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Neuroplasticity: the potential for lifelong brain development

dIn the past decade there has been a fun­da­men­tal change in our under­stand­ing of human brain capac­i­ty. New research has giv­en a renewed, pos­i­tive view of the human brain and its poten­tial for change and devel­op­ment through­out life.

The human brain is now con­sid­ered to be a high­ly dynam­ic and con­stant­ly reor­ga­niz­ing sys­tem capa­ble of being shaped and reshaped across an entire lifes­pan. It is believed that every expe­ri­ence alters the brain’s orga­ni­za­tion at some lev­el. The key words in this new approach to the brain are neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty and neu­ro­ge­n­e­sis. Neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty refers to the life­long capac­i­ty of the brain to change and rewire itself in response to the stim­u­la­tion of learn­ing and expe­ri­ence. Neu­ro­ge­n­e­sis is the abil­i­ty to cre­ate new neu­rons and con­nec­tions between neu­rons through­out a life­time. The lat­ter process is also referred to as synap­to­ge­n­e­sis. Neu­ro­sci­en­tists often tend to dis­tin­guish between œneu­ro­ge­n­e­sis and synap­to­ge­n­e­sis, but for rea­sons of sim­plic­i­ty we will refer to both with a com­bined term neu­ro­ge­n­e­sis. This new par­a­digm con­trasts with tra­di­tion­al ideas of the human brain being a fixed and essen­tial­ly lim­it­ed sys­tem that only degrades with age.

As we age, the rate of change in the brain, or neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty, declines but does not come to a halt. In addi­tion, we now know that new neu­rons can appear in cer­tain parts of the brain up until the day we die.

Brain plas­tic­i­ty is the abil­i­ty that brain train­ing takes advan­tages of to try to slow down the aging process. Brain plas­tic­i­ty is also cru­cial fol­low­ing head injury. It is the one brain’s abil­i­ty that allows recov­ery.

Recent­ly, brain changes as a result of cog­ni­tive activ­i­ty have been observed direct­ly in the brain thanks to brain imaging.Evidence of neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty has been observed most­ly in the brains of indi­vid­u­als who became experts in a par­tic­u­lar skill. Why? Because changes asso­ci­at­ed with learn­ing occur mas­sive­ly when we become expert in a spe­cif­ic domain. The areas of the brain that sup­port the skills at which one has become an expert change over time.

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Evi­dence of Brain plas­tic­i­ty

An intrigu­ing study showed that Lon­don taxi dri­vers have a larg­er hip­pocam­pus (in the tem­po­ral lobe) than Lon­don bus dri­vers (Maguire, Wool­lett, & Spiers, 2006). This is explained by the fact that the hip­pocam­pus is impor­tant for form­ing and access­ing com­plex mem­o­ries, includ­ing spa­tial mem­o­ries nec­es­sary to nav­i­gate effi­cient­ly. Taxi dri­vers have to nav­i­gate around Lon­don where­as bus dri­vers fol­low a lim­it­ed set of routes. Thus the hip­pocam­pus of taxi dri­ver is par­tic­u­lar­ly stim­u­lat­ed and gets to change over time.

Plas­tic­i­ty can also be observed in the brains of bilin­guals (Mechel­li et al., 2004). It looks like learn­ing a sec­ond lan­guage is asso­ci­at­ed with struc­tur­al 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 1h per day) to ama­teur musi­cians and non-musi­cians. They found that in sev­er­al brain areas involved in play­ing music (motor regions, ante­ri­or supe­ri­or pari­etal areas and infe­ri­or tem­po­ral areas) the vol­ume of cor­tex was high­est in pro­fes­sion­al musi­cians, inter­me­di­ate in ama­teur musi­cians, and low­est in non-musi­cians!

A recent study showed that one does not need to become an expert to exhib­it signs of neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty. In 2006, Dra­gan­s­ki and his col­leagues imaged the brains of Ger­man med­ical stu­dents 3 months before their med­ical exam and right after the exam. They com­pared the brains of these stu­dents to the brains of stu­dents who were not study­ing for exam at this time. Med­ical stu­dents’ brains showed changes in regions of the pari­etal cor­tex as well as in the pos­te­ri­or hip­pocam­pus. As you can guess, these regions of the brains are known to be involved in mem­o­ry and learn­ing. This shows one more time that changes in the brain occur fol­low­ing the expe­ri­ence of learn­ing.

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Q and A about Brain plas­tic­i­ty

Q: Can hor­mones change my brain?

A: It seems that the brain reacts to its hor­mon­al milieu with struc­tur­al mod­i­fi­ca­tions. Read more: Can the pill change women’s brains.

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: Does learn­ing news things change my brain?

A: Yes it does: Learn how by read­ing how learn­ing changes your brain.

Q: Where can I find more infor­ma­tion?

A: Read the answers to 15 com­mon ques­tions about neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty and brain fit­ness
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This arti­cle is adapt­ed from the book The Sharp­Brains Guide to Brain Fit­ness by Alvaro Fer­nan­dez and Dr. Elkhonon Gold­berg, with Dr. Pas­cale Mich­e­lon.

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