Advances in Neurocognitive Rehabilitation Research From 1992 to 2017: The Ascension of Neural Plasticity

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Objective: The last 25 years have seen profound changes in neurocognitive rehabilitation that continue to motivate its evolution. Although the concept of nervous system plasticity was discussed by William James (1890), the foundation for experience-based plasticity had not reached the critical empirical mass to seriously impact rehabilitation research until after 1992. The objective of this review is to describe how the emergence of neural plasticity has changed neurocognitive rehabilitation research. Method: The important developments included (a) introduction of a widely available tool that could measure brain plasticity (i.e., functional MRI); (b) development of new structural imaging techniques that could define limits of and opportunities for neural plasticity; (c) deployment of noninvasive brain stimulation to leverage neural plasticity for rehabilitation; (d) growth of a literature indicating that exercise has positively impacts neural plasticity, especially for older persons; and (e) enhancement of neural plasticity by creating interventions that generalize beyond the boundaries of treatment activities. Given the massive literature, each of these areas is developed by example. Results: The expanding influence of neural plasticity has provided new models and tools for neurocognitive rehabilitation in neural injuries and disorders, as well as methods for measuring neural plasticity and predicting its limits and opportunities. Early clinical trials have provided very encouraging results. Conclusion: Now that neural plasticity has gained a firm foothold, it will continue to influence the evolution of neurocognitive rehabilitation research for the next 25 years and advance rehabilitation for neural injuries and disease.

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