Neuroplasticity is the change in neural pathways and synapses that occurs due to certain factors, like behavior, environment, or neural processes. During such changes, the brain engages in synaptic pruning, deleting the neural connections that are no longer necessary or useful, and strengthening the necessary ones.
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. Neuroplasticity allows the nerve cells in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment.
Types of Neuroplasticity
There are two types of neuroplasticity, Functional and Structural.
- Functional plasticity: The brain’s ability to move functions from a damaged area of the brain to other undamaged areas.
- Structural plasticity: The brain’s ability to change its physical structure as a result of learning.
How Does Neuroplasticity Work?
Our brains are constantly being shaped by experience. Most of us have very different behaviors and thoughts today than we did 20 years ago. This shift is neuroplasticity in action; changes in brain structure and organization as we experience, learn, and adapt.
With every repetition of a thought or emotion, we reinforce a neural pathway and with each new thought, we begin to create a new way of being. These small changes, frequently enough repeated, lead to changes in how our brains work.
Neuroplasticity is like building up the muscle of the brain. When we use a muscle if gets stronger, and the brain can do this as well. Additionally, what we don’t use fades away. That is the physical basis of why repeating a thought or action increases its power.
Does Neuroplasticity Change With Age?
Neuroplasticity continues throughout life. Connections within the brain are constantly becoming stronger or weaker, depending on what is being used. As we age change doesn’t come as easily; the brain loses some of its plasticity and we become more fixed in how we think, learn, and perceive.
Researchers used to believe that changes in the brain could only take place during infancy and childhood. By early adulthood, it was believed that the brain’s physical structure was mostly permanent. Modern research has demonstrated that the brain continues to create new neural pathways and alter existing ones in order to adapt to new experiences, learn new information, and create new memories.
People used to believe that the brain became fixed after a certain age, newer research has revealed that the brain never stops changing in response to learning. In instances of damage to the brain, such as during a stroke, the areas of the brain associated with certain functions may be damaged. Eventually, healthy parts of the brain may take over those functions and the abilities can be restored.
Has Brain Change Always Occurred?
Brain change has always occurred, but it was once thought to be unchanging because;
- The ancient belief that the brain was much like an extraordinary machine, capable of astonishing things yet incapable of growth and change.
- The observation that people who had suffered serious brain damage were often unable to recover.
- The inability to observe the microscopic activities of the brain played a role in the idea that the brain was relatively fixed.
Characteristics of Neuroplasticity
- Varies by age. While plasticity occurs throughout the lifetime, certain types of changes are more predominant during specific life ages. The brain tends to change a great deal during the early years of life, for example, as the immature brain grows and organizes itself. Generally, young brains tend to be more sensitive and responsive to experiences than much older brains.
- Involves a variety of processes. Plasticity is ongoing throughout life and involves brain cells other than neurons, including glial and vascular cells.
- Can happen for two different reasons. Plasticity can occur as a result of learning, experience, and memory formation, or as a result of damage to the brain.
- Environment plays an essential role in the process. Genetics can also have an influence. The interaction between the environment and genetics also plays a role in shaping the brain’s plasticity.
- Brain plasticity is not always good. Brain changes are often seen as improvements, but this is not always the case. In some instances, the brain might be influenced by psychoactive substances or pathological conditions that can lead to detrimental effects on the brain and behavior.
Orchard at Brookhaven is senior living community in Atlanta that is creating new opportunities to improve brain health. We’ll have more articles to come that will highlight some of these opportunities and provide ways to promote neuroplasticity in your brain. In the meantime, please contact us if you have any questions about our programs or would like to schedule a tour.