Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to adapt. Or, as Dr. Campbell puts it:
“It refers to the physiological changes in the brain that happen as the result of our interactions with our environment. From the time the brain begins to develop in utero until the day we die, the connections among the cells in our brains reorganize in response to our changing needs. This dynamic process allows us to learn from and adapt to different experiences.” – Celeste Campbell (n.d.).
Our brains are truly extraordinary; unlike computers, which are built to certain specifications and receive software updates periodically, our brains can actually receive hardware updates in addition to software updates. Different pathways form and fall dormant, are created and are discarded, according to our experiences.
When we learn something new, we create new connections between our neurons. We rewire our brains to adapt to new circumstances. This happens on a daily basis, but it’s also something that we can encourage and stimulate.
The term “neuroplasticity” was first used by Polish neuroscientist Jerzy Konorski in 1948 to describe observed changes in neuronal structure (neurons are the cells that make up our brains)—although it wasn’t widely used until the 1960s—but the idea goes back even farther (Demarin, Morovic, & Béne, 2014). The “father of neuroscience,” Santiago Ramón y Cajal, talked about “neuronal plasticity” in the early 1900s (Fuchs & Flügge, 2014). He recognized that, in contrast to current belief at that time, brains could indeed change after a person had reached adulthood.
In the 1960s, it was discovered that neurons could “reorganize” after a traumatic event. Further research found that stress can change not only the functions but also the structure of the brain itself (Fuchs & Flügge, 2014).
In the late 1990s, researchers found that stress can actually kill brain cells—although these conclusions are still not completely certain.
For many decades, it was thought that the brain was a “nonrenewable organ,” that brain cells are bestowed in a finite amount and they slowly die as we age, whether we attempt to keep them around or not. As Ramón y Cajal said, “In adult centers the nerve paths are something fixed, ended, immutable. Everything may die, nothing may be regenerated” (as cited in Fuchs & Flügge, 2014).
This research found that there are other ways for brain cells to die, other ways for them to adapt and reconnect, and perhaps even ways for them to regrow or replenish. This is what’s known as “neurogenesis.”
Although related, neuroplasticity and neurogenesis are two different concepts.
Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to form new connections and pathways and change how its circuits are wired; neurogenesis is the even more amazing ability of the brain to grow new neurons (Bergland, 2017).
You can see how neurogenesis is the more exciting concept. It’s one thing to work with what we already have, but the potential to actually replace neurons that have died may open up new frontiers in the treatment and prevention of dementia, recovery from traumatic brain injuries, and other areas we probably haven’t even thought of
Before we get too ahead of ourselves though, let’s take a moment to look at the theory and principles underpinning neuroplasticity.
First, we should note that, although we gave a fairly succinct definition of neuroplasticity above, the reality is a bit less well-defined. Neuroplasticity experts Christopher A. Shaw and Jill C. McEachern describe it this way:
“While many neuroscientists use the word neuroplasticity as an umbrella term, it means different things to researchers in different subfields… In brief, a mutually agreed upon framework does not appear to exist” (2001).
Shaw and McEachern write that there are two main perspectives on neuroplasticity:
1. Neuroplasticity is one fundamental process that describes any change in final neural activity or behavioral response.
2. Neuroplasticity is an umbrella term for a vast collection of different brain change and adaptation phenomena.
The first perspective lends itself to a single theory of neuroplasticity with some basic principles, and that research on the subject would contribute to a single, all-inclusive framework of neuroplasticity. The second perspective would require numerous different frameworks and systems to understand each phenomenon.
Unfortunately, there is still no unifying theory of neuroplasticity that I can lay out in simple terms here. All I can say with certainty is that this is still a young field and new findings are popping up every day.
What we do know right now is that there are two main types of neuroplasticity:
• Structural neuroplasticity, in which the strength of the connections between neurons (or synapses) changes.
• Functional neuroplasticity, which describes the permanent changes in synapses due to learning and development (Demarin, Morovic, & Béne, 2014).
Both types have exciting potential, but structural neuroplasticity is probably the one that is more attended to at the moment; we already know that some functions can be rerouted, relearned, and re-established in the brain, but changes to the actual structure of the brain are where many of the exciting possibilities lie.
These new lines of research are exciting for neuroscientists, biologists, and chemists, but they are also exciting for psychologists. In addition to changes in the way the brain works and functional adaptations, neuroplasticity o?ers potential avenues for psychological change as well.
As Christopher Bergland (2017) notes,
“One could speculate that this process opens up the possibility to reinvent yourself and move away from the status quo or to overcome past traumatic events that evoke anxiety and stress. Hardwired fear-based memories often lead to avoidance behaviors that can hold you back from living your life to the fullest.”
We already use medications and chemicals to change the way our brain works, and psychology has certainly put forth tons of e?ort to learn how to change the way the brain works through modifying our thought patterns. What if we really can make permanent, significant changes to our brain structure and function through simple activities that we often do in a normal day?
This is where the importance of learning comes in.
The relation between neuroplasticity and learning is an easy one to surmise—when we learn, we form new pathways in the brain. Each new lesson has the potential to connect new neurons and change our brain’s default mode of operation.
Of course, not all learning is created equal—learning new facts doesn’t necessarily take advantage of the amazing neuroplasticity of the brain, but learning a new language or a musical instrument certainly does. It is through this sort of learning that we may be able to figure out how to purposefully rewire the brain.
The extent to which we apply the brain’s near-magical abilities is also dependent on how invested we are in promoting neuroplasticity and how we approach life in general.
We’ve written about the growth mindset before (click here for an overview), but we didn’t really connect the topic to neuroplasticity.
The connection is an important one! The concepts actually mirror each other; a growth mindset is a mindset that one’s innate skills, talents, and abilities can be developed and/or improved with determination, while neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to adapt and develop beyond the usual developmental period of childhood.
A person with a growth mindset believes that he or she can get smarter, better, or more skilled at something through sustained e?ort—which is exactly what neuroplasticity tells us. You might say that a growth mindset is simply accepting the idea of neuroplasticity on a broad level!
As you might expect, neuroplasticity definitely changes with age, but it’s not as black and white as you might think.
Children’s brains are constantly growing, developing, and changing. Each new experience prompts a change in brain structure, function, or both.
At birth, each neuron in an infant’s brain has about 7,500 connections with other neurons; by the age of 2, the brain’s neurons have more than double the number of connections in an average adult brain (Mundkur, 2005). These connections are slowly pruned away as the child grows up and starts forming their own unique patterns and connections.
There are four main types of neuroplasticity observed in children:
1. Adaptive: changes that occur when children practice a special skill and allow the brain to adapt to functional or structural changes in the brain (like injuries).
2. Impaired: changes occur due to genetic or acquired disorders.
3. Excessive: the reorganization of new, maladaptive pathways that can cause disability or disorders.
4. Plasticity that makes the brain vulnerable to injury: harmful neuronal pathways are formed that make injury more likely or more impactful (Mundkur, 2005).
These processes are stronger and more pronounced in young children, allowing them to recover from injury far more e?ectively than most adults. In children, profound cases of neuroplastic growth, recovery, and adaptation can be seen.
This ability is not absent in adults, but it is generally observed less than in children and at lower strengths; however, the adult brain is still capable of extraordinary change.
It can restore old, lost connections and functions that have not been used in some time, enhance memory, and even enhance overall cognitive skills.
The potential is generally not as great in older adults as it is in children and young adults, but with sustained e?ort and a healthy lifestyle, adults are just as able to promote positive change and growth in their brains as the younger generations.
To see some of the amazing ways that neuroplasticity can a?ect the adult brain, read on!
So what new things have we learned about neuroplasticity lately? As it turns out, quite a bit!
Here are some of the newest and most exciting developments in the field:
1. Enriched environments (saturated with novelty, focused attention, and challenge) are critical for promoting neuroplasticity, and can provoke growth and positive adaptation long after the “critical learning period” of early childhood and young adulthood is over (Kempermann et al., 2002; Vemuri et al., 2014).
2. “Newborn” neurons at 8 weeks old and older neurons are generally at the same level of maturation (Deshpande et al., 2013).
3. As few as ten ~ 1-hour sessions of cognitive training over 5 or 6 weeks have the potential to reverse the same amount of age-related decline that has been observed in the same time period (Ball et al., 2002).
4. Physical activity and good physical fitness can prevent or slow the normal age- related neuronal death and damage to the hippocampus, and even increase the volume of the hippocampus (Niemann et al., 2014).
5. Intermittent fasting can promote adaptive responses in synapses (Vasconcelos et al., 2014).
6. Chronic insomnia is associated with atrophy (neuronal death and damage) in the hippocampus, while adequate sleep may enhance neurogenesis (Joo et al., 2014).
This is but a small selection of the recent findings on neuroplasticity (see Sha?er, 2016 to learn more), but it highlights the enormous potential impact of harnessing the power of neuroplasticity to improve health and well-being in humans.
Building on the studies we just mentioned, there are tons of ways that neuroplasticity benefits the brain. In addition to the improvements and advantages outlined above, these are some of the other ways your brain benefits from brain adaptation:
• Recovery from brain events like strokes.
• Recovery from traumatic brain injuries.
• Ability to rewire functions in the brain (e.g., if an area that controls one sense is damaged, other areas may be able to pick up the slack).
• Losing function in one area may enhance functions in other areas (e.g., if one sense is lost, the others may become heightened).
• Enhanced memory abilities.
• Wide range of enhanced cognitive abilities.
• More e?ective learning.
So, how can we apply neuroplasticity and get these benefits?
10 Examples of How Neuroplasticity Works
First, let’s get an idea of some of the ways that neuroplasticity can be applied.
A few of the methods that have been shown to enhance or boost neuroplasticity include:
• Intermittent fasting (as noted earlier): increases synaptic adaptation, promotes neuron growth, improve overall cognitive function, and decreases the risk of neurodegenerative disease.
• Traveling: exposes your brain to novel stimuli and new environments, opening up new pathways and activity in the brain.
• Using mnemonic devices: memory training can enhance connectivity in the prefrontal parietal network and prevent some age-related memory loss
• Learning a musical instrument: may increase connectivity between brain regions and help form new neural networks.
• Non-dominant hand exercises: can form new neural pathways and strengthen the connectivity between neurons.
• Reading fiction: increases and enhances connectivity in the brain.
• Expanding your vocabulary: activates the visual and auditory processes as well as memory processing.
• Creating artwork: enhances connectivity of the brain at rest (the “default mode network” or DMN), which can boost introspection, memory, empathy, attention, and focus.
• Dancing: reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s and increases neural connectivity.
• Sleeping: encourages learning retention through the growth of the dendritic spines that act as connections between neurons and help transfer information across cells (Nguyen, 2016).
For references on each of these methods, see Thai Nguyen’s piece here.
Research on neuroplasticity has gained in leaps and bounds from observing changes in the brains of those who su?ered serious trauma. Scientists saw that some patients with severe damage to the brain were able to recover to an amazing degree, given the extent of the damage, and wondered how this was possible; as we now know, neuroplasticity is what allows this recovery to happen.
According to researchers Su, Veeravagu, and Grant (2016), there are three phases of neuroplasticity after trauma:
1. Immediately after the injury, neurons begin to die and cortical inhibitory pathways are decreased; this phase lasts one to two days, and may uncover secondary neural networks that have never been used or have been rarely used.
2. After a few days, the activity of these cortical pathways changes from inhibitory to excitatory and new synapses are formed; both neurons and other cells are recruited to replace the damaged or dead cells and facilitate healing.
3. After a few weeks, new synapses continue to appear and the “remodeling” of the brain is in full swing—this is the time when rehabilitation and therapy can help the brain to learn some helpful new pathways.
There are many pharmacological treatments currently in development and testing that aim to help recovery through encouraging neuroplasticity, in addition to therapies involving stem cells, modifying gene expression and cellular proliferation, regulating inflammatory reactions, and recruiting immune cells to stop the damage (Su, Veeravagu, & Grant, 2016).
Although injury to the brain is a di?cult thing to recover from, it is paradoxically one of the best times to take advantage of the brain’s neuroplastic abilities, because post- injury or trauma is when the brain is most capable of making significant changes, reorganizing, and recovering (Su, Veeravagu, & Grant, 2016).
Neuroplasticity has been observed quite often in those recovering from strokes. Strokes often leave patients with brain damage, ranging from moderate (e.g., some facial muscular impairment) to severe (e.g., serious cognitive impairments, memory problems); however, we have also seen amazing recovery from stroke patients.
According to the experts at stroke-rehab.com, the best way to encourage neuroplasticity in stroke recovery is to use two key methods:
1. Task repetition
2. Task-specific practice
In other words, learning a new skill or activity (or re-learning an old one) through specific, regular practice can result in significant changes in the brain. You may not be able to learn anything with repetition and specific practice, but you can certainly learn a lot—and improvements in one area can often spill over into improvements in other abilities and skills.
The connection between neuroplasticity and depression is a good news/bad news one.
The bad news is that, when it comes to psychiatric disorders, there’s a sort of negative neuroplasticity; depression can cause damage to the brain, encouraging unhealthy and maladaptive pathways and discouraging healthy and adaptive ones (Hellerstein, 2011).
The good news is that some treatments for depression seem to be able to halt the damage and perhaps even reverse. The even better news is that research on neuroplasticity has shown us that “your day-to-day behaviors can have measurable e?ects on brain structure and function,” which can o?er healing and recovery from psychiatric disorders (Hellerstein, 2011).
It may not be easy and it will likely take sustained e?ort, but we have the ability to “remodel” our brains at any age in ways that can help us to function more e?ectively.
The same principles apply to managing and treating anxiety disorders—our brains are also perfectly capable of rewiring and remodeling to improve our ability to manage anxiety.
However, as life coach and clinician Ian Cleary (2015) says:
“Any brain changes are at the expense of other changes. The development of these parts of our brain that effortlessly trigger anxiety, it is at the detriment of the ones that aid calmness & confidence… it is not enough to just stop anxiety in any given moment which is often people’s focus. The anxiety wiring is still there and waiting to be triggered. We need to create competitive wiring. We need to create specific wiring of what we want to achieve which is ‘competitive wiring’ to the problem. Without this we loop endlessly in anxiety with no neural pathway to take us forward.”
Basically, neuroplasticity can be applied to help you manage, treat, and perhaps even “cure” anxiety, but it takes some time and e?ort! These more permanent brain changes can be achieved through adapting and changing thought patterns, through recall and memory patterning, breathing exercises, eye patterning, modifying postural habits, increasing body awareness, and targeting sensory perception (Cleary, 2015).
There aren’t many neuroplasticity exercises designed specifically for depression, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do anything about it.
All of these activities and exercises—many of which you’ll recognize from more traditional advice on managing depression—have been found to improve neuroplasticity and may be helpful for dealing with depression:
• Memory tasks and games
• Learning to juggle
• Learning to play a new instrument
• Learning a new language
• Mild to moderate regular exercise
• Challenging brain activities like crosswords or sudoku
• Learning a new subject—especially a large, complex subject in a short period of time (Hellerstein, 2011).
Neuroplasticity can also play an important role in helping people manage and treat chronic pain. After all, pain itself is experienced as a set or sequence of neuronal firings —if we can change the way our brains are wired, what’s to stop us from changing the experience of pain?
A recent study on the subject found that there are at least four methods that can help your brain adapt and manage chronic pain:
1. Transcranial direct current stimulation (electrodes implanted in certain areas of the brain to stimulate certain responses)
2. Transcranial magnetic stimulation (non-invasive magnetic stimulation of the brain via a “wand” to engage specific areas)
3. Intermittent fasting (periods of fasting followed by periods of normal food intake)
4. Glucose administration (taking glucose supplements to replace what we lose due to normal aging; (Sibille, Fartsch, Reddy, Fillingim, & Keil, 2016)
In addition to these more intensive treatments, there are many things you can do to apply the principles of neuroplasticity to your experience of pain, and the good news is that most of them are things that we should all do to become more healthy anyway!
These six practices and exercises have proven useful for dealing with chronic pain, and they all have the ability to a?ect how our brain wiring receives and translates the message of pain:
1. Regular exercise
2. Healthy eating
3. Quitting smoking
4. Keeping your mind active, engaged, and challenged
5. Relaxation techniques to keep stress at bay
6. Mindfulness meditation (Irving, 2016).
Each of these activities has the potential to rewire and retrain your brain to react di?erently to pain.
The methods of using neuroplasticity to treat ADHD, OCD, and autism largely mirror the methods we have already covered. There are games, activities, and programs designed around the principles of neuroplasticity to help people and children with a wide range of issues and impairments.
However, they all come down to the same general themes: learning new things, being open to new experiences and new activities, consciously adapting and modifying your thought patterns, and using science-backed techniques to challenge yourself.
To learn more about how neuroplasticity can benefit children with ADHD, click here for a description of the Atentiv System.
To get specific information on how neuroplasticity therapy can be applied to OCD, click here.
For information on the connection between neuroplasticity therapy and autism spectrum disorders, visit the nonprofit Autism Speaks’ website here.
Proponents of mindfulness meditation have long thought that meditation can actually cause physical changes in the brain; as it turns out, they were right! Mindfulness meditation can, in fact, change the brain, through neuroplasticity.
Jessica Cassity (n.d.) writes this about mindfulness meditation and neuroplasticity:
“With meditation, your brain is effectively being rewired: As your feelings and thoughts morph toward a more pleasant outlook your brain is also transforming, making this way of thought more of a default… The more your brain changes from meditation, the more you react to everyday life with that same sense of calm, compassion, and awareness.”
The more mindful we become and the more we meditate, the more our brain adapts to this state as our default state. This is why mindfulness meditation has such a big impact on regular practitioners even outside of their dedicated practice time; they have taught their brain to be mindful, calm, at peace, and centered all throughout the day, not just when they are actively meditating.
To learn more about the connection between meditation and neuroplasticity and to take advantage of the neuroplasticity that mindfulness meditation brings, check out this PDF from Harvard Health.
In it, you’ll learn about some recent studies on the subject and find guided meditations, yoga sequences, and other exercises that can help you gain the benefits outlined.
You can also watch a great TED Talk from Sara Lazar on how meditation can change the brain here:
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