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Brain Plasticity: How learning changes your brain

You may have heard that the brain is plas­tic.

As you well 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 each 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, learn­ing and mem­o­ry

For a long time, it was believed that as we aged, the con­nec­tions in the brain became fixed, and then sim­ply fad­ed. 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 con­nec­tions between neu­rons: New con­nec­tions form and the inter­nal struc­ture of the exist­ing synaps­es 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. 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. 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 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 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.

Plas­tic­i­ty and brain injury

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

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.

Final­ly, let me address a cou­ple of ques­tions we often get…

Can new neu­rons grow in my brain?

Yes, and regard­less of how young or old you are. Here’s a good arti­cle.

Can you rec­om­mend a good book to learn more about neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty and how to har­ness it for good?

Indeed. We pub­lished The Sharp­Brains Guide to Brain Fit­ness: How to Opti­mize Brain Health and Per­for­mance at Any Age pre­cise­ly to pro­vide a use­ful entry point into all this research and how to apply it. And we’re hap­py to report that it’s get­ting rave reviews!

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  1. […] a new skill or is digest­ing new knowl­edge it changes shape, delay­ing the process of brain age­ing. Brain plas­tic­i­ty is the brain’s abil­i­ty to reshape through­out a life­time. Con­trary to many mis­in­formed opin­ions, […]

  2. […] Arti­cle: How Learn­ing Changes Your Brain – Sharp­Brains […]

  3. […] Quan­do você para de apren­der, algu­mas partes de seu cére­bro começam a se atrofi­ar, enquan­to conexões neu­rais não uti­lizadas desa­pare­cem. ( 100 ) […]

  4. […] When you stop learn­ing, some parts of your brain start to atro­phy while unused neur­al con­nec­tions with­er away. (100) […]

  5. […] handy. Sci­ence says you are nev­er too old to learn piano, gui­tar, song­writ­ing, or com­po­si­tion. In this arti­cle, sci­en­tists looked specif­i­cal­ly at musi­cians and non-musi­cians. They found that pro­fes­sion­al […]

  6. […] and cre­ate new neur­al path­ways that improve our brains func­tion­ing. This process is referred to as neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty and can also relate to bet­ter mem­o­ry reten­tion and an increased abil­i­ty to learn new things. Our […]

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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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