The brain is probably the most complex organ of the body. It is responsible for our actions, emotions, thoughts, language, movement, and internal systems of the body. A brain that is not working to its full potential can show up as learning disabilities, developmental delays, mental illness, motor incoordination and so much more. In order to help the brain get back on track, we must first understand what makes it work.
When a baby enters the world, in most cases all of the parts of the brain are established and ready to grow. For the brain to function efficiently, the nerve cells must be “wired” together. Primitive reflexes are the first to develop in the brain and serves to protect the baby or to help the baby survive (finding food, startle at a noise). It also controls the rhythmic movements that babies do automatically when they are on their backs, stomachs, or sides.
It is important that a baby must be given the chance to move freely (under supervision) in order for the primitive reflexes to mature to postural reflexes which help to develop muscle tone, balance, coordination and sensory motor development.
Primitive reflexes may not mature due to prematurity, C-section, brain injury during delivery, hereditary factors, lack of stimulation at birth, disease, exposure to alcohol or drugs in utero, or baby is forced to spend time in baby walkers or car seats instead of moving on the floor. This may mean that milestones are not met which can lead to developmental delays, problems with attention or sensory processing, and learning disabilities. Trauma or brain injury/concussions in adults may also be taxing on the nervous system and cause these reflexes to become unintegrated.
The good news is that research has shown that the brain is resilient and has the ability to change itself – this is called neuroplasticity. With proper treatment by a trained Occupational Therapist in cognitive rehabilitation, the brain can be rehabilitated (depends on diagnosis) to make new connections and form new pathways even into adulthood. (Taken from Blomberg, H., & Dempsey, M. (2011) Movements that heal: rhythmic movement training and primitive reflex integration. Sunnybank Hills, Qld: BookPal.
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Lisa Dennis has been an occupational therapist since 1999 working with a diverse clientele. She has extensive experience in community home-care in Quebec and Ontario with the adult and geriatric population with physical disabilities. She has spent 4 years working in northern Labrador offering mental health and addictions services as well as school pediatric interventions with aboriginal youth-at-risk aged 6 to 24 years