Your nervous system’s main and most important goal is to keep you safe. It is constantly scanning the environment for signs of danger and threat. This scanning happens through our senses; your brain takes in information through olfactory, visual, auditory and motor systems. Your body’s ability to utilize these senses to their fullest and bring that information into the brain for processing is what determines the level of safety your brain perceives in its current environment.
Is it any wonder that this should be at the forefront of our thinking as we examine more closely some of the latest research on Alzheimer’s disease (AD)? Research has identified that sensory and motor changes preceded the actual cognitive symptoms many years earlier in (AD) patients. A key conclusion was that improving sensory motor deficits in AD may enhance patient function. But what exactly would that look like? Let’s get a stronger understanding of how our amazing nervous system works.
There are three primary tools in the toolbox that your nervous system utilizes to orient you in your environment and assess threat levels:
- Visual system
- Vestibular system
- Proprioceptive system
Each one of these systems plays a very important role in the proper balancing of this equation which we call the neural hierarchy. I’m sure the visual system is obvious as it relates to the millions of bits of information your eyes bring in every second that allows your brain to process and assess its threat levels. The vestibular system is your balance system and heavily utilizes your auditory response and inner ear to also receive and process information in your central nervous system. And the proprioceptive system, the one you may be least familiar with, is simply information your body brings in through touch through the hands, skin and feet on the ground. The body varies muscle contractions in response to information from external forces by using muscle stretch receptors to track joint position in the body or impulse reactions such as when you touch something hot.
For the sake of example let’s assume these three systems can be explained from a mathematical perspective.
Visual = 45%
Vestibular = 35%
Proprioceptive = 20%
Total = 100%
The neural hierarchy is all about balance control. Balance between the sensory and motor inputs. Think of it this way. Your sensory inputs ask the question, where am I? It determines the position of the body in its environment and compares and selects and combines all the senses to give your brain an opportunity to evaluate its environment and know how to interact with it. The motor inputs ask the question what am I going to do (about this current environment I am in)? The motor aspect then determines which muscles it will contract such as ankles, thighs, neck, head, eyes etc. and then decides overall body movement to determine if your body can be safe and peaceful or immediately needs to be on high alert because it senses danger and it must move out of the way quickly.
Picture that these three tools are like a GPS system and each tool is a satellite that brings in information. Each satellite needs to bring in clear and understandable information to the brain. When all three satellites are working at peak capacity, your brain and nervous system operate with exceptional ease and efficiency. Imagine your GPS system in the car is getting different information about your location. Come on, you know this happens just about every other day, especially when you need it most! And what if your GPS actually blows a circuit to prevent it from integrating the information from the satellites? This is what’s happening to an AD patient’s brain. In the neurology world, this is called sensory matching or in this case mismatching.
Visual = 35%
Vestibular = 25%
Proprioceptive = 15%
Total = 75%
At best, this person is operating at an average C grade student if you use the analogy from school. The research indicates that supporting this sensory/motor deficit might enhance function for AD patients. The importance is for all three satellite systems (sensory) to tell the same story to the brain at all times; integration. There’s still more research that needs to be done to see just how much work can be accomplished with a brain already impacted by AD.
But what about you? Are you experiencing vision issues i.e. do you wear glasses, have bi or trifocals or even mono-vision contacts? Do you have balance issues, inner ear concerns, motion sickness? Do you have joint pain, back pain or slowed movement? These are all signs that one, two or ALL three of your sensory input systems (GPS Satellites) are not sending clear messaging to the brain. You may already be going down the path that the research indicated.
The good news is that there is much research indicating that training all three of these systems together is key. You might think that you just need movement (exercise) and that is important, but you need to be making sure all three satellites are activating in your brain and being challenged to work together. Some helpful activities may be Aikido, Tai Chi and dance. But it is so important to make sure you have vision training and tracking like in racquetball. Any of these can be problematic if your eyesight is already poor or you can’t move! Training your brain without incorporating all three systems is not going to bring the desired result.
One of the best ways to train all three systems simultaneously is through a modality called Z-Health*. I recommend enrolling in my 12-week workshop 3 Pillars – Move Well, Balance Well, See Well.
*To learn more about Z-Health, watch these two short videos, What is Z-Health and Z-Health and Neurology 101.