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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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59 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. 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

  4. […] 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 to 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. (Brain Plas­tic­i­ty, 2008) […]

  5. […] our brains are plas­tic and mal­leable. We can learn to hear and form for­eign […]

  6. […] to new ideas pre­vents stag­na­tion. It gives you and your com­pa­ny a com­pet­i­tive advan­tage. And it’s good for your brain. So whether you lis­ten to a pod­cast dur­ing your com­mute or dig in to a sub­stan­tial busi­ness book […]

  7. […] You can lit­er­al­ly “rewire“  your brain to build new neu­ropath­ways and con­nec­tion that will allow you to learn new skills  . […]

  8. […] Brain Plas­tic­i­ty – How Learn­ing Changes Your Brain­Brain Plas­tic­i­ty – How Expe­ri­ences Changes The Brain­What is Neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty? A Psy­chol­o­gist Explain­sHow Neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty Hurts and Helps Your Men­tal Health […]

  9. […] in the hands of men and women who’d use this, and what’s more, share it. It isn’t Brain Plas­tic­i­ty: How learn­ing changes your brain actu­al­ly spicy yet has plen­ty of […]

  10. […] based on our biol­o­gy alone over time. In the last 30 years a more accept­ed the­o­ry called Brain (Neur­al) Plas­tic­i­ty has devel­oped. Plas­tic­i­ty explains that our brains are in fact an accu­mu­la­tion of our […]

  11. Gilmore says:

    We are see­ing cur­rent­ly a lot of break­throughs in the field of neu­ro­science an the fact that the brain can adapt so well and heal itself gives hope in the 5 years we could final­ly take care of demen­tia relat­ed dis­eases.

    • Agreed! Not sure we’ll ful­ly take care of demen­tia in 5 years but we will for sure be much bet­ter equipped to delay the onset and the qual­i­ty-of-life con­se­quences.

      • Gilmore says:

        Things are mov­ing fast in med­i­cine at the moment I believe that we are near a turn­ing point with the pow­er of com­put­ers and how they allow us to sift trough data faster than ever before. So 5 years is a lot of time to see some seri­ous advances in the fight against brain dys­func­tion.

  12. […] turns out; your brain is “plas­tic” — it retains the abil­i­ty to phys­i­cal­ly change in response to the things you learn and […]

  13. […] Brain Plas­tic­i­ty: How Learn­ing Changes Your Brain […]

  14. […] Partes del cere­bro comien­zan a atrofi­arse cuan­do dejas de apren­der algo nue­vo (23). […]

  15. […] Neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty, or brain plas­tic­i­ty, refers to the brain’s abil­i­ty to change through­out life. Through­out life, the brain’s plas­tic­i­ty changes. Stud­ies show that the left infe­ri­or pari­etal cor­tex is larg­er in bilin­gual brains than in mono­lin­gual brains. Anoth­er study on gray mat­ter dis­cov­ered that gray mat­ter (cor­tex) vol­ume was high­est in pro­fes­sion­al musi­cians, inter­me­di­ate in ama­teur musi­cians, and low­est in non-musi­cians. (source) […]

  16. […] But, have you noticed that if you allow the learn­ing curve to stay too flat for too long, you may become a lit­tle bored?  Being inspired and excit­ed by some­thing new is like being on that roller coast­er and fuels the engine of life.  Not to men­tion the pos­i­tive effects learn­ing has on our brains. […]

  17. […] Sci­en­tists believe that when you don’t chal­lenge your brain on a reg­u­lar basis, some parts of it can atro­phy and stop form­ing new con­nec­tions between your brain cells. Thank­ful­ly, we live in the world where infor­ma­tion is not a deficit – so take on a new online-course, or a series of edu­ca­tion­al videos and absorb new knowl­edge! […]

  18. […] the human brain is neu­ro­plas­tic. Mean­ing, it encoun­ters changes by form­ing new sets of neur­al con­nec­tions and delet­ing path­ways […]

  19. […] While it was once thought that con­nec­tions in the brain become fixed as we age, research shows that the brain has the capac­i­ty 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,” says Dr. Pas­cale Mich­e­lon in his 2008 arti­cle Brain Plas­tic­i­ty: How learn­ing changes your brain. […]

  20. […] you lis­ten to music while learn­ing phys­i­cal activ­i­ty it empow­ers the brain by alter­ing its struc­ture. When they stud­ied this, they found that the vol­ume of the cor­tex which […]

  21. […] innu­mer­able choic­es each day. Depend­ing on what we choose, that’s how we evolve. For exam­ple, neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty helps your brain to evolve. (Or not. If, like Rev. Gra­ham, you don’t believe you have much left to […]

  22. […] of more fer­tile growth in anoth­er? Not nec­es­sar­i­ly, say the experts. Our brains are much more plas­tic than we […]

  23. […] cul­ti­va­tion of + fer­tile growth in anoth­er? Not nec­es­sar­i­ly, say the experts. Our brains are much +plas­tic than we real­ized. Orig­i­nal con­tent at: ?-chcentral.com… […]

  24. […] of more fer­tile growth in anoth­er? Not nec­es­sar­i­ly, say the experts. Our brains are much more plas­tic than we […]

  25. […] of more fer­tile growth in anoth­er? Not nec­es­sar­i­ly, say the experts. Our brains are much more plas­tic than we […]

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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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