Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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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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