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Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


Brain Plasticity: How learning changes your brain

neuroplasticity and brain research

You may have heard that the brain is plas­tic. As you know. the brain is not made of plastic…Neuroplasticity, or brain plas­tic­i­ty, refers to the brain’s abil­i­ty to CHANGE through­out life. The human brain has the amaz­ing abil­i­ty to reor­ga­nize itself by form­ing new con­nec­tions between brain cells (neu­rons).

In addi­tion to genet­ic fac­tors, the envi­ron­ment in which a per­son lives, as well as the actions of that per­son, play a sig­nif­i­cant role in plas­tic­i­ty.

Neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty occurs in the brain:

1- At the begin­ning of life: when the imma­ture brain orga­nizes itself.

2- In case of brain injury: to com­pen­sate for lost func­tions or max­i­mize remain­ing func­tions.

3- Through adult­hood: when­ev­er some­thing new is learned and mem­o­rized

Plas­tic­i­ty and brain injury

A sur­pris­ing con­se­quence of neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty is that the brain activ­i­ty asso­ci­at­ed with a giv­en func­tion can move to a dif­fer­ent loca­tion as a con­se­quence of nor­mal expe­ri­ence, brain dam­age or recov­ery.

In his book “The Brain That Changes Itself: Sto­ries of Per­son­al Tri­umph from the Fron­tiers of Brain Sci­ence,” Nor­man Doidge describes numer­ous exam­ples of func­tion­al shifts.

In one of them, a sur­geon in his 50s suf­fers a stroke. His left arm is par­a­lyzed. Dur­ing his reha­bil­i­ta­tion, his good arm and hand are immo­bi­lized, and he is set to clean­ing tables. The task is at first impos­si­ble. Then slow­ly the bad arm remem­bers how too move. He learns to write again, to play ten­nis again: the func­tions of the brain areas killed in the stroke have trans­ferred them­selves to healthy regions!

The brain com­pen­sates for dam­age by reor­ga­niz­ing and form­ing new con­nec­tions between intact neu­rons. In order to recon­nect, the neu­rons need to be stim­u­lat­ed through activ­i­ty.

Plas­tic­i­ty, learn­ing and mem­o­ry

For a long time, it was believed that as we aged, the con­nec­tions in the brain became fixed. Research has shown that in fact the brain nev­er stops chang­ing through learn­ing. Plas­tic­i­ty IS the capac­i­ty of the brain to change with learn­ing. Changes asso­ci­at­ed with learn­ing occur most­ly at the lev­el of the con­nec­tions between neu­rons. New con­nec­tions can form and the inter­nal struc­ture of the exist­ing synaps­es can change.

Did you know that when you become an expert in a spe­cif­ic domain, the areas in your brain that deal with this type of skill will grow?

For instance, Lon­don taxi dri­vers have a larg­er hip­pocam­pus (in the pos­te­ri­or region) than Lon­don bus dri­vers (Maguire, Wool­lett, & Spiers, 2006). Why is that? It is because this region of the hip­pocam­pus is spe­cial­ized in acquir­ing and using com­plex spa­tial infor­ma­tion in order to nav­i­gate effi­cient­ly. Taxi dri­vers have to nav­i­gate around Lon­don where­as bus dri­vers fol­low a lim­it­ed set of routes.

Plas­tic­i­ty can also be observed in the brains of bilin­guals (Mechel­li et al., 2004). It looks like learn­ing a sec­ond lan­guage is pos­si­ble through func­tion­al changes in the brain: the left infe­ri­or pari­etal cor­tex is larg­er in bilin­gual brains than in mono­lin­gual brains.

Plas­tic changes also occur in musi­cians brains com­pared to non-musi­cians. Gas­er and Schlaug (2003) com­pared pro­fes­sion­al musi­cians (who prac­tice at least 1hour per day) to ama­teur musi­cians and non-musi­cians. They found that gray mat­ter (cor­tex) vol­ume was high­est in pro­fes­sion­al musi­cians, inter­me­di­ate in ama­teur musi­cians, and low­est in non-musi­cians in sev­er­al brain areas involved in play­ing music: motor regions, ante­ri­or supe­ri­or pari­etal areas and infe­ri­or tem­po­ral areas.

Final­ly, Dra­gan­s­ki and col­leagues (2006) recent­ly showed that exten­sive learn­ing of abstract infor­ma­tion can also trig­ger some plas­tic changes in the brain. They imaged the brains of Ger­man med­ical stu­dents 3 months before their med­ical exam and right after the exam and com­pared them to brains of stu­dents who were not study­ing for exam at this time. Med­ical stu­dents’ brains showed learn­ing-induced changes in regions of the pari­etal cor­tex as well as in the pos­te­ri­or hip­pocam­pus. These regions of the brains are known to be involved in mem­o­ry retrieval and learn­ing.

To go fur­ther: Q and A about Brain plas­tic­i­ty

Q: Can new neu­rons grow in my brain?

A: Yes in some areas and through­out your life­time. Learn how and read about what hap­pens to these new neu­rons here: New neu­rons: good news, bad news.

Q: Can you rec­om­mend a good book to learn more about all this and how to apply it?

A: Sure! We pub­lished The Sharp­Brains Guide to Brain Fit­ness: How to Opti­mize Brain Health and Per­for­mance at Any Age (April 2013; 284 pages) to pro­vide a com­pre­hen­sive and acces­si­ble entry into the research AND how to apply it. And we’re hap­py to report that it’s get­ting rave reviews!

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31 Responses

  1. the brain can retrain itself be chang­ing its blumb­ing, when giv­en direc­tion via a biofeed­back sys­tem oper­at­ing on EEG mea­sure­ments

  2. Semhi hassan says:

    Very inter­est­ing find­ings. Can you explain to me the fol­low­ing puz­zle?
    I have been suf­fer­ing from depres­sion since 1987 and have been tak­ing drugs up to now, but noth­ing refrained from learn­ing lan­guages. I speak Ara­bic my moth­er lan­guage, French, and Eng­lish flu­ent­ly. I lived I. Ger­many for one year and I have nev­er tak­en any cours­es in Ger­man, but I speak and under­stand Ger­man

  3. […] [2] […]

  4. […] not just your mind that might change, learn­ing actu­al­ly changes the phys­i­cal make­up of your brain.  Just as exer­cise is ben­e­fi­cial and nec­es­sary for our mus­cles, bones and over­all […]

  5. […] Neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty is a con­cept in neu­ro­science which refers to the brain’s abil­i­ty to change. Like any oth­er part of the body, your brain can become stronger by exer­cis­ing it. This is espe­cial­ly true when it comes to mem­o­ry, which means that you can make learn­ing lan­guages eas­i­er with reg­u­lar brain train­ing. If you are look­ing to learn a new lan­guage skill as an adult, you will find it eas­i­er with the fol­low­ing brain exer­cis­es. […]

  6. Thank you for shar­ing; great post. Learn­ing can indeed change our brain chem­istry, how we think and behave in gen­er­al. After­all, learn­ing is anoth­er way of edu­cat­ing our­selves and get a bet­ter and more informed per­spec­tive on life. In addi­tion to learn­ing, healthy nutri­tion can also improve learn­ing over­all cog­ni­tive per­for­mance. A healthy mind in a healthy body :). Thanks again

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