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Change is a Choice: Nurture brain plasticity (part 2)


Jeevitha Ramesh


A brain injury, like a stroke, can happen to anyone.


During the stroke, the areas of the brain related to certain functions could be damaged. For example, when a stroke affects an individual's temporal lobe, he can experience issues with communication. Scary, right? But the good news is that, eventually, healthy parts of the brain take over those functions and the abilities of damaged regions!


How do you think it is restored? What do we scientifically call the brain’s ability to move functions from damaged to undamaged areas?


To know the answer, you should read Part 1 of this blog: What is brain plasticity and why is it important?


Found the answer?


Yes! It's called Functional Plasticity. The previous blog deals with the basics of brain plasticity/ neuroplasticity, its function, and types with simple examples.







Now, in our current blog let’s understand the benefits of brain plasticity, ways to improve it, and discuss some limitations of brain plasticity.


We are all aware that human brains are extraordinary, unlike robots, built according to certain specifications and periodically receive software updates. Our brain can receive hardware updates in addition to software updates in a split of a second!


Wondering how?

It is by creating new neural pathways! Different neural pathways are created every day, exciting pathways may go dormant, or even get discarded, according to our experiences and new learning.


When we learn something new, our brain creates new connections between its cells (neurons). With new situations and circumstances, our brains rewire and adapt to them. This happens daily, but most importantly it is also something that we can encourage and stimulate.


Several studies by neuroscientists like Kempermann and Vemuri in the past decade

helped us know the ways that neuroplasticity benefits the brain. In our last blog, we read that neuroplasticity allows our brain to adapt and change.


This characteristic of our brain with the help of neuroplasticity supports us in learning new things very effectively, be it a new language or to drive. This happens because neuroplasticity increases and strengthens the connection between the neurons and helps in information exchange between them. By this our cognitive capabilities such as attention, memory, and reasoning also get strengthened. Neuroplasticity helps the brain recover from events like strokes and traumatic injuries by helping brain cells rewire and re-establish the neural connections in response to damage, for example, functional plasticity.


From the information given above, it is clear that neuroplasticity is one of the most important abilities of our brains. Overall, it helps in improving our cognitive capacity, learning, and recovery from brain damage. The neural generation by neuroplasticity also helps in keeping our brain fit.


Now, understanding all the basics of neuroplasticity and its benefits, let us address the most important question: how to improve brain plasticity?

We can follow many proven methods and practices to strengthen and facilitate neuroplasticity. Let's dive in and see what they are.


A Study in 2017 showed that one’s environment profoundly impacts brain plasticity. fMRI imaging showed increased activity in the hippocampus region (involved in learning and memory) of individuals involved in brain games (sudoku), painting, and playing a musical instrument. A rich learning environment aided the hippocampus region to work very effectively. Which also positively influenced overall brain health, behavioural and cognitive performances.


So, we can say that enriching our environment with activities such as learning a new language or playing an instrument, travelling and exploring new places, creating art, and other creative goals can boost introspection, memory, empathy, attention, and focus. These stimulate positive changes in the brain. This is highly significant during childhood and adolescence; nevertheless, the learning environment can provide brain rewards in adulthood as well.


The next important practice to improve plasticity is to get good sleep. A study conducted by Neurologist Nguyen in 2016 showed that getting good sleep helps improve dendritic growth and its connection in our brain (dendrites help to transmit information from one neuron to another). This will encourage greater brain plasticity. Sleep also has important effects on our physical and mental health (you can visit our blog on Sleep and Brain).


How can we forget the importance of regular exercise when it comes to the brain and plasticity? Following and being involved in regular physical activity has several brain benefits. A research study (2011) by the neuroscience department at Cambridge University infers that exercise might prevent neuron losses in critical areas of the brain, such as the hippocampus (responsible for memory). Further, aerobic exercise is also said to play a role in neurogenesis (generation of new neurons) in the brain’s hippocampal region.


Other ways of improving brain plasticity include travelling and exposing our brains to novel stimuli and places. Keeping our non-dominant hands active by exercises helps form new neural pathways and strengthen the connectivity between neurons. Further, including activities like dancing can increase neural connectivity and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s. Altogether, these activities help improve plasticity by activating neurons and opening up new pathways in the brain.


Moving on, we can't deny that all good things have a bit of a limitation. So does neuroplasticity. The human brain is not infinitely malleable. A few regions of our brain are particularly responsible for specific functions and actions. For example, there are areas of the brain that play critical roles in things such as movement (motor cortex), language (Wernicke's area), speech (Broca's), and cognition (prefrontal area). Injury to these areas causes lasting damage because other regions of the brain simply cannot fully take over those affected by the damage. Hence, neuroplasticity also has a limited capacity to replace critical areas and functions.


This series of two blogs helped us understand a very vast and complicated topic of brain plasticity! We learned about brain plasticity, how the concept evolved, its types and characteristics, the benefits, limitations, and ways to improve it.


I hope you’ve enjoyed this very brief journey through the topic of neuroplasticity!



“Any man could, if he were so inclined, be the sculptor of his brain.”

-Santiago Ramón y Cajal





References



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  • Li W, Ma L, Yang G, Gan WB. REM sleep selectively prunes and maintains new synapses in development and learning. Nat Neurosci. 2017;20(3):427-437. doi:10.1038/nn.4479

  • Liu PZ, Nusslock R. Exercise-mediated neurogenesis in the hippocampus via BDNF. Front Neurosci. 2018;12:52. doi:10.3389/fnins.2018.00052

  • Voss P, Thomas ME, Cisneros-Franco JM, de Villers-Sidani É. Dynamic brains and the changing rules of neuroplasticity: implications for learning and recovery. Front Psychol. 2017;8:1657. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01657

  • Ball, K. K., Berch, D. B., Helmers, K. F., Jobe, J. B., Leveck, M. D., Mariske, M., …, & Willis, S. L. (2002). JAMA 288, 2271-2281. PMID: 12425704

  • Campbell, C. (2009). What is neuroplasticity? BrainLine. Retrieved from https://www.brainline.org/author/celeste-campbell/qa/what-neuroplasticity

  • Joo, E. Y., Kim, H., Suh, S., & Hong, S. B. (2014). Hippocampal substructural vulnerability to sleep disturbance and cognitive impairment in patients with chronic primary insomnia: Magnetic resonance imaging morphometry. Sleep, 37, 1189-1198.

  • Kempermann, G., Gast, D., & Gage, F. H. (2002). Neuroplasticity in old age: Sustained fivefold induction of hippocampal neurogenesis by long-term environmental enrichment. Annals of Neurology, 52, 135-143.

  • Nguyen, T. (2016). 10 proven ways to grow your brain: Neurogenesis and neuroplasticity. HuffPost Blog. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/thai-nguyen/10-proven-ways-to-grow-yo_b_10374730.html

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