Sometime back I wrote the article “Right Brain Development: Is it Too Late for my Child?” and we touched on the subject of neuroplasticity based on what I had read from the book “The Brain that Changes Itself“. We were wondering about just how much neuroplasticity one could expect and whether it was possible in older individuals – say a grandparent. I was supposed to write more about it after I’d read more of the book but because I’ve had my hands full with Gavin being on extended holiday, I haven’t been able to read on until recently.
Here’s the good news:
Yes, neuroplasticity can happen in older individuals and the results can be pretty amazing. The example was Paul Bach-y-Rita’s 65 year old father, Pedro, who had a stroke that paralyzed his face and half of his body, leaving him unable to speak. This happened in 1959 and back then the advice was for Pedro to be sent to an institution because there was no way he would be able to recover sufficiently to lead a normal life. He needed to be lifted onto and off the toilet and showered. Despite this hopeless prognosis, his son, Paul’s brother, decided he was going to help rehabilitate his father. After a year of specific exercises designed to help him regain normal function, Pedro was able to start full-time teaching again at 68 years old. He continued working, teaching, and travelling until 72 years old when he died from a heart attack.
Back then there were no such thing as brain scans so there was no way of knowing the full extent of the damage to his brain caused by the stroke so it wasn’t until the autopsy that they were able to examine his brain and what they found was that the huge legion in Pedro’s head never healed even though he recovered all the functions that the damaged part of the brain was responsible for. The damage was mainly in the brain stem – the part closest to the spinal cord – and other major centers responsible for movement had been destroyed as well. 97% of the nerves from the cerebral cortex to the spine were destroyed. As far as strokes go, the damage was massive and it was only at the point of autopsy that the significance of Pedro’s recovery became known.
This was firsthand evidence that elderly inviduals with massive stroke lesions were capable of significant recovery. Through research, Bach-y-Rita discovered that late recoveries were also possible, for example, they found that patients who had been paralyzed for 20 years were able to make late recoveries with brain-stimulating exercises. Of course the road to recovery is not an easy one. It is tedious and requires a lot of hard work. But the point is, it can be done.
If a 65 year old man suffering from a massive debilitating stroke can make a full recovery through neuroplasticity, just imagine what the brain is truly capable of. So if you have ever felt you started anything “too late” with your children, let this story inspire you and remind you that it is never too late to start anything. As far as early childhood development goes, I would still start as early as possible just because it’s easier (think about how quickly an adult learns a second language compared to how quickly a child learns multiple languages all at once) but I wouldn’t worry about “missing out” with my older child.