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Motor Learning – The Plastic Brain

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Welcome to this week’s knowledge nibble where we will be considering Motor Learning and the Plastic Brain. When we are thinking about exercises or rather when we are discussing them between us or we are talking about the benefits of the exercises that we use, we tend to talk about things like strength and range of movement. Things that we can measure outwardly like muscle mass will increase and range of movement we can measure will increase. What I want to talk to you more about today is how we developed skill and why it is so important.

First of all, let’s think about neuromotor control. What is neuromotor control? Neuromotor is the coordination of muscles and the nervous system, so the coordination between the muscles and the nervous system. You will often hear me discuss the brain body connection, which is how I tend to talk about this. The reason why it is so important is that we can reduce the risk of injury. If the muscles are firing correctly and everything is in a good balance we can reduce injury risk. Obviously this is very important for us if we are rehabilitating animals because they have already been injured so we want to reduce the chance of them being re-injured or an injury happening somewhere else in the body, so it’s very important in rehab. 

It is also very important when you are just working with animals to condition them because a massive thing we want to do is reduce the risk of injury in our animals. The other thing we want to do with the rehabilitation is we want to gain function. I have put here ‘motor re-learning’. We are going to talk about motor learning, but actually what we are doing very often is motor re-learning. They already have an established neuropathway and we want to change that so we have to relearn how to do a movement and how to do it correctly. When we are looking at rehabilitation, regaining function is one of the main things that we would like to achieve. 

It is also important for performance. If we want an increase in performance we obviously want skill and refined movements. For example, a performance horse doing dressage would get higher marks if they have more skill in their movements and they are more precise. This would be the same for a jumping horse or a jumping dog. They need to be able to have skill in turning quickly, making the actual jump and clearing the fence. There are a lot of ways in which this neuromotor control and this training that we can do will also help increase performance. 

Something that I want to point out and what we are going to discuss today (I would like to take it a bit of a different view on exercises for you) is that movement actually happens in the brain. Let’s now think about neuroplasticity. The brain is plastic and it can change. Every time you use a new skill, there is a physical change in the brain. I find it helpful to think about memories and how memories are formed because when we think about memories, we just think of something. What is a memory? We think it just floats about in the air. It doesn’t actually just float about in the air – it is actually a physical change. A memory is a code in your brain that is actually physically formed there. It is a very complex subject, but I find it easier to think about what is a memory and does it just float about? No – it is actually a physical change in the brain.

The same is with a movement. What is a movement? Every time you learn anything, you learn a new skill and there is actually a physical change in the brain. By the end of this knowledge nibble, your brain will not be the same as when you started. The brain is a phenomenal thing and is far superior to any computer that we could ever create. It is always constantly adjusting to the environment and to the input that we put into it. It changes all the time. It is plastic and it changes all the time. The good thing about that is we can change it to our benefit.

There are three ways in which neuroplasticity can occur. We can have a chemical change in the brain and this is the short term change. E.g. If somebody were to try and teach me guitar or piano (which by the way, I’m rubbish at both of those), by the end of the first lesson I would be able to put together a tune that they have shown me to do. That is due to the chemical changes in my brain and signaling pathways changing meaning that in that moment, I can learn to do something and demonstrate it in that moment. What happens then is that it doesn’t stick and so what we want to occur eventually is a structural change in the brain. It is very enlightening to think about this as a structural change in the brain rather than just something that they are learning – Can you do this? Yes, I can make this change, I can do this movement. You are actually making a structural change in the brain and that is where your long-term patterns are developed.

As you use a brain region, it becomes more and more excitable. When we go into a functioning change, it becomes more and more excitable, and then it is easier to use again. As you fire up different areas in your brain, they become easier to call on and to use again. Function is where the brain sort of shifts how long when these excitable areas are activated. All of these three are more of a symphony going on and they don’t really happen stage by stage or one after the other. There is more of a symphony between them and it is always occurring. Your brain is always changing and adapting to the input that you put in. 

I have put an image of a tree here just for you to envisage what happens in your brain. If you imagine a tree and think about a seed. Let’s say a seed is a new exercise or new skill that you are teaching an animal. When you have a seed in the ground, you effectively have a tree but it is still in a seed form. If you don’t give it light and water it never grows. It will just be a seed on the day and then it will disappear and die so it needs to be nurtured. You can think about when you give your training or you do a session with an animal, you are creating that chemical change and you are laying the seed. What we then need to do is we need to give that seed water, light and nutrients from the soil every day so that it can grow. This can take time. So when you are trying to learn a new skill or trying to teach an animal a new skill, it takes time. It cannot be done quickly because their brain has to physically change. Unless you repeat this over and over again and unless you continue to give water and light to the seed, it is not going to grow.

What happens then is you start to develop roots. In the brain, you start to develop what looks like a tree, and this is a little area which is the neural pathway. That neural pathway is specific for that particular movement. Neural pathways can be positive or they can be negative. Quite often when we are asked to see an animal, there are negative pathways in place and they already know an incorrect movement. What we want to do is change those negative pathways into positive pathways and the way we need to try to do that is through motor learning. Motor learning or repetitive motor learning (teaching of a skill) will become a motor skill, which is a series of automatic movements. 

For example, when you ask an animal to walk forward they don’t consciously think ‘I need to engage my core. I need to flex my lumbosacral joint. I need to flex my hip. I need to put my weight backwards, lighten the front end a little bit, keep my head in a nice neutral position and push forward from the back’. They don’t think about that. That is a skill that is ingrained in them or hopefully is ingrained in them (but probably isn’t if they have come to us). That is just something that automatically happens. They just think ‘I’m moving over here’ and then a series of movements or series of firing of muscles and sequences take place to get them from A to B. The problem that we will have is the animal will often throw their weight forward onto their forelimbs and raise their head and neck. This hollows and extends their spine, they don’t engage their hind end and they don’t actually move forward properly. They pull themselves forward from the front and that is an incorrect pattern and that is a subconscious pattern. They already have that pattern ingrained and they have the tree for that in their brain and they have got the pattern for that in their brain. If you say to them ‘Go from A to B’, they will automatically use that strategy to get there and that is a subconscious strategy. 

In order to teach them and in order to start to change these processes in the brain, we need to move that from the subconscious to the conscious. We will start to say to an animal ‘Here we go, we are going to move forward but we are going to do it like this’. It becomes conscious so the animal has to think ‘What are they asking me to do?’, bearing in mind we can’t explain it to animals so they don’t even understand why we are doing this. That is why we have to use a lot of encouragement and have to use treats or whatever we need to use to try to encourage them to move in a new way. We give them the instruction to move in a new way and we bring that into their conscious mind and they are thinking about it. 

Ultimately what we want is eventually for that motor pattern to become so established that it goes back into the subconscious mind and it becomes an automatic movement. When they then engage to move forward and go from A to B, they will use this new pattern that we have taught them and not the old dysfunctional pattern. That is how motor learning eventually turns into a motor skill. As discussed previously, this can be positive or negative so it is really important to know that we want to try to promote those positive pathways rather than the negative ones.

This is the same with learning or any type of mental health problems. If any of you suffer from any sort of depression or anxiety or have done in the past or intrusive thoughts for example, you have these negative trees in your brain. It takes a lot of mindfulness and things like that to grow nutrients and change the way in which all your brain actually thinks. We need to think about individuality since it is really important because the way in which you learn a motor skill or how much learning occurs is individual to that individual. They have shown this in stroke patients in humans. They will give a protocol that they think should just work for everybody and it doesn’t. 

You might be able to learn piano really easily but I might get the same teacher and the same amount of training but I just might not be able to do it. That is because our brains are so complex and there is a makeup of all the things that have happened in our lives and everything about us, it is absolutely impossible that one brain is the same as another brain. There is an individuality to this and that is why it is really important that we re-evaluate our cases and we change things if they are not working. Age can be a factor and they say ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks’, but actually you can but it just takes longer. An older brain will need a bit more time to adjust and to make these plastic changes. A brain that has been doing something for all time, such as a movement pattern, will need longer to be able to make the changes. 

I want you to think about the fact that we are driving these changes. You may suffer with a mental health issue and we all suffer with mental health issues from time to time and it is particularly prevalent at the moment after COVID. If you do suffer with anything like that, then I encourage you to look at the work of Dr. Caroline Leaf. She does some fascinating work on this with memories and she has a very specific way in which she re-codes or rewires the brain to learn to react differently to the thoughts that you have. 

It is very similar to what we are doing here and any sort of learning is the same. You need to understand that you can build the brain in the animals that you want. You can build the brain that you want in the animals and you need to drive the changes. You need to be very specific about what skills you are teaching them and what you are asking them to learn. What we are going to do there is create new pathways, so if an animal has a poor movement pathway we have to create the new pathway. In my previous example where you are asking the animal to move forward in a different way than they were before, they don’t have that pathway. They can’t just automatically do it and they have to think about it and think ‘I need to do it in this way’. 

You firstly need to lay down that new pathway and then you strengthen that pathway through repetition and encouragement. Eventually that pathway will strengthen. Have a look at this wild garden here. I’m not a gardener and I wouldn’t know in this picture what is a weed and what is a flower. The only weed I know about is ragwort and I always seem to be digging that out of all fields for the horses. What I do know is that the more and more I dig out the ragwort, the less ragwort we have in our pastures and we then have more grass. As I take away the ragwort and take away its strength, the grass will grow and the grass will flourish and this is the same for you. If you look at the picture of this garden, what you need to think about is that it’s long-term and it is not a quick change.

You are not going to go in here and just cut the heads off the weeds. You won’t see any weeds but the roots are still there so we need to do this over time. You need to dig the weeds out by the roots.

So if you have a garden of wild flowers and you tend to the garden and you keep taking out the weeds and you keep encouraging the flowers and lay more seeds, you will eventually have a garden full of flowers rather than a garden full of weeds .That is just my analogy to think about the way that we need to work with the brain regularly to make any changes and I hope you found that in interesting. 

The actions for this week are to reflect on any previous cases that you might have had where you think this might have played a part. Think about some cases where you might have thought they would be able to do what you were asking them to do, but for some reason they just couldn’t get the hang of it or you couldn’t change their posture or their movement patterns. Could this have been the fact that you needed to think a little bit differently about the way in which you try to encourage the brain to grow these new pathways and to change.  Also review your rehab programs. Do you pay enough attention to this?Are you just thinking about strength and range of movement or are you thinking about the brain body connection?

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