Evolution, physiology and rehabilitation through the eyes of the neuroscientist.'
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The lecture began by giving us an introduction to the brain, paying particular attention to how it has evolved. Dr Duport explained that over millions of years the brain has become significantly larger but this growth seems to have now reached a plateau.
We were introduced to the theory that this is to do with hip size and that because there is a finite limit to hip expansion, the brain has also stopped increasing in size. We were then shown the composition of the brain and the physiology was explained. The brain uses up to 20% of the body's energy and of that, most is used for keeping the chemical composition in balance to allow the neurons to keep 'firing'. It was fascinating to see imaging of neurons attempting to connect with each other after brain injury and Dr Duport used the following analogy to explain brain damage. When the brain is working correctly, if someone asks "point to the fire exit?" we are able to point in the correct direction without difficulty. When the brain is damaged and faced with the same question, sometimes it will get the answer correct, other times it will be incorrect and the rest of the time it will give an inappropriate response such as simply looking in a direction instead of pointing.
Dr Duport then focussed on the work of the Royal Hospital for Neuro-Disability. She presented to us the concept of neuroplasticity, whereby the brain is able to repair and reorganise itself by creating new neural connections. It was initially thought that this process only happened in young children but it has now been shown to occur in adults, particularly after brain injury. It seems that the brain's ability to 'fix' itself is mostly seen in the first 6 months following trauma, however the hospital generally only has patients referred to them after these initial 6 months. Dr Duport explained that we do not know what triggers neuroplasticity or how long it lasts for, but there is now evidence of repairs continuing beyond 6 months. I was particular interested by an example Dr Duport gave of a lady who was born blind. The part of her brain that would usually be associated with seeing had adapted itself to be used for other functions.
The Royal Hospital for Neuro-Disability works with patients in a number of ways to aid the rehabilitative process. For a brain to be able to repair itself it needs oxygen, energy and rest. These principles are instilled in patients from the outset and are complemented with various therapies to stimulate the brain. The Hospital offers a wide range of therapies such as speech and language therapy and music therapy, but also encourages leisure time and promoting physical health through the use of physiotherapy.
Dr Duport concluded the lecture by leaving us with some advice. She reminded us that even healthy brains need energy, oxygen and rest; we should eat healthy, exercise to give our body more oxygen and allow ourselves enough time to get plenty of sleep. Our brains need stimulating, so we should challenge them on a daily basis. Dr Duport's final slide simply stated 'use it!'
The Royal Hospital for Neuro-Disability hosts free open lectures throughout the year and more information can be found about their upcoming events and the work that they do at www.rhn.org.uk
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