What Is Neuroplasticity?

Neuroplasticity is a fascinating cognitive ability that makes it possible to learn new things and recover from injury or trauma. It allows healthy brain regions to take up the slack of impaired areas, as is often seen in stroke patients.

While neuroplasticity peaks in early childhood, that doesn’t mean that adults don’t have it. In fact, many modern treatments rely on neuroplasticity to encourage positive mental and physical changes.

What is it?

Neuroplasticity describes the brain’s ability to adapt and change. It explains how the brain responds to stimulation by creating new tendrils of connection between neurons (called synapses), as well as how it responds to deprivation by weakening or killing cells. It also explains how patients who have suffered severe damage to their brains have been able to recover remarkably, even though they have lost the functions associated with the damaged area of their brain.

Researchers are increasingly focusing on structural neuroplasticity, the part of the brain that can actually grow new connections. This is important because it shows that, unlike other organs, the brain can truly change its structure in response to challenges. It’s a powerful finding that could lead to therapies that help patients recover from brain injuries. It’s also an explanation for why some people who experience mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder can improve their symptoms through a variety of behavioral techniques.

How does it work?

The brain’s plasticity allows it to reorganize itself in response to life’s experiences and personal behavior. This happens through mechanisms such as axonal sprouting, in which undamaged axons grow new nerve endings to reconnect neurons that were injured or severed. This reorganization also occurs when new skills are learned. For instance, if you practice playing a musical instrument over time, your brain develops new neural pathways that replace old ones that were never used.

The same principles apply to learning a language or training for a sport. These activities encourage the formation of strong synapses, and weaker ones are pruned away.

Neuroplasticity is especially important during the early stages of life, when the immature brain is highly sensitive and responsive to experience. But it continues throughout a person’s lifetime. It is particularly effective in the recovery period after a physical injury or psychological trauma. This is when the brain’s greatest capacity for change, reorganization, and healing is observed.

What are the benefits?

The good news is that there are many ways you can promote neuroplasticity to encourage new pathways and help your brain repair damage. Studies show that traveling, a challenge like learning a new language, practicing mindfulness exercises, and even exercise can all increase your brain’s plasticity.

Learning a new language, for example, requires multiple cognitive abilities and reshapes brain circuitry. It’s also a great way to challenge yourself and boost your confidence. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that language-learning apps such as Duolingo offer lessons in the form of games—making them doubly beneficial for your mental health.

Psychiatric disorders like depression have been associated with suppressed neurogenesis, which could contribute to their symptoms. Fortunately, counseling and behavioral therapy can rewire your brain by encouraging healthy and adaptive pathways to replace those that lead to self-defeating behaviors. This is why it’s important to seek out a therapist who utilizes the principles of neuroplasticity. It can make all the difference in your treatment.

What are the risks?

Research has shown that the brain can adapt to the environment, by strengthening its connections with other neurons and pruning away those that aren’t used. This allows it to learn and remember things, and also recover from traumatic injuries.

The changes that occur due to neuroplasticity can be structural or functional. They can be beneficial, as in restoring lost function after an injury, or maladaptive, as seen in conditions like writer’s cramp or phantom limb pain.

Neuroplasticity peaks in early childhood, but it happens throughout life. Even simple daily habits, such as memorizing street names while taking a taxi ride, can have measurable effects on the brain. However, there are times when the effects are more pronounced: a recent study found that people with depression have a deficit in structural plasticity, and that antidepressants help by correcting this. This is because the medications encourage healthy pathways, and discourage unhealthy ones. (Hellerstein, 2011).) The same goes for cognitive rehabilitation exercises.

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