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Neurogenesis and Brain Plasticity in Adult Brains

Back in July, I wrote a post enti­tled 10 Brain Tips To Teach and Learn. Those tips apply to stu­dents of any age, includ­ing adults, for ide­al­ly adults are still learn­ers. Why is adult learn­ing rel­e­vant in a brain-focused blog, you may won­der:

The short of it

As we age, our brain:

still forms new brain cells
can change its struc­ture & func­tion
finds pos­i­tive stress can be ben­e­fi­cial; neg­a­tive stress can be detri­men­tal
can thrive on nov­el chal­lenges
needs to be exer­cised, just like our bod­ies

The long of it

Adults may have a ten­den­cy to get set in their ways have been doing it this way for a long time and it works, so why change? Turns out, though, that change can be a way to keep aging brains healthy. At the April Learn­ing & the Brain con­fer­ence, the theme of which was neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty, I attend­ed sev­er­al ses­sions on adult learn­ing. Here’s what the experts are say­ing.

CHANGE and EXERCISE

Accord­ing to Kath­leen Tay­lor & Annalee Lam­ore­aux, under­stand­ing that we have the abil­i­ty to change our men­tal mod­els, also known as epis­te­mo­log­i­cal change (a change in the way of know­ing), will let us open the door to trans­for­ma­tive learn­ing (being will­ing to change and hav­ing an under­stand­ing of how to change). You can down­load the slides from their pre­sen­ta­tion here.

Learn­ing some­thing new out­side our areas of exper­tise:

keeps us fresh, which can add a spark to our teach­ing
reminds us what it is like to be a stu­dent, which can help us empathize with our stu­dents
exer­cis­es our men­tal mus­cles

Cou­ple men­tal exer­cise with phys­i­cal exer­cise, and you can improve gen­er­al cog­ni­tion and boost your cre­ativ­i­ty. Learn more about this from John Ratey’s book Spark: The Rev­o­lu­tion­ary New Sci­ence of Exer­cise and the Brain, which makes a com­pelling case that exer­cise is ben­e­fi­cial for cog­ni­tive health.

NEUROGENESIS

Our brains may be aging, but they are also con­tin­u­ing to devel­op. Neu­ro­ge­n­e­sis is the process of form­ing new brain cells, and unlike what was pre­vi­ous­ly thought, this process con­tin­ues through­out life, as not­ed in this Soci­ety for Neu­ro­science brain brief on Adult Neu­ro­ge­n­e­sis.

PLASTICITY

Neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty refers to the brain’s abil­i­ty to rewire itself. It empow­ers us to:

fix dam­aged areas of our brains (as evi­denced by the work of Edward Taub, Michael Merzenich, and Paul Bach-y-Rita, all men­tioned in Doidge’s book, ref­er­enced below)
con­tin­ue to learn well into old age
alter our behav­ior and per­for­mance over time

Nor­man Doidge writes exten­sive­ly about plas­tic­i­ty in The Brain That Changes Itself: Sto­ries of Per­son­al Tri­umph from the Fron­tiers of Brain Sci­ence, and notes that “brain plas­tic­i­ty occurs in response to the envi­ron­ment, the task at hand, and our thoughts and imag­in­ings. Indeed, “in some cas­es, the faster you can imag­ine some­thing, the faster you can do it.

STRESS and EXERCISE

In his ses­sion on stress and neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty in learn­ing, Bruce McEwen con­curred with Doidge, not­ing that “struc­tur­al plas­tic­i­ty in the adult brain is mod­u­lat­ed by expe­ri­ence. He went on to dis­cuss the impact of stress­ful expe­ri­ences on neu­ronal activ­i­ty, delin­eat­ing three types of stress:

1. pos­i­tive, which con­sists of pos­i­tive chal­lenges

2. tol­er­a­ble, which con­sists of adverse life events cou­pled with good social and emo­tion­al sup­port

3. tox­ic, which con­sists of a sus­tained stress agent and a lack of social and emo­tion­al sup­port Exer­cise, in addi­tion to aid­ing cog­ni­tion, can be ben­e­fi­cial in help­ing the brain and the body man­age stress.

CHALLENGE and NOVELTY

Elkhonon Gold­berg, neu­ro­sci­en­tist and co-founder of Sharp­Brains, dis­cussing Brain Plas­tic­i­ty and Cog­ni­tive Fit­ness, point­ed out that “as we age, our expert knowl­edge remains strong, and our capac­i­ty for solv­ing prob­lems with­in our areas of exper­tise can often exceed that of those who are younger.  He fur­ther employed us to “turn neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty to your advan­tage by:

wel­com­ing nov­el chal­lenges

beware of being on men­tal autopi­lot

remain cog­ni­tive­ly active

Gold­berg elab­o­rates on these points in his lat­est book, The Wis­dom Para­dox: How Your Mind Can Grow Stronger As Your Brain Grows Old­er.

Tak­en in sum, all of these ideas have me imag­in­ing pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment pro­grams where teach­ers are encour­aged to explore avenues out­side of their expert areas. (More on that in a future post!) The com­bi­na­tion of being a men­tal­ly and phys­i­cal­ly active life­long learn­er isn’t just good mod­el­ing for younger brains; its also ben­e­fi­cial for us!

(Next post will con­sist of addi­tion­al resources on these top­ics.)

Laurie BartelsLau­rie Bar­tels writes the Neu­rons Fir­ing blog to cre­ate for her­self the “the grad­u­ate course I’d love to take if it exist­ed as a pro­gram”. She is the K-8 Com­put­er Coor­di­na­tor and Tech­nol­o­gy Train­ing Coor­di­na­tor at Rye Coun­try Day School in Rye, New York. She is also the orga­niz­er of Dig­i­tal Wave annu­al sum­mer pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment, and a fre­quent attendee of Learn­ing & The Brain con­fer­ences.

You will find more relat­ed infor­ma­tion on how to improve con­cen­tra­tion and mem­o­ry by check­ing out these resources:

- Neu­ro­science Inter­view Series: inter­views with over 15 brain sci­en­tists and experts.

- Col­lec­tion of brain teasers and games: atten­tion, mem­o­ry, prob­lem-solv­ing, visu­al, and more.
- Brain Train­ing Games and “Games”: a 10-Ques­tion Check­list on how to eval­u­ate pro­grams that make brain-relat­ed claims.

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6 Responses

  1. Ms. Mize says:

    I like this!

  2. Encefalus says:

    An excel­lent arti­cle. Neu­ro­ge­n­e­sis in the adult brain is a very hot top­ic for all of us adults 😛

  3. Dr.Zhivago says:

    The old school guys, always used to tell me as a Kid, Work hard and Learn, your brain only grows till Age 15, so the more I work, the more Brighter would I become as an Adult.
    Stub­born and Lazy Kid that I was, I least both­ered..
    But now in a com­pet­i­tive world, I would like to have my Mind work­ing twice as faster..
    Thanks to the new research that backs claims of Neu­ro­ge­n­e­sis and Neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty, Has giv­en me moti­va­tion and hope to con­tin­ue devel­op­ing my Brain.
    Great Arti­cle!!
    Lets keep our brains tick­ling!

  4. Alvaro says:

    Glad to see Laurie’s words have such a pos­i­tive effect 🙂

  5. Thanks for sub­mit­ting this post to our blog car­ni­val. We just pub­lished the 38th edi­tion of Brain Blog­ging and your arti­cle was fea­tured!

    Thank you.

    Sin­cere­ly,
    Sha­heen

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