Author: Aishwarya Urala, Research Officer & Psychologist at IIHMR-Bangalore
The new field of cognitive neuroscience which may just enhance the ability of future generations.
Learning and impressions through which we train our brains in young age will have a greater impact on us for the rest of our lives. Our capacity to comprehend and adapt to changing environments depends upon several intrinsic factors such as plasticity and cognitive flexibility which are very much related to the psycho social environment, nutrition, experiences, etc. in our lives
With regards to this, Brighter Minds Program is a cognitive training program for children aiming to improve the child’s capabilities in the fields of focus, observation, memory, empathy etc. IIHMR Bangalore’s ongoing project works in reference to establishing evidence to this domain explaining the usefulness of such approaches for future generations. This project of 7 months will use the bio-psychosocial model to examine the impact of the Brighter Minds Program and will include intervention strategies to get the results engaging children and adolescents; consequently, giving an evaluation of these cognitive and emotional skills and their enhancement.
So, what is brain plasticity? And no, it does not mean that our brain is literally plastic or is it?
Let’s delve into a wee bit of history:
The term neuroplasticity is derived from the Greek word “plastikos” meaning “to form”. (Mundkur, 2005)6. All this is fine, but would you believe it if I told you that our brains are cutting up and rebuilding its neurons at this very moment? Now, we have all heard the famous Hebb’s rule that neurons that fire together wire together. So, what happens is that the neurons and synapses that are activated repeatedly are preserved while those that are not activated are pruned. Early experience has a huge impact on the development of the brain, behavior, learning, and memory. This process of pruning of excessive synapses continues until the age of 16 years (Mundkur, 2005)6. Due to this, there occurs cortical remapping and cellular changes for the brain to attune to new information gaining in upon time (Neuroplasticity | Introduction to Psychology, 2019)7.
Yup, the brain is doing its own sense of stylish revamping while you are reading as such!
Thus, the term “plasticity” was first applied to behavior by William James in The Principles of Psychology as long as in the 1890’s (Green, 1999)3. And the first person to use the term neural plasticity appears to have been the Polish neuroscientist Jerzy Konorski, in 1948 (Warren, 2002)9
And this involves the whole of the brain. I repeat, THE WHOLE BRAIN. Just, imagine the massiveness of this!
Okay, Let’s leave these big words like cortical remapping and cellular changes.
To illustrate plasticity in a simple way, imagine making an impression of a leaf in a lump of clay. Now for this to happen, there must be changes in the clay according to the intricacies of the leaf being pressed into the clay.In the same way, the neural circuitry of the brain must reorganize itself in response to experience and stimulation from the environment. And the level of the shape being exacted into the mold is dependent on various factors like pressure, intensity, type of leaf etc. just as how various factors like nutrition, experiences, dynamics of relationships etc. affect the neural pathway in its development. It is as simple as that. Now, this is no Einstein theory, is it?
So, what is this Neural Plasticity according to neuropsychology in children?
I’ll give you an example.
Sharon Park, a nurse in the United Kingdom was diagnosed with congenital hydrocephalus when she was a baby. The condition is characterized by a build-up of cerebrospinal fluid in the cavities of the brain. Doctors managed to successfully drain the fluid from her brain but the procedure left her with virtually no brain in the middle. Everyone was convinced Sharon would face many difficulties and challenges in her development but what’s surprising is that she turned out just fine with little impairment in short term memory. Thanks to the power of neuroplasticity, Sharon’s brain was able to rewire itself completely allowing her to live a normal life with above average cognitive abilities! (Neuroplasticity | Introduction to Psychology, 2019)7
Let’s delve into some hard-core details now. Now we know for a fact that plasticity of the brain is the brain’s ability to reorganize neural pathways based on new experiences. It is an intrinsic property of the Central Nervous System, reflecting its capacity to respond in a dynamic manner to the environment and experience through modification of the neural circuit. This phenomenon is linked to processes of brain development and function across the lifespan of a person. (Mosch et al., 2005 5; Duffau, 2006 2; Taupin, 2006 8; Kadis et al., 2007 4). Early experiences affect the development of the brain, which provides the foundation for all future learning, behavior, and health. It is during these first few years of life that more than one million neural connections are formed every second! After this period of rapid proliferation, connections are reduced through a process called pruning, which allows brain circuits to become more efficient (Center on the Developing Child, 2007)10.
The brain’s ability to change in response to extrinsic experiences reduces slowly as age advances, and cognitive skills & responses to both intrinsic and extrinsic dynamics are very much formed in early part of the life and bound to prevail as traits throughout the life span (Center on the Developing Child, 2007)10. Sensory pathways & cognitive functions depend upon such plastic connections, but early experiences determine whether the circuits are strong or weak; most of which are formed from natal period to early adolescence. Therefore, home experiences, parent-child relationships, etc in the early part of life prepares a positive change for the rest of the life (Nelson, 2000)1. And yes, this includes cognitive training too! So now you can understand how a child’s brain can cope with even adverse effects quickly than adults – you are looking at a one-word answer – neuroplasticity.
So yes, it’s not something new as such but how are we utilizing this knowledge in the 21st century?
Our understanding of the nature of normal brain development has advanced a long way in the past 30 years but we are just beginning to understand some of the factors that modulate this development.
As told, it was considered as something natural before, which just happens and you cannot do anything about it, but new research shows that there are ways to enhance these set of cognitive abilities and that is by Cognitive Training.
The next blog will be about what cognitive training is and how Brighter Minds is one such unique programme to enhance these set of cognitive skills.
Adios till then!
Nelson, C. (2000). Neural plasticity and human development: the role of early experience in sculpting memory systems. Developmental Science 3(2). 115 – 136. doi: 10.1111/1467-7687.00104.
Duffau H. Brain plasticity: from pathophysiologic mechanisms to therapeutic applications. J Clin Neurosci 2006; 13: 885–97
Green, C. (1999). Classics in the history of psychology. Toronto, Ont.: York University.
Kadis D, Iida K, Kerr E, Logan W, McAndrews M, Ochi A, et al Intrahemispheric reorganization of language in children with medically intractable epilepsy of the left hemisphere. J Int Neuropsychol Soc 2007; 13: 505–16.
Mosch S, Max J, Tranel D. A matched lesion analysis of childhood versus adult-onset brain injury due to unilateral stroke. Cog Behav Neurol 2005; 18: 5–17.
Mundkur, N. (2005). Neuroplasticity in children. The Indian Journal of Pediatrics, 72(10), pp.855-857. doi: 10.1007/bf02731115
Neuroplasticity – Boundless Psychology. (n.d.). Neuroplasticity | Introduction to Psychology. Boundless Learning. Retrieved from https://courses.lumenlearning.com/ivytech-psychology1/chapter/neuroplasticity/ on 1 Feb. 2019.
Taupin P. Adult neurogenesis and neuroplasticity. Restorat Neurol Neurosci 2006; 24: 9–15.
Warren J. (2002). Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 95(7), 373–374. doi: 10.1258/jrsm.95.7.373-a
Center on the Developing Child (2007). The Science of Early Childhood Development (InBrief). Harvard University. Retrieved from www.developingchild.harvard.edu. on 1 Feb. 2019.