Neuroplasticity - Can You Rewire Your Brain?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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. Try to avoid a life filled with mere routine and repetition. Continually look for stimulating and novel environments and experiences.
- 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.
- 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.
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. 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.
-  Huntington's Outreach Program for Education, at Standford. Neuroplasticity. https://www.stanford.edu/group/hopes/cgi-bin/wordpress/2010/06/neuroplasticity/
-  Neuroplasticity. http://www.sci.sdsu.edu/classes/psychology/psy760/neuroplast.htm
-  Neuroscience for Kids. Brain Plasticity, What Is It?. http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/plast.html
-  Increasebrainpower.com. Quick Brain Exercises. http://www.increasebrainpower.com/brainexercises.html
-  Livestrong.com. Brain Plasticity Exercises. http://www.livestrong.com/article/216213-brain-plasticity-exercises/
- SharpBrains. Brain Exercise and Brain Health FAQs. http://www.sharpbrains.com/blog/2007/04/03/brain-exercise-faqs/
- The Franklin Institute Online - Resources for Science Learning. The Human Brain: Renew - Exercise. http://www.fi.edu/learn/brain/exercise.html