Neuroplasticity: Our Ever Changing Brain

I talk with clients all the time about neuroplasticity and realized that I haven’t explicitly written about it in my newsletters. So, this month is devoted to this constantly evolving concept and field.

What is Neuroplasticity?

Pedro Mateos-Aparicio and Rodriguez-Marino define Neuroplasticity as “the ability of neural networks in the brain to change through growth and reorganization. It is when the brain is rewired to function in some way that differs from how it previously functioned.”  In other words, neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change and adapt as a result of experience.

History of Neuroplasticity

The concept of neuroplasticity was initially introduced in the early 1900’s, however, it wasn’t until the 1960’s that it became more widely understood and used.  Prior to that it was believed that we were born with a finite number of brain cells and that, no matter what we did, they would decline throughout adulthood into old age.  

We now know that our brain can reorganize neural pathways and create new neural connections throughout our lives.  This has had a tremendous impact on therapeutic methods for treating anxiety and depression and our understanding of and implementation of recovery options for conditions like stroke and traumatic brain injuries.   

Types of Neuroplasticity:

  • Functional plasticity means that the brain can shift a function from one area of the brain that’s become damaged to another area that isn’t damaged. Studies of people who have had strokes causing damage in one brain area were able to regain lost abilities as other areas of the brain took on the same functions as the damaged area.
  • Structural plasticity means that the brain can change its physical structure as a result of learning. This includes the generation of new neurons and other brain cells, and connections between and among neurons. The structural changes in the brain are influenced by the behaviors we engage in, and, the environment that we live, works, and play in. 

The phrase, “what fires together wires together” has become a popular way of saying that neural pathways that are used more often become stronger and those that are used less become weaker and may eventually die off. 

Two excellent articles, “What is Neuroplasticity” by Kendra Cherry and “What is Neuroplasticity” by Courtney Ackerman, M.A., provide additional history about neuroplasticity, its benefits and methods to promote it.  The top ways suggested to enhance neuroplasticity are:

  • Engaging in new environments or activities that keep the mind active
    • this could include travel, learning a new instrument or language, dancing, creating art, or using your non-dominant hand for activities
  • Doing memory training
    • There are many on-line programs and games for improving memory and cognitive functioning. Go to Verywellmind.com for an excellent list 
  • This last article also suggests that engaging very regularly in the above activities, in addition to enhancing neuroplasticity, can be helpful in dealing with anxiety and depression
  • Exercise, nutrition and sleep

There are many excellent books about neuroplasticity now and these are among the most recommended:

There is also an excellent 5 part series available on Amazon Prime Video or Apple TV called Neuroscience: Understanding the Brain for those who prefer a video experience.

In terms of relating this concept to Neurofeedback, when the nervous system is over activated or under activated it means that neural pathways have developed and strengthened over time that have become stuck in this pattern.  During a NeurOptimal® session, the feedback acts like a mirror to the brain and nervous system, allowing it to “see” that it’s out of balance. Based on this information, the brain starts to reset itself and to gradually develop and strengthen new neural pathways that allow for more optimal functioning.  When the nervous system is more in balance, sleep, memory, focus, mood, emotional resilience and our capacity to manage everyday stresses significantly improves.

This article has just touched the surface of neuroplasticity and I hope it tweaks your curiosity to learn more!