Last updated on November 24th, 2023.
Brain plasticity or neuroplasticity has become a subject of interest in recent times. It has revolutionized learning, education, and medical management of certain conditions. The famous quote of Santiago Ramon, “Any man could, if he were so inclined, be the sculptor of his own brain,” provides an insight into this exciting topic.
Brain plasticity is the inherent ability of the brain to adapt or modify its connections or synapses. In other words, it is the ability of the brain to rewire itself. Brain plasticity is vital in the;
- Development of humans from infancy to adulthood.
- The recovery from brain injuries such as Trauma and stroke.
- Ability to learn or acquire new skills.
Our brains are truly extraordinary. You must have encountered or heard about individuals who made a remarkable recovery following a traumatic brain injury; brain plasticity is responsible for those results. We dive into an in-depth explanation of neuroplasticity and its role in human development.
What is Brain Plasticity?
Brain plasticity is simply the ability of the brain to adapt to stimuli either as a response to a new impulse or as a reaction to an injury. Our brains are complex systems with over 100 billion neurons that communicate via thousands of connections called synapses. The Brain Plasticity theory suggests that the brain is flexible as lost functions, and new skills can be acquired by making new connections.
The process of brain plasticity begins in the growing child and continues into adulthood. Both internal and external factors can influence ir. The greater the stimuli a person is exposed to, the faster the rate of brain development.
Our brains, unlike computers which require periodic software updates, rewires itself through learning experiences and other conditions we are subjected to in our everyday lives. We can stimulate our brains by;
- Engaging in complex tasks
- Learning new skills and languages
- Cultivating a positive mindset and outlook
Brain plasticity is responsible for recovery when there is an injury to the brain. The process of neuroplasticity begins immediately after trauma and involves the following phases:
- Neuronal death starts immediately after the injury, and inhibitory pathways are impeded.
- Excitatory pathways begin to dominate, and new connections are formed as neural elements are recruited to replace damaged neurons.
- New synapses continue to form, and the brain undergoes remodeling. Therapies and rehabilitation can be administered at this point to facilitate learning.
Brain plasticity is a complex and exciting process. Advances and research in the field of neuroscience have helped in illuminating the mechanisms involved in brain plasticity, the factors that enhance the process, and the novel applications of this process in our everyday life.
What Are the Benefits of Brain Plasticity?
- Improvement of cognitive function: Improvement in retention, processing speed, solving complex tasks are the result of the formation and reinforcement of neural pathways via brain plasticity.
- Recovery from stroke and other traumatic brain injuries: Brain plasticity is utilized in the rehabilitation of stroke patients. Learning a new skill or re-learning a skill through repetition and practice result in changes in the brain that are beneficial to stroke patients.
- Learning new skills: Developing new skills, learning new languages, and other abilities are made possible via the enormous potential of brain plasticity.
- Restoration of lost functions: Some functions are lost following brain injury due to damage to areas that control specific activities. Brain plasticity results in the formation of neural connections that replace and even restore the activities of the damaged areas.
Management of behavioral disorders: It has been used to a significant effect on the management of clinical depression and anxiety disorders. Some of the activities that improve brain plasticity and manage depression and anxiety include:
- Regular physical exercise
Types of Brain Plasticity
Brain plasticity involves the growth of neurons and other nervous elements and the formation of new pathways or the repair of damaged ones.
There are two types of brain plasticity:
- Structural Plasticity: The process where the brain’s physical structure is changed by learning a new skill or following the repair of damaged areas of the brain.
Functional plasticity: the process where other parts of the brain take over functions of damaged areas of the brain
Factors Affecting Brain Plasticity
Learning and experiences are capable of influencing brain plasticity. However, a broad range of factors can affect the brain’s structure and function. They include:
- Brain Injuries such as trauma and stroke
- Anxiety and Stress
- Diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases
- Psychoactive substances, such as opioids and benzodiazepines.
- Hormones and growth factors in the body can also affect brain plasticity. These include testosterone, estrogens, and nerve derived growth Factors (NDGFs)
Activities and Exercises to Increase Brain Plasticity
Some of the activities you can utilize to enhance brain plasticity include:
- Perform exercises and activities to strengthen your non-dominant hand: Using your non-dominant hand to perform activities requires your brain to create new neural pathways and reinforce existing ones. This helps in improving cognitive and creative abilities.
- Learning a musical instrument: This results in the formation of new neural pathways in the brain.
- Visiting a new environment: Traveling to or visiting a new environment exposes your brain to new stimuli. This stimulates neural activities in your brain. Thus, creating new neural pathways.
- Reading and expanding your vocabulary: These activities trigger visual and auditory processes in your brain. They can also help to improve memory.
- Good sleeping habits: Sleep helps to improve learning retention by stimulating the growth of structures that enables neurons to communicate with each other.
- Creating artworks: This activity helps to improve memory, attention, and empathy by enhancing neural connections within the brain.
- Making use of Mnemonic devices: Mnemonic devices are a form of memory training. They can help to improve neural connections and delay the onset of age-related memory decline.
- Intermittent fasting: This increases the ability of synapses to adapt to new conditions; it promotes the growth of neurons and reduces the incidence of neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. This has also been known to Boost testosterone.
Can Games improve Brain Plasticity?
Every day, we see various ads advertising brain games and apps that can improve memory, problem-solving skills, and even delay the onset of dementia. These games are not backed by scientific evidence, and their results are yet to be proven however they do keep our minds engaged in the space of problem solving and creativity.
Are There Adverse Effects of Brain Plasticity?
Brain plasticity involves structural and functional changes in the brain. Some of these changes can have nasty and harmful effects on the brain.
- Negative thoughts can result in neural connections associated with anxiety and depression.
- Repeated use of drugs and alcohol can result in changes in the reward system of the brain and lead to addiction and physical dependence on those substances.
- Repetitions of certain activities can result in the formation of bad habits.
- Brain plasticity is the cause of many medical conditions.
- Bipolar disorder
- Depression and anxiety
- Alzheimer’s disease
Exploring the Potential of Brain Plasticity
Structural and functional changes in the brain are processes that occur throughout life. Brain plasticity is harnessed to improve learning, education and manage medical conditions. Some of these medical conditions include:
- Chronic pain
- Other spectra of behavioral disorders.
Novel strategies have been developed to utilize brain plasticity to enhance learning and slow or halt the processes of age-related cognitive decline. We can now learn new languages, skills, improve our thinking abilities, memory, processing speed, and attention by harnessing the potential of brain plasticity.
You can explore more about brain plasticity by checking out these awesome Ted Talks on Brain Plasticity!