Neuroplasticity is a phenomenon that we experience every day, but most are not aware that it is occurring. It affects almost every aspect of our life, but most prominently when we are younger. Newborns and young children experience it as they reach developmental milestones as do children learning in school. New experiences shape the brain every day. Neuroplasticity is involved in work, play, learning, social gatherings and sports.
Neuroplasticity is the name given to the process through which the brain adapts, changes and rewires according to its biological, personal, and environmental needs.
Here are several definitions of neuroplasticity from different sources across the internet.
“the ability of the brain to develop new neurons and/or new synapses in response to stimulation and learning. Recent research shows that the brain retains its plasticity throughout life, more or less, depending on the person’s state of health, etc. Following an injury to the brain, neuroplasticity may allow uninjured areas to take over the processes previously carried out by the injured areas” Oxford Reference
“capacity of neurons and neural networks in the brain to change their connections and behavior in response to new information, sensory stimulation, development, damage, or dysfunction.” Britannica
“the capacity for continuous alteration of the neural pathways and synapses of the living brain and nervous system in response to experience or injury” Merriam-Webster
what is neuroplasticity of the brain?
Ok, so what does that definition actually mean? Neuroplasticity is a fascinating property of our brain and to understand how it works some neuroanatomy and neurophysiology facts must be covered first. For starters, the brain is a big, fatty organ made out of brain cells (neurons), which communicate with each other through synapses. The synapses use chemicals (or neurotransmitters) to communicate between cells and the cells themselves convey information using electricity. Some types of neurotransmitters will excite a neuron and make it more likely to create a spark of electricity and other chemicals can shut the party down. Specific types of information travel in specific pathways in certain areas and the different regions of the central nervous system are interconnected in a myriad of ways.
The individual cells in the nervous system need to have the right fuel to be healthy and to grow properly. They need to have foods like carbohydrates and fats present in the blood in proper quantities to be nourished. In the United States, it is obvious that calories are not usually the problem, but certain vitamins can be lacking, which slows the whole system down. The other part of these energy pathways is that you need oxygen to burn the provided fuel properly. Just like a campfire can get choked out, nerves will not prosper if they do not have enough oxygen available in the blood. This means that certain illnesses and musculoskeletal conditions can cause trouble for your nerves. Poor posture is often a cause of poor or dysfunctional breathing.
“Cells that fire together wire together.”
Neuroplasticity occurs at the level of cells where an individual neuron can get stronger. A cell that is repeatedly stimulated is basically getting exercise. Regardless of whether chemicals are telling the cell to spark or not, the inside machinery of the cell gets stronger. Cells that are constantly utilized grow stronger and start to change the inner working of the cell to make the cell healthier and more stable. It is like a construction business that has an abundance of cash which it reinvests to grow the business. You would buy new equipment and hire new workers.
Neuroplasticity will also affect the communication between two cells and even how groups of cells will behave together. Very healthy nerves can even grow additional nerves endings to multiply their impact on the next nerve down the line. Using a pathway or a connection repeatedly can spur the cells to strengthen connections between themselves. This means that activities, behaviors, and sensations that repeatedly occur will become occur easier over time. “Perfect practice makes perfect” because you are growing new connections in your brain to be able to accomplish the task. Complex movements are usually not coordinated on the first try, but repeated practice will allow you finally stick the landing.
how neuroplasticity changes the brain
Unlike other organs, the brain and spinal cord are special because they are actively changing; new paths and synapses are constantly created or destroyed according to people’s needs. This adaptability implies that as time passes by, the brain will be specialized to meet the requirements of our lives. But our lives change and so will our brains along with it. Neuroplasticity is a long-term process, thus our brains will get better suited to handle those activities or skills that we constantly engage. The opposite is also true, the brain will get rid of the connections we no longer use.
Even older people can create new neuronal pathways, and even though children are more likely to take advantage of it, the brains of adults are also able to make amazing changes and improvements.
Due to the aforementioned statements, neuroplasticity is deeply involved in the learning process. When one starts learning a new skill, the changes in brain structure are not even noticeable, but as time pass by the brain develops new neural pathways, to the point where a neurologist can compare and see the differences between a musician’s brain and the brain of someone who does not play an instrument.
Nevertheless, perhaps the best part of neuroplasticity is its economic principle. The human body resources are limited, as a result, we have evolved to take advantage of every substance our bodies have, and this can be evidenced in the following:
1. Without neuroplasticity, the brain would have to invest a lot of energy to keep going all the connections in the brain, even those which aren’t being used. Imagine if every school year you had to carry the books from the old grade, in addition to your current grade book; promptly you would get to the point where it would be almost impossible to handle the burden. The same happens in the brain, those synapses that are not being used must be discontinued to save resources.
2. On the other hand, as pointed out before, neuroplasticity is deeply involved in the learning process, therefore without it, we would not be able to take full advantage of our brain potential and improve our skills beyond an average point.
Neuroplasticity also plays an important role in the healing process. Brain function can translate to physical ability. After a stroke, a person that remains in bed and inactive for a long time can be sure to remain crippled by their condition. The person that actively works at doing the things that are hard for them with drastically improve. Some stroke therapies will specifically immobilize the good arm leaving the bad arm to do the work. Despite a previous thought that there was a finite time after the stroke to see recovery, treatments like this can result in major improvements in a stroke victim’s impediments. Although the process is different, this is also true when it comes to mental health. Mental disorders deteriorate brain pathways, destroying synapses and creating new ones targeting negative behaviors and ways of thinking.
Neuroplasticity Exercise Examples
The bright side is that therapy, mindfulness, and day-to-day changes can reverse said damage. Practices such as meditation and yoga have been proven to improve our mental health, practicing mindfulness encourages our brain to focus on healthy and adaptive habits, which helps to palliate the symptoms of common disorders such as depression and anxiety.
It comes without saying that it takes a lot of effort for neuroplasticity to overcome the effects of said disorders, however, it is possible. And the best part is that since day-to-day actions and activities have a huge influence on this process, the harder someone works (plus the more diverse his approach is) the better chances they have to heal. Therapy, mindfulness, and changes in one’s habits are without doubt the perfect support system for neuroplasticity to create new and healthier connections.
People have become interested to do everything in their power to continue this awesome property running given the important role that neuroplasticity plays in our life. Having that in mind, the following are some based-on-evidence- recommendations to improve neuroplasticity:
– Engage in brain-challenging activities: playing games such as chess, Sudoku, crosswords, etc. stimulates the brain and helps to keep it sharp and healthy, therefore promoting neuroplasticity. Other activities like memory tasks and games can also be included in this category.
On the same hand, it is imperative to highlight the importance of learning a new language, how to play an instrument, or even learning complex activities such as jogging. These activities are mentally challenging and involved different brain areas and neuronal pathways.
– Mindfulness is not only a great asset for unhealthy brains as those with healthy brains can also benefit from its perks. Yoga and meditation reduce stress and bring a lot of advantages to the table. At the same time, you should also consider regular physical activity and healthy habits (proper sleeping, cutting junk food, and avoiding smoking, drinking, and a sedentary lifestyle) since it does wonders to one’s health (both mentally and physically).
Chiropractic neurologists can use the principles of neuroplasticity to help people who are affected by certain neurological conditions. Brain-based rehabilitation methods are a part of an integration process designed to reconnect and restore proper brain function. After a thorough neurological examination, specific brain-based exercises focusing on developing neuroplasticity are selected for you to stimulate function in the part of the brain involved in the brain imbalance.
Common exercises used in treating neurological conditions include visual or auditory stimulation, balance and coordination therapy, eye movement therapy, complex movement exercises, neuro visual therapy and stimulation of the inner ear (such as spinning or caloric work) as well as utilizing sensations such as sound, touch, vibration, and smell. These exercises are very powerful methods of stimulating the appropriate areas of the brain.
Brief History of Neuroplasticity
Those who know history or pay attention to current events are aware that life keeps changing, what we knew a decade ago, is no longer true. Life is dynamic and so are our lives, everything changes, including ourselves, and even if we are not able to notice it without the proper equipment, our brains are changing as well. There was a time where scientists thought that the brain had a limited amount of time (during childhood) to learn and adapt.
Santiago Ramón y Cajal (the father of neuroscience) was the first one to theorize about the brain’s ability to keep changing. As a concept, neuroplasticity was first used by Jerzy Konorski in 1948, after observing changes in neuronal structures; however, -as most groundbreaking discoveries -it took some time for the scientific community to accept the concept; starting to be widely used in the 1960s.