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You have a wonderful plastic brain and you are capable of anything..

Hayley Teasdale is doing groundbreaking research into non-invasive brain stimulation that shows great promise, particularly for those suffering from Parkinson’s Disease. In this talk, she give us insights into how she came to be working in this field, and her hopes for the future.

She is a neur­os­cient­ist with her work mainly focused on Parkinson’s dis­ease, she uses non-invas­ive brain stim­u­la­tion to try and com­bat symp­toms. She is par­tic­u­larly inter­ested in neuro­plas­ti­city and looks at how this affects every­day life.

“When I was growing up, there was a boy who lived next door to me. We’re about the same age, we like all the same things. But I could walk and he couldn’t. I had this wonderful childlike belief that if you put in enough hard work and there was a little bit of magic, you can achieve pretty much anything.

Keep in mind that.. for the majority of my childhood, I believe that I was going to be able to fly. The sky was literally the limit for me.  So I decided to teach my neighbour how to walk. I would pull him up out of his wheelchair lying down on the couch and movies legs in a walking pattern. Somehow just expect that he would start walking. Of course he couldn’t.. He had severe damage to his spinal cord. I got a lot of trouble from his parents when they found out what I was doing.  And I managed to get away with my parents never finding out about it until today..

I haven’t grown up.. I still maintain this ridiculous childlike belief with a lot of hard work you can do anything. But I don’t really rely on magic anymore.. I’ve had to use something else – my brain..

Since I was about 12, I started to get sick all the time. People used to say I was so unlucky picking up every sniffle and cough that was going around. When I’d faint all the time, they said I had old person’s disease. Wasn’t until my first year in university when I was finally diagnosed with immune deficiency and a blood-pressure disorder?

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Heyley Teasdale

Now it’s been years, I have been handled around to different specialists, trying to find a suitable treatment and I now receive a product that’s made from your blood plasma. It’s been an incredible gift. I know a lot of you already donated blood. But I’d encourage anyone to go down to your local Red Cross and try donating plasma. You can do it every two weeks. It goes so much further than you think. And you’d be a hero especially to someone like me.  But I digress it wasn’t easy studying neuroscience and really being able to attend class. But I managed to scrape through by using new and innovative ways to study.

The irony of this was quite lost on me at the time. I was studying neuroscience and the same time I was training my own brain in new ways to help remember information. It wasn’t until towards the end of my degree that I heard this fantastic word neuroplasticity. This word managed to encapsulate everything I love about the brain and its amazing powers. It also described what I’ve been doing as I was studying.

So let me break it down for you. We all have a critical period when we’re young when we learn at an incredibly rapid rate. We learn how to eat, to move, to use language and to interact with one another. I was previously thought that when our bodies stopped growing, our brain stopped growing too. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks right.. Actually wrong..We now know that will never learn as quickly as we did in that critical period when we’re young. That our brains continue to change and grow over an entire life spans. It’s plastic.. It should be evident in your everyday life.  The more you do something, the easier it becomes..

Now how many of you have tried to cartwheel as an adult. I know, I have.. It probably hurts right.. Probably made a bit of a full of yourself. Now this is neuroplasticity at work.  You are unable to cartwheel as well as you could when you were a child simply because it’s been so long and if you don’t use a brain pathway often enough, you actually start to lose it and converse with your cart wheeling all the time and you’re practising and making that brain pathway fire, it makes it easier for it to fire in future.

So it is possible for your cartwheel again. Just practice.. Make those brain pathways file.  When you’re getting older, so be sure to stretch first.  So neuroplasticity is so much more than just how we learn. It’s your brain’s ability to change its own structure and to change its own function based on inputs that we give it from our actions, from our senses and even from our thoughts.

There are so many remarkable stories of people that can lose whole chunks of their brain and be rehabilitated too full or almost full function because their brain was actually able to rewire itself around the damaged areas. It’s completely amazing to me. So I now spend a lot of my time trying to use and abuse neuro plasticity.

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Hayley Teasdale Neuroscientist

My work is in Parkinson’s disease. It’s a horrible thing and it particularly affects a part of the brain called the basal ganglia now your basal ganglia has a role in helping to control your movements and that’s why people with Parkinson’s disease often present with the tremor and slowness of movement trouble walking. The basal ganglia is also responsible for taking in all of that information from your senses and mapping it out onto your motor movements which is why people with Parkinson’s quite often have severe problems with their balance and a sense of where they are in space – that’s called proprioception. Now your brain is pretty good but it’s not quite good enough to say hey this pathway just started firing pretty weirdly maybe I’ll make a new one on my own.

Nobody ever lost a whole chunk of their brain and was fully rehabilitated by watching Netflix on the couch so what can we do ? Most commonly asked by my participants with Parkinson’s disease is what’s the best thing I could be doing? My answer to them is really simple..Exercise and don’t give up on yourself.. In Parkinson’s like in anything improvement with exercise can reach a plateau and its really really hard to keep going when you’re not seeing any improvement and in Parkinson’s you’re also faced with a losing battle with time because the disease is progressive and getting worse.

So what can we do to overcome this? In one of my research studies I had my participants with Parkinson’s disease practice their handwriting at every session for four weeks. All up it was only 12 sessions but I was met with a few grimaces when I asked them to do this. You see people with Parkinson’s disease often present with micrographiya which means the handwriting gets really tiny and slanted. They also have a lot of stiffness and tremor in their hands making their writing really messy and almost unreadable. A lot of them also suffer from cognitive impairment which means they’re frequently forgetting words and spelling them incorrectly. You can understand why most of them would do almost anything to get out of it.

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But I’m cruel and I made them right anyway. In this image, you can see one man’s handwriting that is very first session. I’m sure you can recognise some of those traits I just mentioned. The sentence I’ve asked him to write here is: “The fox jumps in the round box at night”. Now after only 12 sessions, you can see the remarkable improvement. Now I wish I could describe to you the look on his face when I showed him these two images. I saw the spark and in that moment Parkinson’s stopped being about losing things to him and it stopped being about just getting worse all the time. Maybe, he could turn back the clock. In my work, I use non invasive brain stimulation, it sits on the scalp and it excites your underlying neurons getting them all warmed up and ready to file.

Now combine this with special exercises aimed at improving their balance and that sense of where they are in space called proprioception. By doing this, I’m helping those new pathways in the brain fire, helping them learn faster. Now combine this with special exercises aimed at improving their balance and that sense of where they are in space called proprioception. By doing this I’m helping those new pathways in the brain fire helping them learn faster. Speeding up the learning process is so important in people with neurodegenerative conditions. Because put simply, they don’t have time to waste. They’re also it’s so accustomed to that improvement plateau.

Only in the early stages of my studies in one of my sessions a participant came in with a massive grin on his face, he had just been on a trip with his lovely wife and as he was getting off the bus he tripped on the handle of a bag on the ground outside. He was so astonished she said to me “I tripped but I didn’t fall, I kept my balance” and that might not mean a lot to you. But to someone with Parkinson’s disease, its monumental. A full can be devastating to them. Falls can be devastating to a person with Parkinson’s disease and any elderly population which is why one of my primary aims in my research is to reduce the risk of falls in Parkinson’s disease. Now, we’re only just scratching the surface when it comes to understanding the brain. It’s an exciting time to be a neuroscientist. I’m really excited and I can see that the more we learn about the brain, the more ways we’re learning how to maximise its potential and helping people live their best lives.

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Now we’re already seeing research studies showing that people with cognitive impairment can improve when using this non-invasive brain stimulation, when you combine it with cognitive training. More impressively to me other studies that show that people can actually improve when they have cognitive impairment when using non-invasive brain stimulation and treadmill walking. Keep in mind, when we’re talking about cognitive impairment, this is things like dementia. Can you imagine if you could improve someone’s memory just by going for a walk. it’s incredible and it’s real. So I want to leave you with one thought: No change whether it’s in your brain or in your life, is going to be possible unless you believe you’re capable of making that change.

Motivation is everything you need. You might fail, it happens.. We have to ask yourself;
What’s my goal?
Do I want to learn French?
Do I want to be able to run as fast as I could when I was a teenager? or
Do you simply want to be able to go to the grocery store again on your own?

In order to begin, you need a pinch of that childlike belief that anything is possible. Because you know what? I believe we will make paraplegics walk again one day probably not with my earlier technique and I believe that affordable jet packs aren’t too far in the near future and I will be able to fly. Everything you need is already inside of you. Remember you have a wonderful plastic brain and you are capable of anything.”

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