Neuroplasticity 101 and Brain Health Glossary

Giv­en the grow­ing num­ber of arti­cles in the pop­u­lar press men­tion­ing words such as “neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty”, “fMRI” and “cog­ni­tive reserve”, let’s review some key find­ings, con­cepts and terms.

First, a pre­scient quote by Span­ish neu­ro­sci­en­tist San­ti­a­go Ramon y Cajal (1852–1934): “Every man can, if he so desires, become the sculp­tor his own brain”.

fmri.jpgThanks to new neu­roimag­ing tech­niques, regard­ed “as impor­tant for neu­ro­science as tele­scopes were for astron­o­my, neu­ro­sci­en­tists and cog­ni­tive psy­chol­o­gists have been find­ing that the brain has a num­ber of “core capac­i­ties” and “men­tal mus­cles” that can be exer­cised through nov­el­ty, vari­ety and prac­tice, and that exer­cis­ing our brain can influ­ence the gen­er­a­tion of new neu­rons and their con­nec­tions. Brain exer­cise is being rec­og­nized, there­fore, as a crit­i­cal pil­lar of brain health, togeth­er with nutri­tion, phys­i­cal exer­cise and stress management.

Pre­vi­ous beliefs about our brain and how it works have been proven false. Some beliefs that have been debunked include claims that adult brains can not cre­ate new neu­rons (shown to be false by Berke­ley sci­en­tists Mar­i­an Dia­mond and Mark Rosen­zweig, and Salk Insti­tute’s Fred Gage), notions that work­ing mem­o­ry has a max­i­mum lim­it of 6 or 7 items (debunked by Karolin­s­ka Insti­tute Torkel Kling­berg), and assump­tions that the brain’s basic process­es can not be reor­ga­nized by repeat­ed prac­tice (UCS­F’s Drs. Paula Tal­lal and Michael Merzenich). The “men­tal mus­cles” we can train include atten­tion, stress and emo­tion­al man­age­ment, mem­o­ry, visual/ spa­tial, audi­to­ry process­es and lan­guage, motor coor­di­na­tion and exec­u­tive func­tions like plan­ning and problem-solving.

Men­tal stim­u­la­tion is impor­tant if done in the right sup­port­ive and engag­ing envi­ron­ment. Stan­ford’s Robert Sapol­sky has proven that chron­ic stress and cor­ti­cal inhi­bi­tion, which may be aggra­vat­ed due to imposed men­tal stim­u­la­tion, may prove coun­ter­pro­duc­tive. Hav­ing the right moti­va­tion is essential.

A sur­pris­ing and promis­ing area of sci­en­tif­ic inquiry is Mind­ful­ness-Based Stress Reduc­tion (MBSR). An increas­ing num­ber of neu­ro­sci­en­tists (such as Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin-Madis­on’s Richard David­son) are inves­ti­gat­ing the abil­i­ty of trained med­i­ta­tors to devel­op and sus­tain atten­tion and visu­al­iza­tions and to work pos­i­tive­ly with pow­er­ful emo­tion­al states and stress through the direct­ed men­tal process­es of med­i­ta­tion practices.

And now, some keywords:

Brain Fit­ness Pro­gram: struc­tured set of brain exer­cis­es, usu­al­ly com­put­er-based, designed to train spe­cif­ic brain areas and process­es in tar­get­ed ways.

Chron­ic Stress: ongo­ing, long-term stress, which blocks the for­ma­tion of new neu­rons and neg­a­tive­ly impacts the immune sys­tem’s defenses.

Cog­ni­tive train­ing (or Brain Fit­ness Train­ing): the field of brain exer­cis­es designed to help work out spe­cif­ic “men­tal mus­cles. The prin­ci­ple under­ly­ing cog­ni­tive train­ing is to help improve “core” abil­i­ties, such as atten­tion, mem­o­ry, pro­cess­ing speed, problem-solving.

Cog­ni­tive Reserve (or Brain Reserve): the­o­ry that address­es the fact that indi­vid­u­als vary con­sid­er­ably in the sever­i­ty of cog­ni­tive aging and clin­i­cal demen­tia. Men­tal stim­u­la­tion, edu­ca­tion and occu­pa­tion­al lev­el are believed to be major active com­po­nents of build­ing a cog­ni­tive reserve that can help resist the attacks of men­tal disease.

fMRI: func­tion­al mag­net­ic res­o­nance imag­ing (fMRI) is a non-inva­sive neu­roimag­ing tech­nique that enables researchers see images of chang­ing blood flow in the brain asso­ci­at­ed with neur­al activ­i­ty. This allows images to be gen­er­at­ed that reflect which struc­tures are acti­vat­ed (and how) dur­ing per­for­mance of dif­fer­ent tasks.

Heart Rate Vari­abil­i­ty (HRV): describes the fre­quen­cy of the car­diac cycle, and is one of the best pre­dic­tors of stress and anx­i­ety. Our hear rate is not “flat” or con­stant: HRV mea­sures the pat­tern of change.

Mind­ful­ness-Based Stress Reduc­tion (MBSR): yoga and med­i­ta­tion prac­tices designed to enable effec­tive respons­es to stress, pain, and illness.

Neu­ro­ge­n­e­sis: the process by which neu­rons are cre­at­ed all through­out our lives.

Neu­roimag­ing: tech­niques that either direct­ly or indi­rect­ly image the struc­ture, func­tion, or phar­ma­col­o­gy of the brain. Recent tech­niques (such as fMRI) have enabled researchers to under­stand bet­ter the liv­ing human brain.

Neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty: the brain’s abil­i­ty to reor­ga­nize itself by form­ing new con­nec­tions through­out life.

PubMed: very use­ful tool to search for pub­lished stud­ies. “PubMed is a ser­vice of the U.S. Nation­al Library of Med­i­cine that includes over 16 mil­lion cita­tions from MEDLINE and oth­er life sci­ence jour­nals for bio­med­ical arti­cles back to the 1950s. PubMed includes links to full text arti­cles and oth­er relat­ed resources.”

Work­ing mem­o­ry: the abil­i­ty to keep infor­ma­tion cur­rent for a short peri­od while using this infor­ma­tion. Work­ing mem­o­ry is used for con­trol­ling atten­tion, and deficits in work­ing mem­o­ry capac­i­ty lead to atten­tion prob­lems. Recent research has proven that work­ing mem­o­ry train­ing is pos­si­ble and help­ful for peo­ple with ADD/ ADHD.

Any oth­er key­word you would like explained?


  1. Stephanie West Allen on September 11, 2007 at 9:11

    I would like you to add self-direct­ed neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty, Alvaro.( We talk about that at Brains on Pur­pose.) I think it is impor­tant to dis­tin­guish self-direct­ed neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty from neuroplasticity.

  2. Michael Chaskalson on September 12, 2007 at 9:09

    Have your read “The Com­pas­sion­ate Brain” by Ger­ald Huther? It’s very good on neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty. As is Sharon Beg­ley’s “Change Your Mind, Train Your Brain.”

  3. Alvaro on September 12, 2007 at 10:24

    Hel­lo Stephanie, the most impor­tant thing first is for peo­ple to under­stand what neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty is and how it happens…we can lat­er talk about more spe­cif­ic options. “self-direct­ed” applies to many of those con­cepts, not just neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty. You will enjoy my last post

    Michael, many thanks for the sug­ges­tions. I enjoyed Beg­ley’s book; and will take a look at Huther’s. Here you have a list of books we recommend

  4. Cindy on October 1, 2007 at 8:18

    I am always fas­ci­nat­ed by the study of the brain. The brain’s capa­bil­i­ties are amaz­ing. I think there are a great ben­e­fits in brain exer­cis­es. Why would­n’t we be able to improve our brain mus­cle?! Thank you for con­tribut­ing your arti­cle to Fit­ness for Moms Blog Car­ni­val.

  5. Alvaro on October 2, 2007 at 4:17

    Thank you, Cindy. My wife is preg­nant (our first kid) so we need to start think­ing about fit­ness for moms…

  6. Rob Kanzer on January 8, 2009 at 5:15




    Cog­ni­tive train­ing (or Brain Fit­ness Train­ing): the field of brain exer­cis­es designed to help work out spe­cif­ic “mental muscles”. The prin­ci­ple under­ly­ing cog­ni­tive train­ing is to help improve “core” abil­i­ties, such as atten­tion, mem­o­ry, pro­cess­ing spped, problem-solving.

About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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