“Any man could, if he were so inclined, be the sculptor of his own brain.” – Santiago Ramon Y Cajal, the father of neuroscience.
I spent the last two weeks at the European Parkinson’s Therapy Centre at the base of the Italian Alps learning how to rewire my brain. Here are my take aways.
1. Italy is astonishingly beautiful.
Waking up every morning in a quiet ancient river valley with thousand foot peaks on either side was an incredibly humbling experience. It was a powerful display of the forces of nature that shape our planet and influence the lives of every single living thing on it. The place served as a reminder of the opportunity we are given to experience the universe, to be part of life, and to be a thinking thing with the ability to ponder it all.
2. The mind can reshape the brain.
Any study of what’s going on inside your head is really the study of two things, the brain and the mind. To study the brain is to try to make sense of that 3 pound lump of goo between your ears. To learn its structure, to memorize its various regions, and to try to make sense of all the chemicals and neurons and electrical signals that give us our experience of the world. It is an analytic task and most attempts to study neurological diseases involve therapies that act just on these physical pathways that brain activity flows along.
The mind, on the other hand, is the voice in your head, your thoughts, your appetites, your feelings and desires, that together give you what feels like a subjective experience of the world. The mind also plays a vital role in neurological diseases and engaging it in the repair of the brain should be part of any comprehensive plan to treat chronic diseases as they have a way of taking over the mind. Awareness of them is always present. With Parkinson’s one constantly feels the loss of fluidity, the rigidity, the tremor and the other symptoms that make up the disease. But focusing on them can take over your pattern of thought, and a mind fixed on any narrow band of thought can’t function properly.
Understanding the mind, the brain, and the interplay between them for yourself can help gain some control over the healing process. To get there starts with a sound understanding of what is happening in your head and what you can do about it as nobody can know your body, your brain, and your mind, as well as you can. Repairing it requires rigorous attention to what it is doing, how it feels, what its triggers are, and what works and what doesn’t. It is a tedious, moment by moment task that can’t be left in the hands of someone else. But we are only human, we are often lazy, stubborn, and don’t always do what is best for us. Sometimes we need a kick in the ass to get us going in the right direction. That is what is offered here. It is not a cure, it is the knowledge and care needed to help take back some control of what is happening inside you.
3. Neuroplasticity is real.
As a baby develops it learns to navigate the world by forming neural networks. These networks allow the brain to direct the body to do what the mind wants. It is a process filled with failure as the infant brain slowly develops the ability to control the movement of its body through trial and error. When a decision to move is made a cascade of neurons fire through the various regions of the brain, down the spine, and out into the muscles. Over time, networks form as the brain learns the neuronal firing patterns needed for certain movements. With enough repetition, those sequences lock in place and the motions become automatic, requiring only activation to set off.
But as we age damage builds up along these networks and some of those pathways become impeded. This then requires the tedious task of trying to form new neural pathways by learning new movements through repetition and focused attention. This is the aim of the neurotherapy component at the center and in some cases they have achieved some pretty remarkable results. In my first week there I saw a man go from being reliant on a cane just to hobble around, to within a few days being able to ditch the cane all together and walk somewhat steadily by himself.
Watch the video below to see another example.
4. More than just exercise.
Everyone knows that exercise is important, but the type of exercise and what you think about as you exercise are just as important. Walking the dog around the block is not enough as it doesn’t get your heartbeat up significantly, it doesn’t engage many muscle groups, and it doesn’t require any novel thinking. Rewiring a brain requires moving in new ways, ways that you are not used to, ways that should seem awkward at first. While doing so you must also be hyper-aware of what your body is doing as you are doing it.
The exercises at the center involve just that. Ridiculous looking jumping jacks as you focus on the movement of your elbows, completing an outdoor human equestrian course while thinking about rotating your shoulders, performing circus tricks with hoola-hoop rings as you worry about extending your fingers, and getting annoyed at your therapist for telling you for the umpteenth time to imagine throwing a ball behind you with each step you take.
But there is more to neuroplasticity than just movement. Immersing yourself in new environments, learning new skills, and incorporating mindfulness techniques, all help stimulate the creation of new neural networks. These can also release growth factors and hormones known to have neuroprotective effects while even playing a role in the creation of new neurons themselves.
5. Take control.
These techniques are at the core of the program at the European Parkinson’s Therapy Centre. It was built by Alexander Reed, himself diagnosed with PD eight years ago, who quickly realized that people diagnosed with Parkinson’s do not get the care they need. Most, if they are lucky, get 20 minutes with a neurologist twice a year, which is not nearly enough time to convey all that a person needs to know.
The center he built is designed to fill that void and give people the knowledge and tools needed to put their care into their own hands. It was developed in collaboration with neurologists and therapists and is based on a combination of four pillars; understanding medication, neuroprotection and neuroplasticity, making lifestyle changes if needed, and accepting the reality of what the disease is. They also offer programs for care givers and family members and have partnered with hospitals around the world as well as Parkinson’s UK to extend their program abroad.
They believe that people with Parkinson’s should not be treated like patients in a hospital, they are just people that need a little help. And it certainly helps that their center is located above a thermal spa in one of the most beautiful places on earth…
Click here to learn more about the program offered at the European Parkinson’s Therapy Centre. And click here to learn about the First Steps program they are rolling out in collaboration with Parkinson’s UK to give all newly diagnosed patients the information needed to take control of their health.
Big thank you to Alex, Daria, Agata, Luisa, Pietro and Sara for their patience, their hospitality, and all that they do to improve the lives of people with Parkinson’s.