Neuroplasticity: Harness the Power of Neuroplasticity for Greater Health and Well-Being at Any Age

What is neuroplasticity?

Brain plasticity, also known as neuroplasticity, refers to the remarkable ability of the brain to reorganize "dormant" connections between neurons, to create new neural pathways and even to generate new neurons (neurogenesis) in response to our interactions with the environment. It is a dynamic process whereby, each time we engage in a new thought or learn a new skill, new connections are created between neurons. Repetition and practice strengthen these neural connections. Ultimately, this allows the brain to rewire and gradually adapt to changing circumstances.

The brain is made up of billions of tiny nerve cells called neurons, that all connect through a network of over a trillion tiny branches [made up of axons (the transmitters) and dendrites (the receivers)]. Every time we think or act, these neurons communicate by sending signals through their axons and dendrites, all the way to the areas of the brain involved in muscle control, sensory perception (e.g., seeing, hearing), memory, emotion, speech, decision making and self-control. These signals are transmitted via a chemical substance called a neurotransmitter. They are responsible for our every step, heartbeat, thought and emotion.

Scientists have long believed that the brain is a "non-renewable organ," meaning that its ability to grow and evolve is lost early in life, that the number of neurons is fixed, and that they slowly die with age. However, research over the past 40 years has shown that even aging brains can change by developing more connections and strengthening wires. This means that at any age, we can improve in just about any area.

Examples of neuroplasticity  

When you practice any activity or learn a new skill, the brain changes and gets stronger, much like a muscle. The brain is like a muscle. Everyone knows that when you lift weights repeatedly over time, your muscles grow bigger and get stronger. And, when you stop exercising the muscles shrink again and become weaker. The same is true for the brain.

When you practice a new skill repeatedly, your brain grows stronger in those areas. So, whatever you spend more time doing will develop your brain in the corresponding area.

• People who play an instrument have increased brain activity in the area of their brain related to their hands.

• People who drive cabs have a larger hippocampus than everyone else, which is the area of the brain responsible for spatial memory. Interestingly, London cab drivers have an even larger hippocampus than London bus drivers. This is because the former memorize a more detailed map of the city.

• Stroke survivors who engage in repetitive and increasingly difficult exercises can regain motor function in areas of the brain associated with the effort. Neuroplasticity cannot revive dead tissue, but it can create new pathways around the injury and reorganize parts of the brain to serve new purposes. Consider the example of a stroke victim whose left arm is paralyzed. During his rehabilitation, his good arm and hand are immobilized, while he must clean tables. At first, the task is impossible. Then, slowly, the disabled arm remembers how to move. It relearns to write, to play tennis: the functions of the brain areas destroyed by the stroke are transferred to healthy areas. The brain compensates for the damage by reorganizing and forming new connections between intact neurons. The formation of new connections requires that the neurons receive stimulation from physical activity.

• Thought alone is associated with neuroplastic gains. Some aging piano performers prepare for concerts primarily through visualization instead of physical practice. Both approaches show the same motor mapping in an fMRI scan (expansion of the motor cortex area devoted to the finger movements).

You may have heard the expression “neurons that fire together, wire together”. When you use a pathway or “wire” repeatedly, the connections between the neurons strengthen. As a result, these networks, become more excitable and more efficient when activated. Signals can move faster, which the brain loves because its primary goal is efficiency.

So, when you repeat a behavior, an action, an emotion, or a thought repeatedly, the pathway responsible for sending the signal becomes stronger and easier. This is how skills are developed and habits are formed. Everything you do repeatedly changes the physical workings of the neural connections in your brain.

Neuroplastic change requires four components

First, challenge and novelty are essential elements in the quest for cognitive change. Picking up a new tool, strategy, or idea that helps you do things better, rather than just doing more of the same, opens the door to real growth. Also, prioritize active learning methods over passive ones, such as reading instead of watching television. Think of an activity you've always wanted to try. For example, learning a new language, playing the guitar,...

Second, to trigger cognitive transformation, the chosen activity must have some meaning and real value to you. Think about why you want to learn this skill.

Third, you must develop a plan and devote regular time to improving your skill. Acquiring and developing a new skill requires specific and repetitive actions.

Finally, the most difficult of all: be patient! It takes time for neuroplastic changes to occur and for structural and functional changes to be realized. What is extremely encouraging is that when you get better at a specific skill, you get better at learning in general! A real positive!

Here are some of the most recent developments in the field of neuroplasticity

• Physical activity and fitness can prevent, slow, or reverse age-related cognitive decline, as well as neuronal death and damage to the hippocampus, an area of the brain involved in short and long-term memory.

• Intermittent fasting has been shown to improve overall cognitive performance, reduce the risk of neurodegenerative disease and may promote neurogenesis in the hippocampus.

• Adequate rest time can promote neurogenesis, whereas chronic insomnia is associated with atrophy of the hippocampus (neuronal death and damage).

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