Doctors and scientists today know much more about how the human brain functions than ever before. While we still have a long way to go to fully understand the brain, scientists have recently developed a variety of treatments related to the theory of neuroplasticity. This means that through therapy, we can alter how the brain functions to either improve function or restore function that has been lost due to injury, substance abuse or various naturally occurring neurological conditions like ADHD, Alzheimer’s and others. The two most common types of neurological treatment include neurocognitive therapy and neurochemical therapy.
What is Neuroplasticity?
Before getting too far into the treatments themselves, it is important to understand the concept of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is descriptive of the fact that the brain is not a static organ. Instead, the brain can alter its own physiology through stimulation. Humans practice neuroplasticity on a basic level every day.
As a certain skill set is practiced through repetition, the practitioner gets stronger and stronger with that skill set related to the tasks they are doing. This increase in skill is the result of the brain forming more pathways and connections related to those skills. When this concept is applied therapeutically, a planned set of treatments is designed to alter and strengthen the brain’s function in relation to those skills that need improvement.
What is Neurocognitive Therapy?
Neurocognitive treatment is a planned set of activities designed to strengthen the brain’s neural pathways to improve various mental or physical functions. First, the patient’s specific deficiencies, such as fine motor control, memory, or auditory processing, for example, are defined. The treatment specialist will then create a regimen of various activities that will stimulate the areas of the brain responsible for these functions. This stimulation will cause an increase in the activity of the neuron’s, or brain cells, in those areas. The neurons are capable of growing and expanding, creating additional connections with other brain cells. The greater the number of connections, the stronger the patient will become in that cognitive area. Greater amounts of stimulation mean increased growth of the neurons.
This growth and strengthening of the neurological pathways is slow and gradual. It may also depend on the level of damage the patient has. The fewer the number of working neurons, the slower and less effective the therapy will be. Other general health steps to keep the brain healthy and stimulated are also key to the therapy. The patient will need plenty of sleep, a proper diet that is usually low in carbohydrates, rich in healthy fats and proteins with plenty of fluids. Exercise is also important to ensure excellent blood flow to the brain.
The actual activities related to the treatment regimen may vary from patient to patient. Often the activities are simple games or repetitious actions that provide continual stimulation to a certain brain area and can be performed easily and comfortably.
What is Neurochemical Therapy?
While neurocognitive therapy works on developing the neurons themselves, neurochemical therapy works on the chemistry of the brain. Neurons communicate using chemical signals that travel between the neurons at the synapses. A single neuron will have many synapses connecting it to surrounding neurons. When a signal travels along the neuron it reaches a synapse and triggers the release of the appropriate neurochemical. The chemical travels along the short space to the next neuron and is received by a receptor. The type of chemical determines the type of signal, and the amount of chemical determines the strength of the signal.
In patients with neurological disorders or damage, there may be a chemical imbalance and damage the neurons receptors. Addiction to many drugs, both recreational and pharmaceutical, is damaging because they directly affect the receptors in the synapse. This type of abuse may either stimulate these receptors continuously or even block them without stimulating them at all. In either case, excessive or prolonged substance abuse can cause damage to the receptors and cause an imbalance in the neurochemicals related to those receptors.
Given those consequences, neurochemical therapy works to restore the chemical balance in the brain, achieved by providing the patient with appropriate amino acids and supplementary nutrition. These amino acids are the precursors to the neurotransmitters, so the body will ultimately use the nutrition to produce the correct neurotransmitters. This choice of therapy usually has faster results than cognitive therapy, and patients can notice a difference within a few days. Full recovery may take several weeks or longer, depending on severity of the abuse and damage.
What Determines the Choice of Therapy?
Whether a patient receives neurocognitive or neurochemical therapy is often based on their specific condition and deficiencies. A patient with a healthy amount of neurons but imbalanced chemistry will need neurochemical therapy first, for example, but a patient with neurological deficiency but otherwise healthy chemistry will need neurocognitive therapy. Generally, if a patient has problem with a performance skill, they need more cognitive therapy, and if the patient has problem with mood or sensation, then they need more neurochemical therapy.
The two are also not mutually exclusive, and they may both be applied to the same patient under certain circumstances. A specialist will give the patient various tests that may include performance tests, blood tests, neurochemical tests and brain scans to determine what exactly the patient will need. The most effective treatment centers will offer both of these treatments to patients.
Are There Any Treatment Risks?
The great thing about both of these treatments is that they are completely non-invasive. They will help patients to control cravings and prevent dangerous relapse. When a patient has balanced neurochemistry and stronger cognitive function, they have a 90% chance of never having a relapse, no matter how serious their former addiction.
It is never too late to help a loved one or friend with addiction, and these treatments can and have worked on patients even with very serious or prolonged addictions. If you haven’t yet considered these types of therapies for a problem with drug addiction in yourself or a loved one, now is the time to take the next step.