You may be familiar with the term ‘brain plasticity’ but unsure what it actually means. (Spoiler: it has nothing to do with actual plastic). Brain plasticity, or neuroplasticity, is an umbrella term for the brain’s ability to change over a lifetime. Our brains have a high degree of malleability with which to adapt to new situations. Neural pathways can reorganize from exposure to environmental stimuli such as certain experiences, learning new things, or memorizing new information. Neuroplasticity can occur at any given age, and has both short and long-term effects on our cognitive ability and behavior. <1. Sharma N, Classen J, Cohen LG. Neural plasticity and its contribution to functional recovery. Handbook of Clinical Neurology, 2013 (110) 3–12.>
Learning about neuroplasticity
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change its structure and function in response to experience or damage. The ability to learn is fundamental to the survival of all animals. Humans, in particular, have an amazing capacity to learn new skills and adapt to new environments.
<2. Green CS, Bavelier D. Exercising Your Brain: A Review of Human Brain Plasticity and Training-Induced Learning. Psychol Aging, 2008 23(4): 692–701.>
It was once believed that as we age, the brain's networks became fixed. But now, an enormous amount of research has revealed the brain never stops changing and adjusting. Connections within the brain are constantly becoming stronger or weaker, depending on what is being used. Younger people are typically more sensitive to plasticity changes.
How does neuroplasticity work?
A simple explanation of how neuroplasticity works is that when people repeatedly practice an activity or access a memory, their neural networks—groups of neurons that fire together, creating electrochemical pathways—shape themselves according to that activity or memory. When people stop practicing new things, the brain will eventually eliminate, or "prune," the connecting cells that formed the pathways.
Examples of neuroplasticity
Fascinatingly, evidence of neuroplasticity is all around us. Here are some examples of plasticity in action.
- Accomplished musicians have a larger auditory cortex compared with the general population and require less neural activity to play their instruments compared to novices <3. Bengtsson, SL, Nagy Z, Skare S, et al. Extensive piano practicing has regionally specific effects on white matter development. Nature Neuroscience, 2005 (8) 9: 1148-1150.>
- If a person loses a finger, the area of the sensory cortex that previously received information from the missing finger begins to receive input from adjacent fingers, causing the remaining digits to become more sensitive to touch.
- Long-term or short-term practice of meditation results in different levels of activity in brain regions associated with such qualities as attention, anxiety, depression, fear, anger, and the ability of the body to heal itself. <4. Lazar SW, Kerr CE, Wasserman RH, et al. Medication experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport, 2005 16(17): 1893–1897.>
- Human echolocation is a learned ability used by some blind people to navigate their environment and sense their surroundings from echos. Brain imaging has shown that parts of the brain associated with visual processing are adapted for the new skill of echolocation. <5. Thaler L, Arnott SR, Goodale MA. Human Echolocation I. Journal of Vision, 2010 (10): 1050.>
Although they sound quite similar, neuroplasticity is not the same as neurogenesis. Neurogenesis is defined as a process of generating new, functional neurons from neural stem cells. This can happen during fetal development or in adulthood. Neurogenesis is essentially “the birth” of new neurons, while plasticity refers to changes in brain structure.
Neuroplasticity for improving learning and memory
Activity-dependent plasticity is a form of functional and structural neuroplasticity that arises from the use of cognitive functions and personal experience. It’s the biological basis for learning and the formation of new memories.
An example of this plasticity is recovery of function after a traumatic brain injury. For instance in stroke patients, task-specific activity has been shown to be a critical factor for promoting recovery. <5. Ganguly K. Activity-Dependent Neural Plasticity from Bench to Bedside. Neuron, 2013 80 (3): 729-741.>
Ultimately, repeating an activity, retrieving a memory, and reviewing material in a variety of ways helps build thicker, stronger, more hard-wired connections in the brain.
Neuroplasticity for treating anxiety and depression
A heavily researched aspect of brain plasticity is its involvement in the development of psychiatric disorders and inversely, its role in treating them. Disorders like depression and anxiety disorders cause damage to the brain, or a kind of 'negative plasticity’, while treatments of depression and anxiety could actually slow or reverse this damage.
For example, environmental events and other risk factors contribute to depression through molecular and cellular mechanisms that disrupt neuronal function and morphology, resulting in dysfunction of the circuitry that is essential for mood regulation and cognitive function.
<6. Duman RS. Synaptic plasticity and depression: new insights from stress and rapid-acting antidepressants. Nature Medicine, 2016 (22): 238-249.>
During the past few years, neuronal plasticity has been implicated in the beneficial effects of antidepressant drugs and electroconvulsive shock (ECS) treatment. <7. Castren E, Hen R. Neuronal plasticity and antidepressant actions. Trends in neurosciences, 2013 (35) 5: 259-267>
How to positively support neuroplasticity
There is growing research on ways we can drive brain plasticity in a positive direction. The methods are not all that surprising. Some ways to positively boost brain plasticity include listening to music, physical activity, and learning that includes challenge and newness.
<8. Shaffer J. Neuroplasticity and Clinical Practice: Building Brain Power for Health. Front Psychol, 2016 (26)>
- Music is a complex and multisensory form of enrichment that has a positive influence on neuroplasticity in several different regions of the brain. One study found music training associated with enhanced cognition in a variety of skills, spanning from executive functions to creativity. [9. Benz S, Sellaro R, Hommel B, et al. Music Makes the World Go Round: The Impact of Musical Training on Non-musical Cognitive Functions—A Review. Front Psychol. 2015 (6) 2023.
- Physical activity has been shown to exert a protective effect against cognitive deterioration, particularly among individuals who regularly exercise. Consistent exercise may improve signaling pathways related to brain plasticity as well as potential neurogenesis.
Research has found that regular aerobic exercise, the kind that gets your heart and your sweat glands pumping, appears to boost the size of the hippocampus, the brain area involved in verbal memory and learning.
- Mental exercise and brainy activities stimulate new connections between nerve cells and may even help the brain generate new cells, developing plasticity and building up a functional reserve that provides a defense against future cell loss.
Any mentally stimulating activity can help boost your brain power, such as: reading, taking courses, doing puzzles or math problems. Another way is experimenting with things that require manual dexterity as well as mental effort, such as drawing, painting, and other crafts.
- Your diet strongly affects your mind much like it affects your weight. According to Harvard research, in both animals and humans, a reduced caloric intake has been linked to a lower risk of mental decline in old age. Eating the right type of foods is important as well, particularly reducing your consumption of saturated fat and cholesterol from animal sources. Loading up on B vitamins like folic acid, B6, and B12 may also lower your homocysteine levels, which have been linked to an increased risk of dementia.
Keep plasticity in mind for the future
Throughout a lifetime, your brain never stops changing and as such, making conscious decisions that boost its function can positively affect your cognitive ability and mood. This is all thanks to neuroplasticity!