first recognize that when you start, you’re going to be getting more signals of danger than other things, which can make you feel resistant to change (change = danger to the limbic brain) and naturally less able to see you have choices or an ability to feel what you need. After the recognition however needs to come the commitment to doing the neuroplastic practices to get that prefrontal cortex online, and that insular cortex engaged. Somatics is excellent for the insular, which is why we teach it alongside brain-retraining for a thorough top-down (brain to body) and bottom-up (body to brain) approach to healing.

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You can download a free guide to Brain Retraining, Somatics and Vagus Nerve Stimulation by clicking here.

Neuroplasticity Can Also Heal the Body, Not Just the Brain 

We know many people with chronic illness also have a history of trauma or cPTSD. In the brain this is seen neurologically with defects developmentally in the frontal lobe, whilst there is a massive activation – and even physical enlargement of the amygdala, called amygdala hypertrophy – due to a chronic running of the fight-flight response. 

Brain retraining works by reinforcing positive, adaptive neural pathways while diminishing the strength of negative, maladaptive ones. Through a process known as “Long Term Potentiation” (LTP), repeated positive behaviors and thoughts strengthen synaptic connections in parts of the brain that essentially make us feel a lot better. This may start with better emotional regulation, but in time the effects are also seen biochemically and physiologically in the body. 

How does this work? Well it comes down to stress chemicals, hormones, and the vagus nerve. 

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Rewiring the brain changes your body chemistry and can dramatically improve overall wellness.

When we rewire the brain and shift it away from habitual stress responses, we begin modulating stress chemicals and hormones within the body. Through neuroplastic changes the brain can reduce its cortisol production, a stress hormone that in high amounts can otherwise damage neurons, particularly in the hippocampus (explaining brain fog and memory loss as symptoms of chronic stress) and contribute to anxiety, depression and many other health issues.

We begin to also boost the production and regulation of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, which far beyond their known benefits for mood regulation, also majorly contribute to healthy digestive function, sleep improvement, endocrine function, hormonal balance, blood pressure and even heart function. 

Practices that enhance neuroplasticity, such as breathwork, somatics, and targeted movements such as bilateral stimulation, also improve vagal tone. At Primal Trust™ we purposefully target the vagus nerve through specific toning practices that not only result in a greater resilience to stress, but also elevate the functioning of the gut-brain (and in fact whole body to brain) axis, meaning that there is optimal communication between the brain and all our organs and glands as we learn to consciously self-regulate and rewire the brain and nervous system through the wonder that is neuroplasticity. 

If this blog post has inspired you, we encourage you to join us in the Primal Trust™ Academy & Community, where we are harnessing the remarkable healing benefits of neuroplasticty through teaching methods such as brain retraining, vagus nerve toning, breathwork, somatics, trauma release, and true self discovery, for a truly comprehensive approach to healing chronic illness. www.primaltrust.org/membership

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