Brain Plasticity Theory Brain Plasticity Theory

What is brain plasticity theory?

The brain is a perplexing part of the body that has been deeply studied the world over.  These in-depth studies have been taking place since before the remarkable technology of today was available or even thought of.  In the early 1900s, the concept of the brain changing with age was introduced. This singular concept expanded into the thorough brain plasticity theory of today.

Brain plasticity theory is the exploration of the changes that occur in the brain.  This theory is also referred to as neuroplasticity.  While it is evident that the brain changes with age and even deteriorates to some degree, it is also important to remember that environment can have an impact on the brain.  The brain is such a complex organ that the studies of plasticity are far-reaching and extremely comprehensive.

Read on to discover the astonishing science of neuroplasticity, the different factors that can affect brain plasticity, information about specific fields of study within neuroplasticity, and so much more!

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What is Brain Plasticity Theory?

The concept of brain plasticity refers to the changes that occur within the brain over time. The study of this plasticity has led scientists to discover how the brain can create new pathways and connections and how these areas are wired (Source: Positive Psychology). These changes can be age-related, environmental, or the result of a traumatic incident.  The idea behind ‘what is brain plasticity?‘ is an extremely exciting and in-depth theory that is continuously changing.

Two Types of Brain Plasticity

During the many studies on neuroplasticity, it has been discovered that there are two types of brain plasticity:

  • Functional Plasticity: When scientists studied functional plasticity, they noticed the brain had an innate ability to move signals and functions from a damaged area to an undamaged area of the brain.  While there are times when training is required to do this, often, the brain does it naturally.
  • Structural Plasticity: Just as its name suggests, structural plasticity is the brain’s ability to change its structure as new things are learned and memories are made. This type of plasticity is made evident by our growth from child to adult and then again as we age.

(Source: Brain Futures)

What Causes Brain Plasticity to Change?

Brain plasticity can change for various reasons, some of which you have control over and others you do not.  The most common factors that affect brain plasticity are:

Pre- and post-natal experiences:

  • If a mother has negative experiences during pregnancy, she may be unable to form strong bonds with her infant, leading to developmental challenges for the baby.
  • When a mother has positive pregnancy experiences and begins to have heightened awareness, also known as a mother’s instinct, she is more likely to form a strong and lasting bond with her newborn.
  • If a baby is born to a mother who has high levels of stress and cannot learn or exhibit typical maternal behaviors, it may be challenging for the mother to develop attachment bonds.

Drugs (Source: Harvard Health):

  • Drug addiction is a very real problem, and it is impacted by brain plasticity.
  • The brain changes as it learns new behaviors. While most of the behaviors are positive, some can be extremely dangerous, such as drug addiction.
  • The brain learns to enjoy the sensation of drugs and essentially rewires or trains itself to need and desire drugs.
  • Brain plasticity is one reason it is so challenging to change an addict’s behavior.

Hormones (Source: Brain Facts):

  • Hormones, especially those present during adolescence, can be responsible for a great amount of growth within the brain.
  • Once hormone production starts to slow down, the brain may slow its process of changing.

Aging (Source: Hindawi):

  • Research has shown that, as people age, the brain begins to shrink, leading to degenerative behaviors.
  • One of the largest areas of the brain impacted by this degeneration is responsible for memory. Therefore, it is common for older individuals to become forgetful. 
  • There is also evidence that individuals begin to lose neurons as they age.

Stress (Source: John Lief, MD):

  • Stress can cause neuroplasticity changes to occur in the brain, as well. Some of these changes can be quite severe.
  • If an individual is under a large amount of stress, brain plasticity may be responsible for deep depression.
  • When an individual is under stress, the body may mistake it for an illness; therefore, the neurons weaken and allow the body to move into a state that can fight off the germs. While in this state, the brain decreases its cognition level as well.
  • If an individual is under stress for a short time, it is unlikely that neuroplasticity will impact their level of cognition.

Diet (Source: Pub Med):

  • Not only does diet impact our overall physical body, but it also has an extraordinarily strong impact on our brain.
  • Diets can determine the level of cognition a person experiences.
  • There is research to back up the ability of a good diet to help increase working memory.
  • While a diet cannot eliminate all the effects of brain plasticity, it can help slow the natural effects felt with the aging process.

Exercise (Source: New Atlas):

  • Exercise has been proven to impact the effects of Alzheimer’s disease and the ability to learn more information.
  • Scientists have determined that the intensity and duration of the exercise are also impactful when it comes to its benefits.
  • The two most effective forms of exercise for improving neuroplasticity are high-intensity interval training for at least 20 minutes and moderate aerobic exercise for 25 minutes or more.

What Increases Neuroplasticity?

You may be wondering what exactly makes a healthy brain and what can help increase brain plasticity after seeing how paramount it is to everyday living.  It has been shown that intellectual activities and anything that stimulates the brain have a positive impact on plasticity.

The same can be said for expectant mothers. Research has shown the more positive attitude and environment an expectant mother is in, the more neuroplasticity is found in the baby.  This does not mean that every day must be perfect, though; this refers to an average amount of time. (Source: Cognifit)

As the brain ages, neuroplasticity is reduced. Older adults tend to perform worse on cognitive tests associated with neurobiology. Neurons die off over time, and while they can be replaced, this becomes less likely in aging adults. While there is no way to restore your brain to its youth completely, several things can be done to increase the plasticity of your brain.

Some activities that can increase brain plasticity are:

  • Traveling
  • Mnemonic devices
  • Vocabulary
  • Sleep
  • Art

These activities are most easily engaged in by individuals that do not have any underlying health conditions that may be the cause of brain function loss.  While these activities can help anyone, they will likely yield the best results for an individual at the normal functioning level.

When an individual experiences a traumatic brain injury (TBI), it can be life-altering.  Not only does it directly impact the individual’s cognitive functioning, but it can also have detrimental physical impacts.  However, some different activities or exercises can be done to help support brain plasticity.

Some activities to increase brain plasticity after injury include:

  • Using the strategy of intense repetition
  • Tasks that require the use of a specific hemisphere of the brain
  • Visual exercises
  • Logic puzzles
  • Multi-step problem-solving

The process of brain plasticity after an injury is much more time-intensive than trying to slow the aging process down.  Sometimes an individual will spontaneously regain brain function in certain areas, while other areas need to be fully trained to work again.

(Sources: Cognitive FX USA and Rainbow Rehab)

Who Discovered Brain Plasticity?

Santiago Ramon y Cajal is the Spanish neuroscientist who is known for discovering neuroscience and brain plasticity.  Because he could not do the kind of research that is done today, he had to use observation to make his findings and state his case.

In the late 1800s, Cajal discovered that portions of the brain could develop new connections as material was taught and learned. This also led him to determine that certain activities could cause connections or synapses to form in the brain.

During the late 1800s, Cajal published several papers and gave lectures where he outlined his theory of cerebral gymnastics, positing that the brain could establish new neural connections over time. Other neuroscientists, including Eugenio Tanzi and Ernesto Lugaro expanded on Cajal’s theories.

(Source: Frontiers In)

Categories Within the Theory of Brain Plasticity

Brain plasticity is a broad theory that encompasses several categories that are slowly increasing in number as research and research tools evolve, resulting in new neuroplasticity discoveries. 

Four unique categories of brain plasticity are Homologous Area Adaptation, Compensatory Masquerade, Cross Model Reassignment, and Map Expansion, which are outlined in the table below:

Homologous Area Adaptation· Early developmental stages
· Shifts can occur between damaged and undamaged areas of the brain.
· When shifts occur early in life, they can cause complications when new skills are being learned, especially if that portion of the brain has been trained to do something else.
Compensatory Masquerade· The brain can figure out a new way to do something without training.
· This category involves the reorganization of neurons and connections in the brain.
Cross Model Reassignment· This type of plasticity does not happen naturally and must be implemented by a trained professional.
· You are essentially retraining the brain.
Map Expansion· This category is often accomplished with repetitive actions.
· The repetition trains the brain to function in the desired way.
· The repetition allows the brain to grow and maintain its size over a period.

(Source: Britannica)

How Does Sleep Affect Brain Plasticity?

Sleep has a significant impact on brain plasticity.  The brain and body are so tightly connected that the body will often interpret tiredness from lack of sleep as stress.  When the body experiences stress and anxiety, it triggers the immune system and can also cause the body to limit the amount of energy expelled for cognitive functions.

When the body is deprived of sleep, not only is brain plasticity reduced, but there is also a marked decline in overall brain function when it comes to cognitive processes.  It is believed that excess production of cortisol causes this decline in mental capacity. When cortisol is produced at high levels, it significantly impacts the body’s ability to fall into a restful sleep.

(Source: Projects HSL)

Final Thoughts

Brain plasticity is a fascinating concept of the cognitive function and development of people. And you can learn more about it by checking out these awesome Ted Talks on Brain Plasticity!

While brain plasticity is a widely studied topic, it is continuously changing, so discoveries are frequently made.  While brain plasticity can be manipulated, it may require more regimented experiences and training for brain injuries versus degenerative brain issues.  Brain plasticity is a true marvel of the human body.