The Fantastic [Neuro] Plastic Brain

Think about how you learnt to speak your second language? Or perhaps how cab drivers learn their routes (without using google maps!). Or even in music – especially with the way music conductors are able to separate adjacent sounds sources better than other musicians or non-musicians?

Research has shown that the brain is in constant change throughout an entire life time. This simply means that the brain is super dynamic and so whenever you stimulate your brain with positive [or negative -as the case may be] thoughts, in consistent and repetitive stimuli, the brain will respond.

Neuro-Plasticity

Brain plasticity,-a phrase also known as neuroplasticity, is a term that refers to the biological, chemical and physical capacity of the brain to change and adapt by reorganizing its structure and function. This incredible ability occurs as a result of learning, experience and memory formation, or as a result of damage to the brain.

On one hand, learning and new experiences cause new neural pathways to strengthen from childhood even up to mature states; whereas neural pathways which are used infrequently become weak and eventually die.

Forms of Neuro-plasticity

As humans, we possess ~86Bn neurons with the remarkable capacity to reorganize pathways, create new connections, and, in some cases, even create new neurons—Neuro-plasticity.

There are two main types of neuroplasticity:

  • Functional plasticity which would enable our brains divert functions from damaged to undamaged zones within the brain. This could mean recovery from strokes and other traumatic brain injuries
  • Structural Plasticity features could lead to physical structural changes based on learning, experiences or memories. Here, we see the impact in learning new things like new languages and also enhanced cognitive capabilities.

How Brain Plasticity Works

During infancy, a child experiences accelerated brain growth with every neuron in the cerebral cortex having an estimated 2,500 synapses at birth. This number gets to 6X at 15,000 synapses per neuron by the time the child is three years old

Conversely the average adult, has about 50% the total number of synapses compared to the child due to the fact that overtime, the adult gains new experiences thereby strengthening connections but eliminating others from non-use: a process called synaptic pruning.

The brain is able to adapt to its dynamic ecosystem due to the process of developing new connections and pruning away weak ones.

How to Leverage Neuro-Plasticity

So how are we able to ensure we position our brains to constantly adapt and change and thus maintain this incredible capability?

We need to constantly allow our brains to:

#Explore new things

Triggering the things of art like travelling / discovering new places, trying to learn a new language or seeking to acquire new knowledge etc.

Learning environments that offer plenty of opportunities for focused attention, novelty, and challenge have been shown to stimulate positive changes in the brain. This is particularly important during childhood and adolescence, but enriching your environment can continue to provide brain rewards even well into adulthood.

Things you can try include:

  • Learning a new language
  • Learning how to play an instrument
  • Traveling and exploring new places
  • Creating art and other creative pursuits
  • Reading / absorbing new knowledge

#Engage in physical activity

Exercises can help beef up dopamine levels, reduce cortisol [stress hormone] levels and foster production of serotonins [feel good chemicals]. This also supports our hippocampus [a part of the temporal lobe] responsible for memory functions.

Regular physical activity has been shown to have a number of brain benefits. Some research suggests that exercise might help prevent neuron losses in key areas of the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in memory and other functions. 

A 2018 review published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience suggested that exercise could also play a role in neurogenesis in the hippocampal region.

#Embrace the right amount of sleep

 I know it’s a tough one… I personally have to force out those 7 hrs.…but it’s worth every effort as poor sleep causes our neurons to get overworked leading to less thinking power and productivity …especially at work and school.

Research has shown that sleep plays an important role in dendritic growth in the brain. Dendrites are the growths at the end of neurons that help transmit information from one neuron to the next. By strengthening these connections, you may be able to encourage greater brain plasticity.

Sleep has been shown to have important effects on both physical and mental health. You can find ways to improve your sleep by practicing good sleep hygiene.

As we embark on our daily lives let’s try out some new things … and build more plasticity into our brains …😊 

How would you #improve your #neuroplasticity???

This disclaimer informs readers that the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text are a collection of studies and information gathering done by the author. Key sources are listed below.

Sources / Further reading

Doidge N. The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph From the Frontiers of Brain Science. New York: Viking; 2007.

Hockenbury SE, Nolan SA, Hockenbury D. Discovering Psychology. 7th ed. New York, NY: Worth Publishers; 2016.

Hoiland E. Brain plasticity: What is it? Chudler EH, ed. Neuroscience for KidsUniversity of Washington.

James W. The Principles of Psychology. Classics in the History of Psychology. Green CD, ed. 1890.

Kolb B, Gibb R. Brain plasticity and behaviour in the developing brain. Clarke M, Ghali L, eds. Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. 2011;20(4):265-276.

Li W, Ma L, Yang G, Gan WB. REM sleep selectively prunes and maintains new synapses in development and learningNat Neurosci. 2017;20(3):427-437. doi:10.1038/nn.4479

Liu PZ, Nusslock R. Exercise-mediated neurogenesis in the hippocampus via BDNFFront Neurosci. 2018;12:52. doi:10.3389/fnins.2018.00052

Vemuri P, Lesnick TG, Przybelski SA, et al. Association of lifetime intellectual enrichment with cognitive decline in the older populationJAMA Neurol. 2014 Aug;71(8):1017-24. doi:10.1001/jamaneurol.2014.963

Voss P, Thomas ME, Cisneros-Franco JM, de Villers-Sidani É. Dynamic brains and the changing rules of neuroplasticity: implications for learning and recoveryFront Psychol. 2017;8:1657.

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