Have you ever watched someone who has experienced a remarkable, unexpected recovery after a traumatic brain injury, stroke, or other brain damage? Some of those stories feel like the only explanation is magic.
It certainly seems inexplicable, but scientists have been hard at work studying these cases over the last several decades. They have discovered the explanation behind the magic is neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity- What is it?
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to adapt. It refers to the physiological changes in the brain that happen because of our interactions with our environment.
From the day we are born till we die, the connections among the cells in our brains keep reorganizing to our changing needs. It is a dynamic process that allows us to learn from and adapt to different experiences.
Our brains are truly extraordinary; unlike computers. Computers are built using particular specifications and receive software updates. However, our brains can receive hardware updates along with software updates. Different pathways form and become dormant. This process keeps occurring according to our experiences.
When we learn new things, we form new connections between our neurons. Our brain rewires to adapt to new circumstances. This occurs daily, but it is also something that we can stimulate and encourage.
Neuroplasticity is a very young topic. A lot of research is still required to know everything about it. What we know now is that there are 2 main types of neuroplasticity:
- Structural neuroplasticity: The strength of the connections between neurons (or synapses) changes.
- Functional neuroplasticity: Describes the permanent changes in neurons because of learning and development.
Both types have exciting potential. However, structural neuroplasticity is the one that receives the most attention at the moment. We already know that most functions can be relearned, rerouted, and re-established in our brain.
However, change to the actual structure of the brain is where most of the exciting discoveries lie.
Does Neuroplasticity Change with Age?
As you might have already expected, neuroplasticity does change with age. However, it is not as black and white as you may think.
Neuroplasticity in Kids
Children’s brains always grow, develop, and change. Every new experience stimulates a change in brain structure and function or both.
In an infant’s brain, each neuron has about 7,500 connections with other neurons. By the age of 2, the infant’s brain has neurons double the number of connections than an average adult brain. These connections slowly prune away as the child grows up.
There are 4 main types of neuroplasticity observed in children:
- Adaptive – These are changes that happen when children practice a particular skill. It allows the brain to adapt to structural or functional changes in the brain (like injuries).
- Impaired – These changes occur because of genetic or acquired disorders.
- Excessive – It is the reorganization of new, maladaptive connections. These connections can cause disability or disorders.
- Plasticity, which makes the brain vulnerable to injury – Harmful neuronal pathways can form. They can increase the possibility of injuries and make them more impactful.
These processes are stronger in young children. It allows them to recover from injury more effectively than adults.
Neuroplasticity in Adults
Neuroplasticity is not absent in adults, but it is observed less than in children. However, the adult brain is still capable of extraordinary changes.
It can find old, lost connections and functions that have not been used in some time. It can also enhance memory and overall cognitive skills.
Neuroplasticity potential is not great in older adults. However, they can still promote positive changes with sustained effort and a healthy lifestyle.
7 Benefits Neuroplasticity has on the Brain
There are several ways that neuroplasticity benefits the brain. These include:
- Recovery from brain events like strokes
- Recovery from traumatic brain injuries
- Ability to rewire functions in the brain
- Loss of function in one area may enhance functions in other areas (e.g., if one sense is lost, the others may become more active);
- Increased memory abilities
- Several enhanced cognitive abilities
- Effective learning
So, how can we use neuroplasticity and get these benefits?
How to Rewire your Brain with Neuroplasticity?
A few of the methods that can enhance or boost neuroplasticity include:
- Travelling: It exposes your brain to new environments which open up new pathways and activity in the brain.
- Using mnemonic devices: Memory training can improve connectivity in the prefrontal, parietal network. It can also prevent age-related memory loss.
- Learning a musical instrument: It can increase connectivity in brain regions. It can also assist in forming new neural networks.
- Non-dominant hand exercises: They can create new neural pathways. Also, strengthen the connectivity between neurons.
- Reading fiction: It increases and improves connectivity in the brain.
- Expanding your vocabulary: It activates the visual and auditory processes as well as memory processing;
- Sleeping: It encourages learning retention through the growth of the dendritic spines. These spines act as connections between neurons. They assist in transferring information across cells.
Neuroplasticity is a vast and complex subject, with discoveries every day. It is interesting that what we thought we knew about the brain, might now necessarily be true. It always keeps changing and evolving.