Neuroplasticity - How to enhance cognition and brain functioning.
By Nazo Shamal, PsyD, LCSW
The first three years of life is critical to brain development. By age three, billions of cells and trillions of synapses (connections) occur and the brain grows and changes dramatically. It is critical children receive love, affection, proper care and a safe environment to flourish. However, what happens when some children do not receive the care they need to thrive and develop in healthy ways from the start?
As the brain learns and develops through its experiences it will either strengthen, create, retain or discard various connections between brain regions. Moving from childhood into adolescence the brain decides to purge itself of neural connections no longer needed so that there is room for new growth to occur such as further development in the prefrontal cortex (the thinking brain). Another important development in the adolescent brain is the limbic system (emotional brain). Teenagers may rely on their gut feelings to make decisions rather than their thinking brain because it is more difficult for them to access. It is normal for teenagers who are brought up in healthy environments to present with problem solving issues and emotional reactivity when things just don’t make sense to them. Can you imagine youth who are growing up in unhealthy environments? The effort it takes for their brains to catch up and meet the demands of society as they mature is extraneous. How could they ever match up to healthier upbringing?
As neuroscience progresses there are more and more studies which implicate the success of brain training programs. These programs aim at increasing the rate of development and access to memory, attention, processing speed, and learning. Fast ForWord is one such program that has been clinically tested and validated for over 30 years to assist youth with ADHD, learning difficulties, and cognitive impairments with language and reading difficulties, as well as underachievement in in education.
Many of the research studies exploring the outcomes of Fast ForWord shows the significant difference in the youth’s learning process, attention, working memory, language and reading skills. This also improved school grades for youth with D’s and F’s to receive B’s and C’s in a manner of less than 3 months or even as brief as 32 days. Research on Fast ForWord also shows brain imaging reflecting changes in neural mass activity. The brain that once appeared limited in brain activity now reflects a brain that is making many neural connections in vital areas of the brain that promote learning and processing incoming information accurately.
The next wave in behavioral health is to increase our knowledge of how we can help youth increase growth of positive neural pathways so that they truly have successful futures. Teaching youth exercises that increase the potential of the prefrontal cortex such as learning strategies to plan, organize, learn skills to set realistic goals with step by step strategies is also very helpful. The important concept to remember is that we need to be repetitious and expose our youth to successful growth and build hope for the future. The children are our future and we must carefully, patiently, and diligently teach to foster their growth as much as possible.