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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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50 Responses

  1. Mark Wiseman says:

    Really interesting. Neuroplasticity also plays a huge role in the development and maintenance of chronic pain.
    It appears that chronic pain is a learned neurological response. It would be wonderful if someone could develop and effective way of unlearning this response.

  2. Alvaro says:

    Hello Mark, we are less familiar with pain research but I’d suspect what you say is right.

    In general, the best way to “unlearn” a response is by learning a new response that overtakes the previous one.

    If you come across interesting research in that field, please let us know!

  3. Amol says:

    Just curious,

    How does the “learning” of how to use your second hand fit into this? i.e a right hander becoming ambidexturous?

    Are the same processes involved in terms of rewiring between hemispheres of the brain? Is it possible to develop handedness by focusing on the skill or this something more gene related?

    Thanks,

    Amol

  4. Hi Amol,
    I would think that learning to use your non-dominant hand does involve plasticity. My guess is that the area in the motor cortex that corresponds to that hand will start developing as a result of the increased movement in that hand.

  5. Bernard says:

    It is precisely because the brain has neural plasticity that EEG neurofeedback works.

    Amol, the brain can retrain itself (strengthening the new neuronal pathways, when given direction via a biofeedback system operating on EEG measurements.

    It takes time for the new pathways to become dominant/habitual, but once they do, the results of EEG neurofeedback are largely permanent.

    Similarly, (but on the opposite end of the spectrum), epilepsy patients that do not get their seizure activity under control (only something like 40% gain 100% control through drug therapy) are at risk of a process called kindling – where the brain learns/trains itself to seize. The wrong neuronal pathways are being strengthened in that case.

    I recommend having a look at Stephen Larson’s book, The Healing Power of Neurofeedback: The Revolutionary LENS Technique for Restoring Optimal Brain Function. It references several interesting studies on the subject.

  6. Alvaro says:

    Bernard: neuroplasticity explains why any kind of learning can occur. It is a premise for all learning. And a variety of training programs, such as neurofeedback, can be helpful in guiding neuroplasticity in appropriate ways.

    Now, the question is: what is the causal, direct, evidence that a given training intervention is producing the right kind of learning? Neuroplasticity itself does not address that.

  7. Debbie says:

    I have a friend who is barely 40 & had 2 strokes (clots). It has been 5 years. Her left side is paralyzed. Then I saw a PBS show on neuroplasticity. Is there some kind of PT or other program I can do with her to help her brain re-learn? She is a good, kind, loving person & doesn’t deserve to live like this.

  8. Alvaro says:

    Hello Debbie,

    Your friend’s neuropsychologist would be the ideal person to suggest what specific physical and mental activities ca help the rehabilitation process. No two strokes affect the same areas.

    I hope she gets better. You may enjoy the superb book by the Woodruffs,
    In an Instant: A Family’s Journey of Love and Healing (Hardcover)

  9. Padma says:

    Debbie
    Get the wonderful book of Dr.Jill Bolte Taylor who is a neuroanatomist and had a stroke at 37, recovered completely and advocates passionately treatment strategies forstork patients and their carers. It is called “My Stroke of insight” Her website http://www.drjilltaylor.com
    Goodluck

  10. Melody says:

    I am in a Lifespan Psychology class right now, and we are studying brain plasticity. I would like to know if the brain can make new neural connections to overcome trauma, can it also do the same, with training, to overcome certain mental illnesses, such as depression, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder?

  11. Alvaro says:

    Hello Melody,

    Theoretically, yes, of course (neuroplasticity is the premise for learning itself) but research is just emerging in trauma-related areas.

    Some very promising applications:
    – Cognitive therapy for depression and OCD
    – Computerized cognitive training for stroke/ TBI rehab

    There is research going on focused on schizophrenia. We are not aware of specific trials on patients with bipolar disorder.

    In general, I’d say: Stay Tuned. There will be a good number of applications related to clinical conditions. But the field is emerging-no magic cures today.

    Regards

  12. Dear Good People,
    Just a note to say thanks for marketing and widely sharing the scientific knowledge of neurogenesis and adult neuroplasticity with so many others. Learning more about the amazing brain and my own mind through cognitive therapy and the free Dana Foundation publications has helped me to learn to use the computer and other educational tools to overcome some of the neurological, emotional and social deficits of my own chronic medical condition, living with a recurrent low-grade brain tumor in my left temporal lobe. Learning new scientific facts about our brain’s regenerative possibilities gave me new hope for my own future many years ago. I hope some other brain injured people will soon begin to share their own experiences with some of these new cognitive retraining

  13. (Ophs! I hit the submit button too soon by accident!) I hope others will want to share their personal results of the new brain training tools and programs here soon! GBYAY Anne McGinnis Breen

  14. Pat says:

    Qt pertaining to learning a new athletic movement. I am a golf instructor and the biggest challenges to me are my older clients with years of poor habits. I understand the brain never stops learning, but what would be the best way to convince a person of 50 yrs old+ that has been playing golf their way for 20-30 yrs fundamentally wrong and now wants to change? They may understand clearly what they need to do, but their body tells them differently, in fact it tells them the new feeling is quite awkward – what is realistic for their brain – neural pathways to override the old habit?

  15. Anne, thank you for sharing your story. In fact, hope is a needed element for improvement, and more and more justified with the growing research behind neuroplasticity.

    Pat: great question. From a physical “brain” point of view, the most important thing for you to know is that you cannot erase existing patterns (prevent well-connected neurons from firing together, or erase those connections), what you have to do is to build a new pattern (“neural pathway”) that with time and practice will override the previous one.

    Now, from a Pedagogy point of view, may I also suggest that a) you don’t tell them (or even think!) that they are doing something “fundamentally wrong”. The point is that they can do it better. All of us can, including Tiger; b) you reassure them that “feeling quite awkward” is a normal transition phase when we are learning a new skill. Simply motivate them to continue to rehearse and rehearse and come to enjoy the new patterns, and with practice they will become the default habits.

    It is often said that “Cells that fire together, wire together”. Your question puts forward the Pros and Cons of such a system 🙂

  16. Alvaro and Pat, a thought on the pedagogy of movement behavior.

    Alvaro, I’m so pleased you noted the enjoyment of new patterns in the process of rehearsal.
    Helping people discover new movement (brain) patterns and motifs invites both opportunities to enjoy an expanded sense of aesthetics as well as a chance to return to the primary feeling of movement liberated from the shackles of unconscious habitual form. The uber talented ballet master Baryshnikov has been known to talk about going back to the basic barre to re-discover the joy and sensation of learning the core values of ballet movement.

    To help students or clients reap the athletic rewards of neuro-plasticity, I found it helpful to encourage a creative, “beginner’s mind” attitude in the rehearsal phase. And research on mindful movement does suggest a neurological difference.

    Thoughts anyone?

    M. A. a.k.a. Dr. G.
    The George Greenstein Institute for the Advancement of Somatic Arts and Science

  17. Tracy says:

    I am curious to learn how to use brain plasticity to help me to continue in my recovery from depression. I love to learn new things and think that this concept can help explain why talking to a therapist can literally change the biology of my brain. This has mystified me but I think this concept helps to explain it.

  18. Tina says:

    Hello…I’m currently in a Lifespan Psychology class and have some questions regarding brain plasticity and the learning of a new language. I’m trying to see if there is any correlation between learning a new language and our biological system.

    If a toddler is adopted by a new family that speaks a different language from his/her biological parent would that automatically trigger brain placticity to occur? If so, what chemical changes happen within the hippocampus? Are their other areas of the brain that are involved in this process as well?

  19. james a. bellanca says:

    It is amazing to read this newsletter and see all the sellers of “brain stuff” claiming to find something new and wonderful-that the brain is plastic, not immutable. The most amazing part is that these folks don’t have any inkling that they are not the pioneers they claim to be. They might humbly go to the work of Israeli cogntive psychologist Reuven Feuerstein who postulated the theory more of structural cognitive modifiability more than 50 years ago in his work with learning impaired children. After they read Feuerstein’s work, they will also see that he doesn’t make the outlandish claims that they do with their miracle products. He knows that after all the work he and his colleagues have done with severely bain damaged children, brain traumatized adults and others, that what specifically works to change the brain is still a very hyypothetical question, not the quick fix answers that many, including people quoted in the newsletter, are selling. Finally, he would suggest that just because a tool (including software)makes the brain change, there is very little hard evidence about how successful they are in promoting learning.

  20. Tracy, cognitive therapy is the brain training modality that has been shown to help patients with depression, so I encourage you to find a good practitioner. You may enjoy my interview with Judith Beck (see under Resources — Interviews with Brain Scientists), which includes links to fascinating studies.

    Tina: plasticity (the ability to change responding to experience) is a property of the brain. Our brain is changing all the time. And, yes, significant environmental changes (such as changing country and language) is going to accelerate some changes due to the need for adaptation. A very interesting area of research is how being bilingual can reduce the probability of developing Alzheimer’s symptoms, presumably via the Cognitive Reserve and the constant frontal lobe “workout” needed to select words in the right language/ inhibit words from the “wrong” language.

    James: you should probably first disclose that you are in the business of selling services based on the theories that you are promoting in your comment.

    Second, and most important, I would encourage you to share the published references of the efficacy of the programs you advocate and seem to be selling. 50 years of practice means, I hope, that some high-quality, randomized, large-scale studies have been performed and results published in the kind of journals we can find in PubMed (from a health/ medicine point of view) or in What Works Clearinghouse (from an education point of view).

    Talking about the theories of one person -no matter how admirable he/ she is-, is not enough justification. Vygotsky and Luria were cognitive/ neuropsych pioneers since the early XX century, yet I hope
    you would like to see some direct evidence of efficacy for any program that claims to be based on their admirable work.

    Finally, I am not sure where you find “quick fixes” in this blog…exactly the opposite of what we are trying to do. As you point out well, tools are just that, tools, not magic solutions.

  21. Gary D says:

    So, an old dog (like me) *can* learn new tricks! This is good news and encouraging.

    Question: why is it that learning a second language is easier when you’re young as compared to when you’re older? And, from your perspective what can be done to make it easier..??

  22. Hello Gary, I suggest you take a look at my interview with neuroscientist Art Kramer on how, indeed, old dogs can learn new tricks…but at a slower pace than when we are younger. Which means, we need more patience, practice, and motivation…perhaps you can combine travel with learning that second language.

  23. spencer lord says:

    doidge’s book is superb. i read it three times.

  24. linda berger MA.Ed says:

    I am on the senior advisory committee at the Jewish
    Community Center, in St. Louis, Missouri. Do you provide information to anyone from the St. louis area?

  25. im a london cabbie, i always suspected i had more power than bus drivers 😉

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