H uman motor and cognitive development are complex systems, and because of this are often studied independently. However more recent research has aimed at examining the relationship between the two as they co-occur. Results of recent works indicate a fundamental intertwining of motor and cognitive function during their concurrent development. This is a pivotal foundation piece for the Costello Neuro-Adaptive Theory (CNAT), which is the basis of Functional Neuromotor Activation Technique or FNAT.
Movement of the body and its use of senses are the means by which the brain experiences the world. Thus, as we grow and develop the movement of our body plays a key role in both our simultaneous motor and cognitive development. Research shows that humans require engagement in specific movement sequences to organize and enhance neural connections in specific brain areas, as well as to create effective communication between the brain and body. This entire process of development is stage related, evolutionary, and experiential. These specific movements necessary for neural growth occur naturally and without prompting, coaching or conscious effort in most typically developing children. As basic movements are engaged in, there is gradual growth into more complex sequences throughout each stage.
Developmental movements have been identified as early as 7-13 weeks after conception while still in utero and the movements become increasingly complex as a child goes from birth to crawling and then upright to standing on two feet. Growth through the stages of development also correlates with maturation of reflex patterns and engagement of the brain stem, midbrain, cerebellum, and cortex.
Due to this intertwined nature of brain and body development, when there is an interruption in motor development sequences, we often also see missed cognitive milestones or compromised neural development. Pinpointing the source of these factors can be extremely difficult. However, these are all factors that can increase the stress load on an individual’s brain. Other potential sources for perceived stress can be physical, chemical, environmental, or emotional in nature. Interestingly, psychological and physiological stressors activate the same hormonal and autonomic responses of the stress hormone axis in the brain.
This stress hormone axis is known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA or HTPA) and is responsible for mediating the brain/body’s response to stress by adjusting the secretion of stress hormones to maintain a state of “homeostasis”, or stability. Changes to the way this axis functions could have direct effect on a wide variety of body processes, including digestion, the immune system, mood and emotions, focus, concentration, and energy storage and expenditure. The brain is both the interpreter of what is considered “stressful” as well the regulator of behavioral and physiological responses to perceived or actual stressors.
Chronic or intense episodes of perceived stress can not only trigger temporary changes in function of the HPA, but can produce what is called an Overactive Adrenal Response (OAR) in which there is an over production/release of the chemicals modulated by the HPA. Prolonged exposure to the OAR and the stress hormones associated can then cause changes to both the function and structure of many brain areas. When these changes in structure and function occur, the result is compensation, which can manifest physically, cognitively, and emotionally. These compensation or changes are thought to help the brain adapt and to protect it from damage.
The protective changes to the function and structure of the brain are possible due to neuroplasticity: or the brains ability to reorganize itself by forming new connections throughout life. The protective forms of change mentioned here are often called structural plasticity or adaptive plasticity. As mentioned before, in some instances they appear to be a compensatory mechanism. However these changes are not permanent, and research has shown them to be largely reversible thanks to another form of neuroplasticity called neurogenesis: the brain’s ability to grow new neural connections. Research has shown that neurogenesis is possible in certain areas of the brain well into adulthood and has indicated movement (exercise) and an enriched environment as key factors to eliciting new growth.
Given this information we have developed a modality called Functional Neuromotor Activation Technique (FNAT), which addresses the relationship between the brain and body, ultimately focusing on the way an individual moves and interacts with their environment. We utilize specific movement sequences typical to the stage related, evolutionary process of human development in combination with the necessary environmental stimuli, to recalibrate communication between the brain and body. This results in improving how the brain receives, processes, and organizes information which can be seen as improved motor coordination, improved learning (i.e. reading, writing, comprehension), increased focus or attention, decreased anxiety, improved speech and language, sensory processing, memory, and behavioral regulation.
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