Neuroplasticity makes the seemingly impossible possible. Within the framework of neuroplasticity, we can appreciate that the brain is like the metaphorical Phoenix. It can rebirth itself with new wiring and functionality allowing for both mental and behavioural flexibility 1. In doing so, it can carve out functional patterns of behaviour and thinking that can create new pathways of abilities, mindsets and memories that lead to overall brain health and longevity.
Plasticity is a ubiquitous property of the nervous system which means it is shared trait of all neural cells (neurones), their connections and other cells: glia, immune and vascular.
It means they can be moulded or altered in order to communicate and change connectivity as a function of past experience or injury, but they rely on activity 2.
Some Benefits of Neuroplasticity
- Learning new things.
- Creating new mindsets.
- Regaining function in a limb or brain region that was injured.
- Recovery from brain injury or stroke.
- Reducing pain sensitivity and perception.
- Strengthening cognitive function and memory.
The challenge is knowing how to persistently improve the structural and functional changes that occur improve perceptual abilities and behaviour rather than result in pathological consequences
Origins of Neuroplasticity
Though the concept of neuroplasticity is assumed to have been a recent emergence of scientific discovery along with the the technical capacity to measure it, the idea had been advocated for over a century by the prominent chair in psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University from 1910-1941, Adolf Meyer, who translated the concept first introduced by psychologist and philosopher, William James in 1891 3.
Meyer pursued what he aptly called “ The Apparatus of Biological Plasticity, the Nervous System”. By championing some of his contemporaries’ foundational work, he abandoned the largely isolationist views of what a “diseased brain” was at that time; beliefs that included this type of brain could not be changed. Meyer was the proponent of a truly holistic view of psychological disorders by supporting a paradigm in which the mind, body, environment and experience should be integrated 3. Meyer was the visionary for the term that was later credited to Jerzy Konorski in 1948 and popularised by Donald Hebb in 1949 4.
How Neuroplasticity Reinvents Your Nervous System and Ultimately You
Neuroplasticity is the refining of your neural architecture. Your brain emphasises those connections that are strongest and weeds or prunes the weaker or damaged ones. In doing so, the brain can breed long-lasting memories that ensure its proper functioning and health
long-term2. Plasticity is not only necessary for neural networks when acquiring new skills, it also helps strengthen and stabilise existing connections over time 2.
The developing brain has rapid growth in the first few years of life and is particularly sensitive to external input despite having extensive branching and synaptic connections 5. Neurons communicate with each other at these synapses. How well and quickly they do this reflect the functionality of your nervous system.
By adulthood, many synaptic connections have been significantly pruned or even die, while others have strengthened because of experience and use. This is reflective of a familiar adage, neurons that fire together, wire together” or Hebb’s Law 6 . This “Neural Darwinism” allows the brain to adapt to the changing environment and lose any dead weight that would interfere with its proper functioning 7.
Neuroplasticity Makes Memories and Can Last a Lifetime
Neuroplasticity is the neurophysiological process that underpins learning and memory that are both key processes for overall brain health, longevity and pain (8). It was thought our brains were hardwired after birth, but it is now more clear than ever that the brain is a dynamic entity and can change throughout one’s life (3). In fact, your daily routine and behaviours can have measurable effects on the structure and function of your brain (9).
Our entire bodies are mapped on the brain in an area called the cortical sensory homunculus (10). The representation reflects the density of neural innervation which makes those body parts biggest on the map. It makes sense that the areas with more innervation are also the most sensitive. These along with ones that are used the most will effectively take up more brain real estate topographically. For example, if you are a musician, the mapped area in your brain for your hands will be bigger, along with that for your ears as well as your hippocampus the brain region that is your memory centre for recalling musical notes.
Adaptive and Maladaptive Plasticity
Neuroplasticity involves both structural and functional changes such as seen with learning and memory formation and traumatic brain injury or stroke respectively11. Plasticity can be adaptive and give us cognitive flexibility, which is the very definition of resilience12. Adaptive plasticity allows for behavioural and cognitive homeostasis that help ensure our safety and survival.
Examples of Adaptive Plasticity:
- Learning something new like a language, dance or musical instrument.
- Emotional regulation
- Making new social connections
- Having new pursuits or challenges
- Changing negative emotions or behaviour/habits to positive ones
- Reading and playing crosswords/brain games
- Creating art
- Engaging in play
Maladaptive plasticity is seen in conditions and experiences that can have detrimental effects on overall brain health and behaviour because it reduces the flexibility of the brain. Chronic or severe stress, psychological or physical trauma, substance use and other societal-cultural influences can profoundly impair plasticity through synaptic loss 13.
Such is seen in the manifestation and progression of clinical symptoms in many psychiatric illnesses and mental health disorders as well as persistent pain conditions 14. In effect, maladaptive plasticity reduces the tolerance of the nervous system as a whole. In doing so, the nervous system gets stuck in survival mode and cannot engage the mechanisms for rest and recovery which ultimately causes synaptic loss and neuronal death 14.
How to Stimulate Neuroplasticity-You can teach an old dog new tricks.
Despite its being able to exist throughout one’s life, there are some factors that can influence the amount and speed at which things can be changed, such as age, genetics and environment 15. Additionally there may be limitations to what neuroplasticity can do, which are largely dependent on the brain regions impaired, extent of damage and timing or frequency of the activities.
Still, there are a variety of means that can promote cognitive and mental health to help offset negative stimuli. It may just mean that you have to engage in many different activities and above and beyond, do them consistently and frequently. One of the key neurochemicals that governs neurplasticity, brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), has weakened expression from chronic stress 17.
Here are natural ways to increase BDNF levels:
- Exercise is one of the most potent ways to increase BDNF and its benefits can be increase the volume of the hippocampal brain region associated with memory and learning.
- Engaging in play
- Exposure to enriching environments
- Mindfulness meditation or hypnosis
- Pursuing new activities
- Creating challenges
- Making positive new social connections
- Getting enough rest and sleep
- Eating a balanced diet of whole foods, while eliminating ingestible toxins
The power of neuroplasticity cannot be overemphasIsed. Older brains that are actually smaller in volume than younger brains can still have healthier brains by strengthening existing connections and even grow new connections.