We hear a lot about neuroplasticity, the amazing ability our brains have to remodel themselves and create new connections. These are actual structural changes in the brain, and can happen following some form of damage but also with exposure to cognitive demands and the acquisition of new skills.
According to an article in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, studies have found that PTSD and depression are associated with smaller volumes of the hippocampus, which is a key structure involved in memory. Medication and physical exercise can help to promote positive neuroplastic changes.
Learning to promote neuroplasticity
A paper in the American Journal of Psychiatry explains that an approach called cognitive training uses specific learning events to stimulate adaptive neuroplastic changes. It has been used in a variety of psychiatric conditions. In schizophrenia, the targets include perception, working memory, attention, and/or social cognition. In anxiety disorders, the aim is to modify attention biases to threat-related stimuli. In mood disorders, the treatment targets impairments in processing speed and executive function.
Depression has made me stupider. The cognitive symptoms have been persistent and it’s frustrating. I’ve always been a geek and loved learning new things, but it’s gotten a lot harder to shove new things into my brain. Still, I feel like if I don’t at least try to persist in my journey of lifelong learning, my brain will completely turn to jello.
The question is, then, how do we go about exercising our brains? I used to regularly watch webinars related to psychiatry to keep my knowledge; you can find links to some of those sites on my post on where to go for insider knowledge on psychiatry. Lately, I’ve been trying to exercise a little more cognitive muscle by using more references in my blog posts. Google Scholar is a great way to find research abstracts, which tell you the important points without needing to read a whole paper.
Learning apps & websites
There are also lots of sites where you can take online courses for free. Here are some ideas:
Coursera offers courses on a variety of topics from multiple universities. Some are free to take without a completion certificate.
edX offers courses from universities on a range of topics. There is a mix of paid content and content that’s free without a completion certificate.
Future Learn has courses offered by universities on a wide variety of topics. Many short courses are available for free.
Google Digital Garage has short courses on digital marketing
iTunesU is available on iOS and has a wide variety of courses.
The Khan Academy offers free courses at high school-ish level in the arts, sciences, and math.
OpenLearn offers a broad selection of free courses.
Skillshare has courses in business, technology, creative, and lifestyle. Most are paid, but some are free. Anyone can create a Skillshare course.
Udemy is quite similar to Skillshare. Most courses are paid, but some are free.
How do you exercise your brain?
The COVID-19/Mental Health Coping Toolkit page has a wide range of different resources that can help make coping a little easier.