Neuroscience is one of the most popular scientific fields today. Exciting new research just keeps coming in. We are beginning to find out just how powerful the mind really is. While the age-old focus of the brain’s ability to control the body is still important, we are now learning about how the brain controls itself. It’s the concept of neuroplasticity, or brain plasticity, that holds the key for future cures and possibilities.
Brain Plasticity Defined
So what is brain plasticity? It’s essentially the brain’s ability to reorganize, grow, and change over a person’s lifetime. The word neuroplasticity itself, which is the medical research term for this amazing ability, means moldable nerve cells.
Here’s a quick physiology lesson to aide in understanding this concept. The brain works by firing neurons. As neurons mature, they form axons, which send information out, and dendrites, which receive information. Synapses allow information to flow from one neuron to another through the axons and dendrites. Synaptogenesis occurs by creating more and more synaptic connections at specific locations. Information is then sent and received along these pathways.
Where it was once believed that a person’s intelligence, and therefore their ability to learn, was fixed from birth, it’s now believed that a person can continue to grow and mold their brain throughout their lifetime. Brain connections aren’t fixed at all. That’s because the brain changes based on everything we think and do. New neurological connections are constantly being made, and the brain can remodel itself to allow for new information at any stage of life.
A Neurological Timeline
We all know that learning is an ongoing process, and that means that brain plasticity, to some extent, is always occurring. However, there are a few times that it is kicked into high gear. The first time is during infancy and childhood. This is the period where the brain learns a lot of information in a relatively short amount of time. This is also when the brain learns to, well, learn. Our cerebral cortex is designed from birth to learn by building new neural pathways based on experience, so our once-empty brain grows into a mass of organized and intelligent thought. It’s during this time that the brain is at it’s most plastic, moldable stage.
What we learn so rapidly during those first years is stored in the brain until we need the space for newer and more important information. Usually around adolescence, our brain begins some much-needed self maintenance. This process is called synaptic pruning. Of all the connections that were formed as a toddler, only half of those will remain by the teen years. This is perhaps the reason that many of us don’t remember our very early years- the neurological pathways went unused and were then disposed of by our brain.
The Myth of Mental Decline
Once we reach adulthood, this process continues to occur. As we learn new information, from having children, taking on new jobs, and adapting to our ever-changing environment, our brain grows. We are perpetually pruning out the old, unused neurological pathways to make room for the new connections.
Mental decline occurs in the adult brain the when the rate at which old neurons are disposed of is greater than the rate at which new cells and connections are formed. This accounts for what many call overall mental decline in aging adults. It’s also thought to be responsible for diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, dementia, and even schizophrenia.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about neuroplasticity is that ongoing research does point towards telling us that mental decline doesn’t have to happen. The brain doesn’t have to become less efficient over time. Mental processes can be just as effective at age 80 as they were at age 8. Brain growth and information reorganization, with effective and proportionate synaptic pruning, can occur even in the adult brain.
Plasticity and Brain Damage
The human brain works by processing sensory and motor stimuli at the same time. This is the mechanism that allows one part of the brain to substitute for another. Signals can be sent around another pathway to be completed. This is what occurs after brain damage of any kind. That’s why it is thought that neuroplasticity, not just the healing of damaged brain tissues, is responsible for people being able to recover from a severe brain injury or trauma.
Brain plasticity does have its limits. It must work within the confines of brain structure that is determined by a person’s genetic makeup. The brain is modular, which means that different structures are in charge of different functions. So while new and different pathways can be formed as a result of learning or re-learning a task, a part of the brain that is responsible for movement of the limbs would not be able to process learning a new language, since it is associated with only motor stimuli.
In the case of TBI (severe brain injury) or TIA (stroke), neuroplasticity may be able to offer the recovery of lost skills. The brain can learn to rewire the pathways around the damaged tissues. Since the brain knows to increase synaptogenesis after injury, the brain will take advantage of healthy connections and use them to make up for the lost functions.
For example, if a person were to lose the use of their right arm following a stroke, the brain could use healthy connections in the area of the brain responsible for moving the left arm to accommodate for the damaged tissue. The brain will reorganize the connections and stimulate the neurons with new activity or experience. Proper technique for training the brain to do this after brain injury is key, otherwise, the brain won’t rewire. One would need to properly stimulate those neurons by immobilizing the left arm. This would allow the neurons in the brain to be stimulated by activity for the right arm. Eventually, function would be regained as the brain grows.
While neuroplasticity may not be able to help every single brain injury patient, it can have at least a small effect on regaining skills and abilities. Younger patients with smaller injuries stand the best chance of benefiting from neuroplasticity. Proper treatments also need to occur as quickly as possible during rehabilitation to capitalize on the increase in synaptogenesis.
Ways to Strengthen the Brain
You’ve no doubt heard the term “use it or lose it.” Well, that is most certainly true when it comes to your brain. Just because you’ve learned something doesn’t mean you’ll always know it. If we want to truly learn information and have it available for recall, a change in structure at the synaptic level is required. Repetition and reinforcement of information strengthens the synaptic pathways so that it is not pruned out during neuroplasticity.
Some activities and knowledge are associated with more malleable brains. Learning another language is one of the best things you can do for your brain. It has been shown to enlarge the inferior parietal cortex, which controls language. It also enlarges the hippocampus, which processes memories and feelings. Playing music can also rewire the brain. Musicians have been shown to have larger motor regions, as well as an increase in overall cortex (gray matter) and brain function, including memory, attention, and the ability to learn new things.
Proper nutrition and exercise are also associated with a better, more plastic brain. As with all parts of the body, the brain needs the right nutrients to work at its best. Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins D and E, flavonols, polyphenols, and magnesium are great for the mind. Using brain supplements such as Limidax may be effective in boosting your focus and drive as well. As we mentioned before, going out and actively engaging in activities of learning are being shown to be associated with increasing brain plasticity. Exercise also has been shown to promote new growth for brain cells by increasing the necessary biochemical substances. Activities like yoga, tai chi, and meditation have particularly strong impact on brain health because they encourage the connection between body and mind. As always, never hesitate to reach out with questions!