A new study reviews the effectiveness of Environmental Enrichment as a therapy for neurological disorders

A review of a study published in Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience[1].

People used to think that past a certain age, you could not change the way your brain works. They would even say your abilities diminished over time with the loss of thousands of brain cells every day.

Thankfully, this is no longer the case. More and more doctors understand that the brain is able to change and adapt throughout life, even in adulthood[2].

Of course, brain plasticity is higher during natural periods of development[3], and this is why the new research by Prof. Leon, looking at the impact of Sensory Enrichment Therapy on autism[4] is exciting. It is possible that deliberately combining certain sensory inputs could trigger the mechanisms of brain development, similar to the ones found in these “high plasticity” stages.

More and more research is being done to see how organizing changes in the environment of a person can help remediate symptoms related to a neurological disorder, as in autism, Asperger’s or ADHD. Here is how Dr. Ramesh Rajan, Monash University, Australia, explains it.

“Since the initial discovery by Hebb[5] (1947) that environmental enrichment was able to confer improvements in cognitive behaviour, Enivronmental Enrichment has been investigated as a powerful form of experience-dependent plasticity. Animal studies have shown that exposure to Environmental Enrichment results in a number of molecular and morphological alterations, which are thought to underpin changes in neuronal function and ultimately, behaviour. These consequences of Environmental Enrichment make it ideally suited for investigation into its use as a potential therapy after neurological disorders, such as traumatic brain injury (TBI).

This is exciting, especially for us here at Mendability, since our therapy is based on the idea that the right kind of sensory enrichment will change the way your brain is organized for the better. It is encouraging to see more and more validation of our approach.

At the time of this writing we have one published clinical trial, a replication study currently in review, and 5 new studies about to start, all examining Mendability’s way of utilizing Environmental Enrichment as a therapy for autism (3 studies), ADHD (1 study) and Rett’s syndrome (1 pilot).

Soon Sensory Enrichment Therapy, which is a branch of Environmental Enrichment looking at sensory experiences in particular, will become as mainstream as Speech or Occupational Therapy.

Beneficial effects of Environmental Enrichment

In their article, Alwis and Raan rehash past research studies proving that enriching the environment of animals leads to a range of sensorimotor and cognitive benefits in laboratory animals, including improvements in behavior, learning, anxiety, coping with stress and adapting to change.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could get the same benefits for our children? Again, thanks to Prof. Leon and to the other researchers currently looking at Sensory Enrichment Therapy, we will know more very soon about how much of this animal research can be transferred into your home.

When Alwis and Raan dig deeper to see what physiological changes happen inside the brain to explain these benefits, they see that there are an increased number of brain cells and more connections in the hippocampus, a key part of the brain that handles learning. These connections are more efficient and stronger, and the brain cells themselves are more resilient to damage and aging. It is quite remarkable that Environmental Enrichment can achieve all that.

It makes sense that a brain which can communicate more efficiently will be able to do everything with increased ease and competence.

What is interesting is that for more valuable results, the sensory activities used should be more engaging. They have measured that with auditory stimulation passive sounds from cagemates had more impact than active stimulation using “less behaviourally relevant stimuli.” We should keep this in mind when designing an autism therapy aiming at improving sensory processing.

Mendability® as a standardized form of therapy for Environmental Enrichment

Alwis and Raan are concerned that there is no standardized way of enriching the environment, which presents a problem with variability in clinical trials.

“It is also worth adding the caution that while Environmental Enrichment holds promise in its application as a therapeutic tool after brain injury in humans, the complex nature of utilising Environmental Enrichment in a clinical setting makes it difficult to standardise treatment and compare outcomes.”

Mendability offers the standardized Environmental Enrichment protocol that they are looking for.

We overcame this challenge by working with Prof. Leon to construct a very strict set of standardized Environmental Enrichment protocols for the first two studies on Sensory Enrichment Therapy using a population of children with autism. Every child in the study received the same sensorimotor stimulation. The success of the clinical trial speaks volumes to confirm the validity of Environmental Enrichment as an effective therapeutic tool to remediate the symptoms of neurological disorders, including neurodevelopmental disorders like autism.

[1] Alwis DS and Rajan R(2014) Environmental enrichment and the sensory brain: the role of enrichment in remediating brain injury. Front. Syst. Neurosci. 8:156. doi:10.3389/fnsys.2014.00156

[2] F.H. Gage, Mammalian neural stem cells, Science, 287 (2000), pp. 1433–1438

[3] Daphne Bavelier1, Dennis M. Levi2, Roger W. Li2, Yang Dan3, and Takao K. Hensch4,5, Removing Brakes on Adult Brain Plasticity: From Molecular to Behavioral Interventions, The Journal of Neuroscience, 10 November 2010, 30(45): 14964-14971; doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4812-10.2010

[4] Woo CC, Leon M. Environmental enrichment as an effective treatment for autism: a randomized controlled trial. Behav Neurosci. 2013 Aug;127(4):487-97. doi: 10.1037/a0033010. Epub 2013 May 20. PubMed PMID: 23688137.

[5] Hebb, D.O. (1947). The effects of early experience on problem-solving at maturity. Am. Psychol. 2, 306-307

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