Neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to change and adapt due to experience. It is an umbrella term referring to the brain's ability to change, reorganize, or grow neural networks.
This can involve functional changes due to brain damage or structural changes due to learning. Plasticity refers to the brain's malleability or ability to change; it does not imply that the brain is plastic. Neuro refers to neurons, the nerve cells that are the building blocks of the brain and nervous system. Thus, neuroplasticity allows nerve cells to change or adjust.
Types of Neuroplasticity
The human brain is composed of approximately 100 billion neurons. Early researchers believed that neurogenesis, or the creation of new neurons, stopped shortly after birth. Today, it's understood that the brain's neuroplasticity allows it to reorganize pathways, create new connections, and, in some cases, even create new neurons.
There are two main types of neuroplasticity: Functional plasticity is the brain's ability to move functions from a damaged area of the brain to other undamaged areas.
Structural plasticity is the brain's ability to actually change its physical structure as a result of learning. How Neuroplasticity Works The first few years of a child's life are a time of rapid brain growth.
At birth, every neuron in the cerebral cortex has an estimated 2,500 synapses, or small gaps between neurons where nerve impulses are relayed. By the age of three, this number has grown to a whopping 15,000 synapses per neuron. The average adult, however, only has about half that number of synapses. Why? Because as we gain new experiences, some connections are strengthened while others are eliminated.
This process is known as synaptic pruning. Neurons that are used frequently develop stronger connections. Those that are rarely or never used eventually die. By developing new connections and pruning away weak ones, the brain can adapt to the changing environment.
Benefits of Neuroplasticity
There are many benefits of neuroplasticity. Allowing your brain to adapt and change helps promote: The ability to learn new things The ability to enhance existing cognitive capabilities Recovery from strokes and traumatic brain injuries Strengthening areas where function is lost or has declined Improvements that can boost brain fitness.
Characteristics of Neuroplasticity
There are a few defining characteristics of neuroplasticity. Age and environment play a role; while plasticity occurs throughout the lifetime, certain types of changes are more predominant at specific ages. The brain tends to change a great deal during the early years of life, for example, as the immature brain grows and organizes itself.
Generally, young brains tend to be more sensitive and responsive to experiences than much older brains. But this does not mean that adult brains are not capable of adaptation.
Genetics can have an influence as well. The interaction between the environment and genetics also plays a role in shaping the brain's plasticity. Neuroplasticity Is an ongoing process. Plasticity is ongoing throughout life and involves brain cells other than neurons, including glial and vascular cells. It can occur as a result of learning, experience, and memory formation, or as a result of damage to the brain.
While people used to believe that the brain became fixed after a certain age, newer research has revealed that the brain never stops changing in response to learning.
In instances of damage to the brain, such as during a stroke, the areas of the brain associated with certain functions may be injured. Eventually, healthy parts of the brain may take over those functions and the abilities can be restored. It is important to note, however, that the brain is not infinitely malleable. Certain areas of the brain are largely responsible for certain actions.
For example, there are areas of the brain that play critical roles in movement, language, speech, and cognition. Damage to key areas of the brain can result in deficits in those areas because, while some recovery may be possible, other areas of the brain simply cannot fully take over those functions that were affected by the damage.
How to Enhance Neuroplasticity
There are steps you can take to help encourage your brain to adapt and change, at any age.
- Enrich Your Environment
Llearning environments that offer plenty of opportunities for focused attention, novelty, and challenge have been shown to stimulate positive changes in the brain. This is particularly important during childhood and adolescence, but enriching your environment can continue to provide brain rewards well into adulthood.
- Stimulating your brain
Learning a new language, learning how to play an instrument, traveling and exploring new places, creating art and other creative pursuits are all great ways to stimulate your brain from the norm.
- Get Plenty of Rest
Sleep research has shown that sleep plays an important role in dendritic growth in the brain. Dendrites are the growths at the end of neurons that help transmit information from one neuron to the next. By strengthening these connections, you may be able to encourage greater brain plasticity. Sleep has been shown to have important effects on both physical and mental health. Some researchers suggest that this is partly due to genetics and partly due to the makeup of the grey matter in the brain. You can improve your sleep by practicing good sleep hygiene. This includes developing a consistent sleep schedule and creating an environment that contributes to good sleep.
- Practice Mindfulness:
Mindfulness entails completely immersing your mind in the present moment, without ruminating over the past or contemplating the future. Awareness of the sights, sounds, and sensations around you is key. Many studies have shown that cultivating and practicing mindfulness can foster the brain's neuroplasticity.
- Exercise Regularly:
Regular physical activity has a number of brain benefits. Some research indicates that exercise might help prevent neuron loss in key areas of the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in memory and other functions. Other studies suggest that exercise plays a role in new neuron formation in this same region. A 2021 study adds that physical exercise also appears to boost brain plasticity through its impact on brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF, a protein that impacts nerve growth), functional connectivity, and the basal ganglia—the part of the brain responsible for motor control and learning.
Ongoing research hints at the ability of Ārepa to increase BDNF levels, enhancing neuroplasticity and improving learning.