Neuroplasticity : How the brain can change and adapt in response to stimuli

Despite advances in research and medicine, the brain is one of the least understood organs in the human body. (Photos: Unsplash)
We have all probably heard the expression “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. It means that as we get older, it becomes hard to break old habits and learn new things. As it turns out, the past 100 years in neuroscience research may say otherwise. اضافة اعلان

Our brain is a truly unique, complex organ. Despite advances in research and medicine, it is one of the least understood organs in the human body. Nevertheless, great headway was made in the research of the brain over the past several decades, one of which resulted in the concept of neuroplasticity.

How does the brain work?

The brain is composed of roughly 100 billion neurons. It is helpful to think of neurons as short pieces of wire, as both are insulated and carry an electrical charge. The neurons connect in specific pathways and fire electrical impulses that produce thoughts and communicate with the rest of the body to perform action. These pathways are formed as we develop, experience, and learn.

It was originally believed that the brain stopped developing within the first few years of life and it was only during critical periods in early development that connections were formed. Once these connections were formed, it was also believed that they were fixed in place and could not change as we age. Based on this belief, it was thought that if any damage occurred in the brain later in life, new connections and regeneration was impossible, thus resulting in functions being lost forever. It was not until recently that this theory was discredited, and neuroplasticity came to be known.  

What is neuroplasticity?

The concept of neuroplasticity was first presented in the early 1900s by William James in his book “The Principles of Psychology”. The term neuroplasticity was coined by Polish neuroscientist Jerzy Konorski and by the 1960s, exploration of neuroplasticity truly began after a wide range of studies was released on the subject.

In short, neuroplasticity is the term used to refer to the phenomenon by which the brain can change and adapt in response to stimuli. When applied to the connections and pathways of neurons, this means that we are able to reorganize and form new connections, regardless of age.

To date, there are two recognized forms of neuroplasticity: functional plasticity and structural plasticity. Functional plasticity refers to the brain’s ability to relocate a function to other parts of the brain as the result of damage. This is commonly seen in people who suffered a stroke or other forms of brain trauma. Structural plasticity, on the other hand, is the more exciting form as it refers to the brain’s ability to change its physical structure as a result of learning.

Why is neuroplasticity important?

In infancy, the brain undergoes rapid growth. At the time of birth, it is estimated that each neuron has approximately 2,500 synapses, which are small gaps that serve as points of connection between neurons that can transfer electrical impulses. By the age of 3, the number of synapses per neuron increases dramatically, to 15,000. In adults, however, the number of synapses gets reduced to half as much. This is due to a process known as synaptic pruning. Synaptic pruning is the result of connections strengthening and being eliminated due to new experiences. The neurons that are more frequently used develop stronger connections, while those that are less used weaken and eventually die. This entire process allows the brain to adapt to changes in the environment, and master certain functions in which it may have become deficient. By understanding neuroplasticity, we are able to reduce the brain atrophy that occurs naturally with age.

Benefits of neuroplasticity

Due to the fact that neuroplasticity can occur at any age, it is never too late to reap the benefits. Neuroplasticity can improve the ability to learn new things, and existing cognitive capabilities, especially those that are less frequently used. Functional neuroplasticity also holds promise for those who may have lost functions as a result of stroke or other traumatic brain injuries. Function is naturally lost or declines with age and neuroplasticity can help regain or strengthen some of that function, too.

Neuroplasticity and mental health

Neuroplasticity and conditions relating to mental health are interlinked. When it comes to depression, the process of neuroplasticity can have some negative effects. The reorganizing of pathways is not always positive and depression can result in damage to brain, and new unhealthy and maladaptive pathways may be encouraged while healthy and adaptive pathways are discouraged. However, by the same process, some treatments of depression can stop the damage to brain and possibly reverse it.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a psycho-social intervention that focuses on challenging and changing thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes. The very principle of CBT relies on neuroplasticity to occur in order to remodel the brain and produce healthy pathways. However, the process may be slow and requires a great amount of effort. In those with anxiety, unhealthy pathways have formed in the amygdala (the fear center of the brain). Certain medications and therapy may help manage the symptoms of anxiety, but the pathways still exist, and any trigger may result in anxiety once again. Research is still under way with therapies that help promote neuroplasticity in order to manage symptoms and potentially cure anxiety altogether.

Neuroplasticity and chronic pain

Similar to thoughts, pain is simply a firing of neurons. Research into neuroplasticity as a way to manage chronic pain is still going on, but a number of interventions already happened. Through medical intervention, neuroplasticity can be induced and has shown some potential. An invasive intervention known as transcranial direct current stimulation uses electrodes which are implanted in specific areas of the brain in order to synthetically stimulate certain responses. A non-invasive intervention known as transcranial magnetic stimulation uses magnetic stimulation in order to stimulate certain response.

Although there are new ground-breaking medical interventions for neuroplasticity and chronic pain, fasting may also be used in the treatment of chronic pain. Intermittent fasting is associated with many health benefits, including extending the lifespan, but fasting may also play a neurobiological role.

Physiologically, intermittent fasting can help improve cellular function by reducing inflammation and oxidative stress, and increase cellular metabolism, all of which can help reduce central and peripheral inflammation. In terms of neuroplasticity, fasting increases synaptic plasticity (rearranging of connection) and may also cause neurogenesis, which is the production of new neurons from neuronal stem cells.

How to improve neuroplasticity

Neuroplasticity occurs when experiencing and learning new things. The process is slow but effective. Any activity that is challenging or requires the learning of a new skill helps promote neuroplasticity. Learning a new musical instrument, non-dominant hand exercises, and creating artwork have all been linked with improved neuroplasticity.

Similarly, new experiences may also promote the formation of new pathways or re-enforce old ones. Traveling exposes the brain to new stimuli and environments. In terms of lifestyle, sleep is vital to neurons health and chronic insomnia has been linked to brain atrophy (cell death), while proper sleep can help promote neurogenesis.

Intermittent fasting, as mentioned earlier, also increases synaptic adaptation, promotes neuron growth, improves overall cognitive function, and decreases the risk of neurogenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

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