Understanding “Lyme Brain”
Lyme disease can negatively affect many body systems, including the brain and central nervous system. People who have been infected with Lyme often find themselves experiencing neurological symptoms, such as fatigue, difficulty concentrating, memory problems, mood changes, sleep disorders, and brain fog. (Yes, that’s right—before being associated with COVID long-haulers, brain fog was long recognized as a trademark of persistent Lyme disease and its various coinfections.)
This happens because of the body’s immune response to the infection. When the immune system senses the presence of the Lyme-causing pathogen Borrelia burgdorferi, it releases antibodies and a flood of cytokines, or protein messengers that play an important role in regulating the immune response to disease. If the infection spreads, and the immune response isn’t shut down, the cytokines can serve to increase inflammation throughout the body, including in the central nervous system. Inflammatory molecules might also be crossing the blood-brain barrier, directly impairing the brain. The colloquial term, “Lyme brain,” was created by patients to explain how this feels.
Those struggling with the neurological effects of Lyme disease often find it challenging to conduct their day-to-day lives like they did before. For example, some Lyme patients can read the same page over and over again without comprehending its meaning. They may suddenly forget words or the names of people they have known for years. They can also have trouble with ordinary tasks, like remembering appointments, paying bills, or keeping up with their intensive medical regimen.
While the constellation of neurological symptoms colloquially known as Lyme brain may be severe and long-lasting, they don’t have to be permanent. The science of cognitive rehabilitation offers hope by teaching patients to compensate for impairments, and by helping them rewire their brains based on the concept of neuroplasticity: the idea that, with training, new neural pathways can be wired through the brain.
What Is Neuroplasticity?
Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to keep growing through life experiences. Not so long ago, people assumed that the brain stopped creating new neurons—a process called neurogenesis—shortly after birth. Today, scientists know that the brain is capable of not only creating new neurons but also rewiring the pathways between them and establishing new connections.
Neuroplasticity provides a host of brain benefits. For the healthy, neuroplasticity can enhance cognition and help them learn something new. For individuals who are struggling with their health, it can boost healing and help them overcome injuries that affect the brain and other parts of the body. Neuroplasticity can also offer hope to those suffering from the neurological symptoms of Lyme disease and other tick-borne infections.
Of course, a person’s age, genes, and environment all play a role in neuroplasticity. For instance, being younger makes it easier to develop brain plasticity. But anyone can benefit from nurturing this natural protection.
For those who are curious about how to get started, here are some science-based tips.
8 Ways to Overcome Lyme Brain
1. Reduce stress.
Doctors are fond of advising patients to lower their stress levels—and for good reason. When stress is ongoing, the body can get stuck in fight-or-flight mode. The surging adrenaline and heightened attention to any potential threat can harm the immune system and cause the brain to function differently (i.e., worse). Breathing techniques, meditation practices, and soothing activities like yoga can all help a person get a handle on their stress and relax.
2. Get enough rest.
Sleep can have a powerful impact on the brain, including consolidating memories and enhancing learning. Once new information or a skill is acquired, the brain continues to strengthen neural connections and solidify learning when it goes “offline” to rest. As a result, quality sleep frequently goes hand-in-hand with building neuroplasticity.
3. Focus on healthy nutrition.
What you eat can majorly impact how you feel physically. Antioxidants, for example, can protect cells from being damaged by free radicals, which are linked to disease and aging. Research shows that diets which are rich in polyphenols can make a huge difference to the brain’s neuroplasticity; curcumin, catechins, resveratrol, and omega-3 fatty acids also have protective benefits that Lyme patients may find useful, such as reducing inflammation.
4. Engage in physical activity (if possible).
Moving the body can keep blood flowing to the brain, improving circulation. Research suggests that exercise can prevent the loss of neurons in the hippocampus, a part of the brain responsible for memory; physical activity may also contribute to the generation and connection of new neurons. Just taking a walk or dancing to your favorite song can help boost your spirits.
5. Learn something new.
Novel experiences can challenge the brain to grow and reinforce new pathways instead of focusing on that familiar pain and fatigue. As your energy permits, consider training in a martial art, building fluency in another language, or starting to paint. Read more on any topics that spark your curiosity.
6. Increase cognitive flexibility.
Do something you know how to do a little bit differently, such as taking a new route home from work, cooking an unfamiliar recipe, or using your non-dominant hand to write or draw. Embrace new experiences like traveling somewhere you’ve never been or going rock-climbing for the first time. Don’t be afraid to be playful, and look for opportunities to meet interesting people whose worldviews differ from your own.
7. Practice neuroplasticity-building techniques.
When you are constantly sick and/or in pain, the brain can get caught in negative feedback loops, thinking the same toxic things. Talk therapy, particularly cognitive behavioral therapy, can help you develop valuable skills for breaking free of harmful thought or behavior patterns, including emotion regulation and cognitive reappraisal.
8. Actively seek the help of a therapist trained in neuroplasticity.
Like COVID long-haulers, people with persistent Lyme disease and other tick-borne infections may find relief for their neurological symptoms at interdisciplinary clinics that specialize in brain rehab. These clinics generally use the concussion and mild traumatic brain injury guidelines accepted by the scientific community9 to provide symptom relief. Therapists trained in neuroplasticity will offer personalized assessments and treatment depending on the patient’s individual needs. They will identify which area(s) are causing a person the most difficulty—vision-vestibular, physiological, cognitive, emotional, etc.—and focus on correcting and compensating for those specific symptoms using techniques that someone might not know otherwise. The emphasis on progress monitoring and individualized approach lead to significant results in many cases.
Ultimately, recovering from Lyme disease means healing the mind as well as the body. If just getting through the day feels like a massive victory, it may be difficult to imagine a time when you will break free of Lyme brain and regain your mental sharpness. But that day may be closer than you realize—especially if you can use the above strategies to harness neuroplasticity and speed up the recovery process.