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Neuroplasticity - Can You Rewire Your Brain?

Updated on August 7, 2012
Artist's conception of a neuron. Neuroplasty is the ability of the brain to create new connections between neurons.
Artist's conception of a neuron. Neuroplasty is the ability of the brain to create new connections between neurons. | Source

During the first few years of life, the human brain experiences astonishing growth. Both the number of neurons in the brain and the number of connections between those neurons increases at a phenomenal rate. By about age five, the basic neural network is in place, but the ability to learn continues to remain strong into the teenage years.[7]

It was once believed that when this developmental period was over, the brain essentially became fixed. No new neurons were created, and the network of connections between neurons was complete as well. Even worse, it was known that as we age, many of the connections between neurons are lost due to chemical changes in the brain and simple lack of use. Not pleasing thoughts as we grow older.

Recent discoveries, however, are encouraging. We now know that the brain continues to respond to stimulus by adjusting connections between neurons, and even creating new connections, throughout a person's lifetime. Research even suggests that the brain may actually continue to create new neurons during adulthood, as well.[1]

Brain Plasticity

The ability of the brain to "rewire" itself in response to new stimuli is known as neuroplasticity, or simply brain plasticity. Studies have shown that when a person loses the use of one sense (through reasons other than brain damage), the area of the brain formerly devoted to that sense often becomes available for use by another sense, enhancing the auditory capabilities of a blind person, for example. Another example of brain plasticity is seen in musicians, where the area of the brain related to hand movement often shows greater than normal development.[2]

Repairing Brain Damage

When injury or disease damages the brain, control over certain functions such as vision, speech, or motor function may be lost. Studies reveal that this functionality is often at least partially regained in rats when control of lost functionality is shifted to undamaged parts of the brain. The same seems to be true of humans, although to a lesser degree.[3]

Research in this area shows promise in terms of treating people who have suffered brain damage. Physical therapy and medications which stimulate synapses into making new connections are encouraging, as are experimental treatments such as Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), where changes in the magnetic field around the head are used to stimulate specific areas of the brain.[1]

Brain Fitness

The results being achieved through physical therapy, drugs and techniques such as TMS in rewiring injured brains are exciting, but are there things we can do on our own that will stimulate brain plasticity, and help offset the effects of stress and normal aging?

First, you need to understand that neuroplasticity is still very much an area of ongoing research, rather than a set of well-established facts. The research does seem to indicate, however, that retaining and utilizing our brain's ability to create new connections is something we can - and should - strive to do throughout our lifetimes. Tips from the experts include:

  1. Use your brain: "use it or lose it" is only common sense. Mental activity stimulates the brain to make new neural connections. Read, do crossword puzzles or sudoku, learn a new language - anything to keep your brain stimulated. It's also important to seek variety in your mental activities. Don't just do crossword puzzles, for example. They engage specific areas of the brain, but you want to stimulate as many different areas of your brain as possible.
  2. Look for connections: when you discover or learn something new, try to think of all the ways it may relate to things you already know. How does the article you're reading relate to your job, hobby, things you've done in the past, or people you know? This not only stimulates the creation of new neural connections, but it helps you remember the new information, as well.[4]
  3. Mix things up: do things differently than usual. Use your non-dominant hand to do things. Change your routine - drive to work a different way, shop at a different supermarket, etc.[5] Try to avoid a life filled with mere routine and repetition. Continually look for stimulating and novel environments and experiences.[6]
  4. Physical activity: whatever helps the body helps the brain. Exercise and good nutrition are vital in keeping your brain healthy and plastic. Walking improves memory, concentration and reasoning, and running has been shown to increase the number of brain cells in mice.[7]
  5. Learn new skills: learning to perform an activity with a physical component stimulates plasticity as much as mental activity. Do things you've never done before, such as dance or yoga. Activities requiring hand-to-eye coordination, such as playing a musical instrument, painting, and doing home repairs are especially good.[7]

PBS Explorer Collection: Brain Fitness 1
PBS Explorer Collection: Brain Fitness 1

Collection includes 4 episodes produced for PBS: Brain Fitness: Peak Performance, The Brain Fitness Program, Brain Fitness Frontiers, and Brain Fitness2: Sight and Sound.

 

Pay Attention

Studies show that attention is an important factor in brain plasticity. When a new activity becomes a mindless one - something you do on autopilot, without really paying attention to it - it loses its brain-building benefits.[2] One way of dealing with this is to increase the intensity or complexity of an activity as it becomes more familiar, another is to constantly be on the lookout for new and exciting things to try.

References

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    • entconsult profile image

      entconsult 8 months ago from Los Angeles, California

      Excellent article. Seniors tend to lose certain senses. Best to work to learn odors to stimulate the stem cells in the olfactory area. Work to learn to recognize your clothes by feel. Then go to stores and identify materials by feel before you see the label. Memorize shopping lists by making up outlandish and creative pictures: Marshmallows raining on carrot field that is smeared with honey.

      See a date movie. Now rewrite that movie taking place in 1700, in Nazi Germany, etc. Humor is anti-aging. Spend time seeking out good jokes and send them to friends.

      All these help develop more brain connections and new brain connections are anti-aging.

    • the rawspirit profile image

      Robert Morgan 2 years ago from Hutchinson Island, FL - Myrtle Beach, SC - Scottsdale AZ

      Great article. The brain truly is an amazing thing. Thanks for the well-researched article.

    • Doc Sonic profile image
      Author

      Glen Nunes 5 years ago from Cape Cod, Massachusetts

      K9, we've learned so much about the brain. I remember learning in school (many moons ago) that the brain stopped developing when we reach adulthood, and there was nothing we could do about it. Fortunately, we know so much more now, and are learning more all the time.

      CWanamaker, that's an amazing story about your relative. I've heard of similar stories, where people with brain injuries were doing things doctors had thought would be impossible. It's exciting to think about what the future holds in this area.

      nifwlseirff, an example of what you're speaking of is multiple sclerosis. It used to be thought of as an infammatory disease, but is now thought to be neurodegenerative in nature, especially the non-inflammatory primary progressive variety, which is what I have. The other varieties probably are, as well, but the flare-ups and accompanying inflammation are what have received most of the attention in those cases. Many believe that neurodegeneration probably preceeds the flare-ups, but not much research has been done in that area.

      cardelean, you're right - it's up to us to take care of ourselves, including our brains. It can seem like a nuisance sometimes, but if we don't, we could one day discover that we've waited too long!

      Thanks all for the great comments!

    • cardelean profile image

      cardelean 5 years ago from Michigan

      Wow, what an informative hub! The brain is so fascinating! The old saying use it or lose it is very fitting here. It is so important to keep our entire bodies active, including our brains, throughout our lives. Great information!

    • nifwlseirff profile image

      Kymberly Fergusson 5 years ago from Villingen Schwenningen, Germany

      Researchers are discovering that a number of other common pain conditions, once thought to be muscle/inflammation related, are either caused by or affect the brain's neural pathways (chicken and egg?)

      It's both amazing and reassuring how well the brain works around damaged sections, and that such simple tasks as puzzles, using the non-dominant hand, leaning new skills an exercising can help.

    • CWanamaker profile image

      CWanamaker 5 years ago from Arizona

      A relative of mine suffered a traumatic brain injury years ago and the recovery process has been amazing to watch. Even with a piece of his brain missing, he has regained about 75% of everything he lost so far. While he may not ever reach 100% recovery, the doctors' say that the therapy is re-training the brain to use new neurons to operate the muscles. The brain truly is an amazing thing. Thanks for the well-researched article. It was a really good read.

    • K9keystrokes profile image

      India Arnold 5 years ago from Northern, California

      What a fantastic amount of research information we find here! Glen, this has so many great tidbits for helping to improve our brain's plasticity that I can almost feel the increased synapse! I have heard that reading is a great way to keep the brain in good shape, but your added information on rewiring the brain is new and exciting to me. Thanks for another wonderful piece of work to keep us limber in body, as well as mind. Good stuff!

      HubHugs~

    • Doc Sonic profile image
      Author

      Glen Nunes 5 years ago from Cape Cod, Massachusetts

      Daisy, thanks for the encouraging comments. As someone with a neurodegenerative disorder, this topic is of great interest to me, and I hope my coverage does justice to the subject.

    • Daisy Mariposa profile image

      Daisy Mariposa 5 years ago from Orange County (Southern California)

      Glen,

      Thanks for publishing this well-researched thought-provoking Hub. I especially enjoy reading articles in which I learn something knew.

      I've read about doing puzzles and physical exercise to stimulate one's brain. I gained so much more from your article.