Table of Contents:
- What is neuroplasticity, and why is it important?
- How does neuroplasticity work?
- Examples of neuroplasticity
- How to rewire your brain
- Types of Neuroplasticity
- How long does it take neuroplasticity to work?
- What can increase neuroplasticity?
It was previously thought that the human brain stops developing after the first few years of life, and if a particular brain area is affected, nerve cells cannot regenerate. But this thought was proved wrong by William James when he presented the first theory of neuroplasticity around 100 years ago in his book “Principle of Psychology.”
In the mid to later half of the 20th-century extensive research studies also showed that the brain retains the capability to regenerate or change even in adulthood. From there, the term “neuroplasticity” came into existence. And today, it has gained so much popularity that recent studies aim to promote neuroplasticity.
What is neuroplasticity, and why is it important?
Neuroplasticity, also known as brain plasticity or neural plasticity, refers to the ability of the brain to modify itself structurally or functionally in response to a dysfunction, new information, or development, through reorganization and growth.
It is considered a fundamental and complex property of the brain. Neurons are the building blocks of the nervous system, and all the signals travel through the neuronal pathways. Neuroplasticity occurs at the neuronal level by any of the following three processes:
Reorganization of neuronal pathways.
Creating new neural connections or synapses.
Developing new neurons (less often).
Neural plasticity can be structural or functional.
As the name indicates, this type refers to changes in the brain’s structure by changing its neuronal connections to an external stimulus like learning or a new experience. When something new is learned, there are changes in synaptic strength and changes in the proportion of grey matter inside the brain’s structure.
Functional plasticity of the brain has significance when there is an injury or damage to a part of the brain. In this type, the brain can move functions from the damaged part to the undamaged areas of the brain. In other words, it involves the alteration and adaptation of the brain to the functional properties of neurons and literally rewires itself.
Why is Neuroplasticity Important?
Neuroplasticity holds significant importance in our lives. Learning and memory that play a vital role in human life cannot be possible without the process of neuroplasticity. It is essential to adapt or change according to external or internal stimuli. Neural plasticity is essential because it promotes the ability of the brain to:
Learn new things
Enhance existing cognitive abilities
Recover from neurological events
Strengthen the areas to compensate for loss or decline in functional capacity
How does neuroplasticity work?
Let’s understand how the process of neuroplasticity occurs. It does not involve a single operation. Instead, it involves different processes that occur through the lifetime of an individual. The four processes involved are:
Angiogenesis: the creation of new blood vessels
Synaptogenesis: the creation of new synapses
Dendritic arborization: growth of additional dendrites like tree branches to gather more information from neurons
Neurogenesis: formation of new neurons
It is estimated that at birth, there are around 2,500 synapses per neuron in the cerebral cortex of the brain. At three years of age, the number of synapses explodes to about 15,000 per neuron as the child explores and learns new things through synaptogenesis. But this number is halved in adulthood due to a process known as synaptic pruning.
As we step into adulthood, new experiences are gained. New neural connections are created, and previously learned skills that are repeated strengthen the synapse while others are eliminated. Synaptic pruning eliminates the weaker synapses that are no longer needed in the memory for recall while keeping the stronger connections reinforced or repeated.
Similarly, in case of a compromised brain, the neurons in the surrounding areas compensate for the weakened functions of the compromised area.
Examples of neuroplasticity
Neuroplasticity is a lifelong process, and it can be seen in everyday life activities. For example:
If the speech controlling area of the left hemisphere is compromiseded, the right hemisphere may compensate for some of the lost speech abilities. This phenomenon of plasticity is vital in the treatment of patients with neurological events.
Learning more than one language is achievable because of neuroplasticity. In multilingual or bilingual people, the density of grey matter is more than “monolinguals” or individuals who can only speak one language. Numerous studies have shown evidence of structural changes in the brain due to learning a second language.
Experience-dependent plasticity is observed in musicians. It has been shown that the auditory cortex of musicians develops with experience, and they can distinguish different notes sooner as compared to non-musicians. Grey matter is also increased in musicians, which is another indicator of experience-dependent neuroplasticity.
How to Rewire Your Brain?
Although neuroplasticity is a property of the brain, it is continually dependent on life experiences and education to organize and build neural circuits. Lifestyle plays a significant role in rewiring our brain. If we engage in learning something new or in activities that activate specific brain areas, that will help build up new neural connections that are healthy. There you always need to develop your brain so that it continues to work constructively. It is important to study information about yourself and your brain as well as mental health. Read more about mental health in these articles It is believed that negative thought processes occurring with depression are due to impaired or interrupted neuroplasticity. In such cases, exercises that promote positive neuroplasticity are recommended to improve wellbeing. Rewiring your brain is something you can do at home by:
Playing video games
Believe it or not, playing games has several cognitive benefits: memory and reaction time, motor coordination, decision making, reasoning, problem-solving, cooperation, and team participation. All this can teach your brain new skills that certainly improve your gameplay with time and positively impact everyday life.
Learning a second language
Research studies have shown that bilingualism strengthens white matter, increases grey matter and hippocampal density. This increase is due to neuroplasticity and also slows down age-related cognitive decline.
Listening or making music also helps to promote neuroplasticity. Music therapy is also shown to decline age-related neural changes and cognitive decline.
Physical activity not only strengthens muscles but also helps to improve memory and learning capability. Aerobic exercises improve blood flow and stimulate cell growth in the brain.
Types of Neuroplasticity
Jordan Grafmann, American Neuroscientist, has identified the following four types of neuroplasticity.
Homologous Area Adaptation
This type of neuroplasticity occurs if any brain area is compromised in an early critical period of development. Suppose a particular area of the brain is not functioning on one side. In that case, the brain’s functionality shifts to the homologous (corresponding) area on the opposite side of the brain at the expense of another normal function. For example, if the right parietal lobe is not working, the left parietal lobe would take the visuospatial functions at the expense of arithmetical functions. So, the corresponding side will pick up the slack but do so at the expense of another process.
Compensatory masquerade uses an alternative cognitive process to perform a task when the initial process cannot be followed due to impairment. For example, during navigation, people usually employ a sense of direction and distance. But if they are not working due to impaired spatial recognition or lack of direction, they use other processes such as memorizing landmarks. Simply stated, people will compensate for the things in which they are deficient.
This type of neuroplasticity occurs when areas of the brain designed to process particular sensory input are now devoted to processing signals from other sensory modalities. For example, children born blind have shown the touch and somatosensory inputs directed to the visual cortex in the occipital lobe years after maturity.
This type refers to the expansion of a particular brain region based on continuous performance. For example, increased grey matter is seen in musicians as they keep on repeating and using specific skills. This Map Expansion applies to any skill process and associated practice.
Writing research papers is an excellent example of Map Expansion. As one engages in the process repeatedly, the brain region responsible for language processing and cognitive control expands. Additionally, research has shown that effective writing skills improve with practice using Essayswriting, and this process involves cross-modal reassignment as the brain integrates visual, auditory, and cognitive information.
How long does it take for neuroplasticity to work?
Neuroplasticity is not fixed as it all depends on the consistency of activities, lifestyle, and habits that stimulate the process. If you are consistent, then it may take a few months to rewire or reorganize your brain. Studies have shown that it takes an average of 66 days to form a new habit, but that again depends on how engaged you are with the new habit-forming process.
What Can Increase Neuroplasticity?
Neuroplasticity is a mechanism that occurs naturally throughout life, but we can directly impact how fast and effective it takes place. Here are some proven ways to enhance neuroplasticity.
Exercise, both cognitive and physical, plays a vital role in enhancing neuroplasticity. Physical exercise does not directly enhance neuroplasticity, but it does increase blood flow to the brain, increasing oxygen and providing a healthy environment for neuroplasticity. Cognitive exercises, including learning new skills or language and playing effective brain training games, physically change the brain’s structure. But to induce neuroplastic changes, it is crucial to keep such activities consistent.
Fasting or calorie restriction promotes neuron growth, increases synaptic plasticity, improves cognitive functioning, and decreases the risk of cognitive decline. Therefore, intermittent fasting stimulates the production of new neurons from neuronal stem cells.
Studies have shown that sleep helps in neuroplasticity by stimulating the growth of dendrites. It has been shown that people who have quality sleep of 6 to 8 hours have better learning and memory experiences.
Neuroplasticity is a process vital to our survival as a species. Without plasticity, the brain will not adapt to a new environment or learn any new skill. Because of this, we keep learning and memorizing throughout our lifetime and can maintain healthy cognition as we age. Recent studies are incorporating neuroplasticity mechanisms in the rehabilitation of anyone who has suffered a neurological event. Practicing a healthy lifestyle and feeding your brain what it needs can support your neuroplasticity and overall quality of life.