What Is Neuroplasticity?

The pursuit of modern science and technology to understand the human brain is stronger than it has ever been before. As a result, a hot topic in today’s research is a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity. But what exactly is neuroplasticity and what are the implications it offers in our personal lives?

Let’s take a look…

Neuroplasticity and The Brain

What is neuroplasticity?

Neuroplasticity is the innate biological capacity of neurons and neural networks (state-associated groups of neurons) to change their connections and functionality in response to new information, development, sensory stimulation, or damage [1]. Neuroplasticity allows the neurons within your brain to adjust the way in which they behave in response to repetitive experience or to changes in their environment. As a result, it allows us to reshape the way in which we behave, think, and remember. In simple terms, neuroplasticity is the neurobiological process of learning.

How does neuroplasticity work?

One of the earliest explanations of neuroplasticity was made by Donald Hebb in 1949, who pioneered the idea that electrochemical activity affects the building and strengthening of connections between neurons [2]. Hebb proposed that the port of communication between two neurons, which is a small gap called a synapse, strengthens over time as the two neurons fire simultaneously. He dubbed this biological characteristic synaptic plasticity. Today, Hebb’s Law is easily remembered as “neurons that fire together, wire together.”

Whether we are learning a new skill, practicing towards mastery, or even thinking repetitive thoughts, neurons that fire together in synchronous patterns will begin to form neural circuits and strengthen the communication within that circuit the more we engage it. Both conscious learning, such as learning a new language, as well as subconscious learning, such as learning the face of your new coworker, prompt the brain to detect recognizable patterns in the environment and incorporate them into its physical architecture. In this regard, neuronal plasticity is considered to be the cellular mechanism of short- and long-term memory.

The Science of Neuroplasticity

So, what exactly occurs in the brain that allows these connections to strengthen? The answer lies in the port of communication between two neurons: the synapse.

Communication within the brain is carried out via electrochemical activity [3]. When neuron A delivers a message to neuron B, an electrical signal called a nerve impulse travels down the presynaptic neuron (A) and crosses over the synapse in the form of chemical messengers called neurotransmitters. Like a key into a lock, neurotransmitters bind to receptors embedded in the postsynaptic (B) membrane allowing charged ions such as sodium (Na+) and potassium (K+) to flow into the neuron. As positive charges within the cell begin to rise (depolarization) an action potential is reached and on the next nerve impulse goes. This repetitive activity is the process by which signals propagate throughout the entire nervous system.

One example of neuroplasticity was illustrated in a recent study of taxi drivers in London, who showed an increase in gray matter volume in the anterior hippocampus (a region associated with spatial navigation) as a result of acquiring detailed knowledge of the city (Maguire et al., 2006).  In this example, the neurons that fired together wired together producing more brain volume as well as denser connections within this region.  Another study published in 2014 shows that smartphone users have an enhanced thumb sensory representation in the brain (Gindrat, et al.). The level of brain activity was found to be directly proportional to the amount and intensity of smartphone use, and touchscreen users showed a higher response to tactile stimulation of the fingertips compared to nonusers. In this way, touchscreen use reorganizes the representation of fingertips in the brain.

The Importance of Neuroplasticity

So, why is this process important? Neuroplasticity is the muscle building mechanism within our nervous system that allows us to continually learn and grow throughout our entire lives. Thoughts and behavior we engage in often grow stronger, while those we no longer engage in weaken. It is essential for the healthy development of brain circuits, and slowly carves out the unique architecture of those circuits that make us individuals. Of most importance, neuroplasticity allows us to adapt and evolve of our own volition.

Neuroplasticity enables people to recover from stroke, injury, and birth abnormalities, overcome autism, ADD and ADHD, learning disabilities and other brain deficits, pull out of depression and addictions, and reverse obsessive compulsive patterns.  

Neurofeedback offers a way of encouraging the process of neuroplasticity to enable healthy changes in neural patterns.  More on this topic to come!

 


[1] Pokorný, J. (1996). Mechanisms of neuroplasticity. Ceskoslovenska fysiologie, 45(1), 21-28.

[2] Hebb, D. O. (1949). The organization of behavior: A neurophysiological approach.

[3] Rao, V. R., & Finkbeiner, S. (2007). NMDA and AMPA receptors: old channels, new tricks. Trends in neurosciences, 30(6), 284-291.

[4] Eleanor A. Maguire, E., Woollett, K., and Spiers, H. (2006). London Taxi Drivers and Bus Drivers: A Structural MRI and Neuropsychological Analysis. Hippocampus, (16), 1091–1101.

 

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