Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


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.


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.


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

This arti­cle is adapt­ed from the book The Sharp­Brains Guide to Brain Fit­ness by Alvaro Fer­nan­dez and Dr. Elkhonon Gold­berg, with Dr. Pas­cale Mich­e­lon.

About SharpBrains

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.

Search in our archives

Follow us and Engage via…

RSS Feed

Watch All Recordings Now (40+ Speakers, 12+ Hours)