It is not just the brain that changes itself – time to embrace bioplasticity?

My mate Dr Mick Thacker, has long been teasing me for being neurocentric. In fact – for being A neurocentric. That is, he attaches this neurocentricity to me not just as a characteristic, but as an identity. Moving on from positions of prejudice first requires understanding and I have slowly come to understand that pain is not an emergent property of the nervous system, but of the human. Mick and I have actually said as much here.[1]  It is worth iterating that, clearly, all we know about pain and protective responses is not really confined to our neurones. Indeed, not even the brain itself is confined to neurones – there are more immune cells in the brain than there are neurones. The interconnection between neurones and glia is so tight that they literally rely on each other to work (see my posts on this here: Neuroimmunology for Dummies Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3).  But the integration doesn’t stop there – the fact is, all the systems are so integrated and interdependent that we have little choice but to hold our hands up and say ‘Jeepers! Double Jeepers!  We really are fearfully and wonderfully complex’. But that is not my point, actually.

My point is that, although the nervous system is the one I have been most enthusiastic about in my time as an Enquirer-Explorer, it is not the only Magnificent System. Similarly, neuroplasticity – such a fashionable term nowadays – really is amazing, but the nervous system is not the only system that has a remarkable capacity to change in response to demand. Not at all – the other systems are also highly adaptable. They all respond to demand – in obvious ways such as growing muscle cells when we lift weights – myoplasticity; sweating more when we acclimatise – endoplasticity; learning to recognise a pathogen and eliminating it on next contact – immunoplasticity;  increasing our heartrate earlier on a hill after running up it a few times – cardioplasticity; adjusting the aperture of our pupil to improve our underwater vision – obiculoplasticity; the toughening of skin on well trodden heels – dermoplasticity. You probably don’t recognise these terms, but they are all, in my view, just as legitimate as neuroplasticity. OK, I made those terms up – but they would be legitimate if we chose to use them as a method of capturing this fundamental property of biological systems – adaptation. I suggest, in order to avoid this type of extravagant neologismics, we start to use an umbrella term for this property. It is a property that exists across our biological systems. It shall be called….bioplasticity.  Bioplasticity is, from herein, the new black. I repent my neurocentric ways and hold aloft the banner of biocentricity. It seems to me to be a fairer reflection of what we know about ourselves and it is a sensible umbrella term for the changes that occur across multiple systems when, for example, pain persists, or when, for example, we try to change pain. In fact, these tasks that we call neuroplasticity training, do not only induce changes in the nervous system, so perhaps they should be called bioplasticity training. Just a thought. And immune activation. And endocrine response. And motor output. And heart rate fluctuation….

About Lorimer Moseley

Lorimer is NHMRC Senior Research Fellow with twenty years clinical experience working with people in pain. After spending some time as a Nuffield Medical Research Fellow at Oxford University he returned to Australia in 2009 to take up an NHMRC Senior Research Fellowship at Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA). In 2011, he was appointed Professor of Clinical Neurosciences & the Inaugural Chair in Physiotherapy at the University of South Australia, Adelaide. He runs the Body in Mind research groups. He is the only Clinical Scientist to have knocked over a water tank tower in Outback Australia.

Link to Lorimer’s published research hereDownloadable PDFs here.

Reference

[1] Thacker MA, & Moseley GL (2012). First-person neuroscience and the understanding of pain. The Medical Journal of Australia, 196 (6), 410-1 PMID: 22471546