What Is… Neuroplasticity

Neuroplasticity: the brain's ability to make changes to itself in response to conditions & experiences

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week, we’re taking a bit of a detour to look at neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to make changes to itself in response to conditions and experiences, including forming new neuronal connections. This ability is maintained in adulthood, although it’s by far the greatest in childhood.

The developing brain

Synapses are where connections occur between neurons. The newborn brain has about 2500 synapses per neuron in the cerebral cortex part of the brain. Over the next couple of years, those neurons start branching out and making new connections. By 2-3 years old, there are about 15,000 synapses per neuron in the cerebral cortex. That’s about double what’s necessary, and the brain starts to go through the process of synaptic pruning. This gets rid of unneeded connections and strengthens the ones that are actually useful.

How neuroplasticity occurs

Neuroplasticity can allow the brain to recover, at least to some extent, from strokes and traumatic injuries. If there’s sensory system damage, the brain may be able to find a workaround solution or enhance functioning in another sensory system.

There are two broad types of neuroplasticity, structural and functional. It can involve neurons as well as other types of cells in the brain’s support structure.

Structural neuroplasticity can involve the creation of new synaptic connections between nerves. New connections are strengthened through repeated activation, and researchers have suggested that this may be related to an increase in neurotransmitter receptors. It’s not yet clear whether neurogenesis (the creation of new neurons) occurs in adult humans or not; the olfactory bulb and hippocampus have been suggested as regions where this may occur.

Functional neuroplasticity involves the brain reorganizing to use different neural circuits to compensate for a loss of function in a particular area. This can happen through shifting functions over to the other hemisphere of the brain or to circuits that originally served a different purpose.

Potential disruptions

Abnormalities in synaptic pruning have been suggested as having a potential role in the development of autism (in early childhood) and schizophrenia (in the late teens or early 20s).

The balance of neurotransmitter systems appears to play a role in neuroplasticity, in particular the balance between the dopamine and acetylcholine systems. There’s some indication that dopamine dysfunction in psychotic disorders could be linked to disrupted plasticity in the auditory and visual processing areas of the brain.

Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is an important substance in the brain that’s involved in neuroplasticity. Our BDNF levels drop with chronic sleep deprivation. Ketamine, which is sometimes used in treatment-resistant depression, can boost the production of BDNF, and this is thought to be a significant part of ketamine’s effectiveness.

Promoting neuroplasticity

Our brains like stimulation, and novelty, challenge, and focused attention are the key elements that can promote neuroplasticity. Ongoing cognitive enrichment can help with maintaining cognitive functioning later in life.

Physical exercise helps slow age-related atrophy in the brain.

Certain foods and nutrients can have a neuroprotective effect by reducing inflammation. Examples include resveratrol (found in grapes and some berries), cocoa flavonoids, curcumin (found in turmeric), and omega-3 fatty acids. Another beneficial strategy is intermittent fasting, which would involve compressing the whole day’s worth of eating (without restricting calories) into 8 hours and then fasting for 16 hours.

Here are some other things that can enhance neuroplasticity:

  • learning a new language or expanding your vocabulary
  • using your non-dominant hand
  • travelling provides novel stimulation
  • creating artwork
  • reading
  • learning new skills
  • doing puzzles
  • cognitive remediation training
  • mindfulness meditation
  • sleep
  • learning a musical instrument, or even just listening to music
  • love and receiving expressions of love

How do you exercise your brain?

Our brains really are amazing things. So take care of it, and exercise it once in a while. I’ve always been quite learning-oriented, and while depression decreases my cognitive capacity, I still like to pour new things into my head. This blog series has been one good way for me to do that.

What are some of the things you do that are brain-friendly?

NICABM infographic on neuroplasticity
This infographic is from the National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine (NICABM)


The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

Ashley L. Peterson headshot

Ashley L. Peterson


Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.

21 thoughts on “What Is… Neuroplasticity”

  1. I don’t know how it fits with schizophrenia for me. I did take a big hit to my occipital lobe and had double vision for 6 months. I think what helped was concentrating on reading in the sweet spot where my vision was normal. The double vision went away by itself in 6 months but I still have a blind spot to my left side.I also did a lot of guided meditations but I have no way of knowing if it helped.

  2. I’ve neen so interested in this topic for years. I have successfully reprogrammed so much from my trauma brain. Thank you for sharing this my friend, it shines an important light and gives hopeπŸŒ πŸ™β€πŸ˜Š

      1. I sincerely appreciate your recognition of this Ashleyleia. As I always say, it takes a village and we can and do heal together ❀ ✨ You always share such vital information that we in this community need access to😊 and need to see really works! Keep up the good workπŸ™Œ

  3. What are some of the things you do that are brain-friendly? I am a huge fan of all types of puzzles (save the math based ones like Sudoku. Ugh. So not fun for me), I love word scramble type puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, cross words and crypto type word puzzles. I read extensively, although lately my selections have been definitely slanted toward ‘cozy’ mysteries and that isn’t so brain stimulating, I also create graphic artwork on the computer, and I have a painting kit that I need to start using…I meant to open it up this year and do some canvases, but COVID sorta dampened my enthusiasm. I sincerely hope that I continue to stimulate my brain and keep it sharp, I’ve seen dementia and Alzheimers and I’d far rather die thanks. Interesting question today! And great topic too! Thanks!

    1. I used to quite like doing sudoku. I wouldn’t have thought of it as math game; for me, it felt more like the process of narrowing things down in a game of Clue. I’ve always liked crossword puzzles, but I could never figure out how to do the cryptic ones.

  4. It really is fascinating how adaptable our brains can be to certain kinds of injury. Ketamine was one of my favourite recreational drugs, I can totally understand why it might be useful in a therapeutic context for depression. DXM, which is legally available in many countries, had a similar effect for me. Unfortunately I ended up addicted. It’s unwise to mess with drugs outside of a carefully controlled therapeutic context! Videogames are brilliant brain exercise for me, as are books and podcasts.

  5. “foods and nutrients can have a neuroprotective effect by reducing inflammation. Examples include resveretrol (found in grapes and some berries), cocoa flavenoids, curcumin (found in turmeric),”
    Yes: Chocolate!! And learning languages!
    Did I mention chocolate? πŸ™‚
    Ok, sorry, back to writing…

  6. Neuroplasticity is such a great thing! I thought I knew a lot about it but I didn’t know some of the things that you wrote about! I somehow never thought that doing things with your non-dominant hand could make a difference but actually it’s very logical, will have to try it although I doubt the results will be good enough that I’ll stick with it as a regular habit. πŸ˜€
    I’m quite obsessed with brain health since all my brains are very crucial survival and coping tools for me, it’s very much anxiety-driven but it’s also my passion to some degree at the same time.
    I learn new languages and I can see its positive effects on my overall brain functioning, not just merely in the linguistic sphere. I love to learn new words in my native language, or playing with words, playing with language. Since I’ve got my iPhone I’ve been playing a lot of word games but in English, as I haven’t found any quality and accessible ones in Polish so far. As my English vocabulary is much more narrow than Polish and it’s not my native language, I’m quite mediocre at it and not nearly as good as I’m at Polish word games, but I’m quite decent, more than I originally thought I would. Oh yeah, and since I’ve got the iPhone it’s been a major learning curve for me as well! Like you, I also really like to pour new things into my brain, as I have a lot of interests and do a lot of reading I normally don’t even realise how much I do unless I actively think about it like now. I’m happy to say that my brain has always been pretty quick at absorbing and retaining a lot of it, at least theoretical knowledge, practical skills maybe not so much, which has helped me greatly at school as I was never the type of student who would spend hours repeating the material, I usually retained a lot from classes as such.
    I read all the time and listen to music all the time, used to learn to play some instruments but wasn’t very good at it and didn’t enjoy it enough really. But I guess it could have had some indirect effect on my brains’ neuroplasticity because it has shaped my idea of music and improved my perception of it, like I can listen to it more consciously I’d say. I write a lot also in other languages. I exercise my imagination all the time, actually I probably overstrain it so not sure if it’s still good for the brain but at this point I’m so addicted that there’s not much I can do. πŸ˜€
    I do intermittent fasting – not regularly as I don’t feel the need to and it could be counterproductive as I’ve been hovering near underweight most of my life but usually for religious reasons – because I’d like to be able to do full fasting for religious reasons sometimes, but I can’t as it doesn’t really agree with my system. – I don’t know if it has any significant brain benefits for me but it can sometimes oddly boost my mood a little from what I’ve noticed.
    I am not a diet freak but I like to add brain foods to my diet and not eat stuff that is particularly bad for the brain especially if it’s not something that I like very much. I used to drink tea with lemon maybe not very often or all the time but regularly nevertheless, but I’d been hearing more and more often that adding lemon to hot tea could be harmful for your brain and intoxicate it with alluminium. I always really liked tea with lemon and thought of it as a very healthy drink but since then I’ve never had it, if I really want my tea to be a bit sour my Mum always has a huge supply of sodium ascorbate so I add that, but even this is rarely these days because I just don’t miss lemon tea any longer.
    I love to eat nuts and almonds and also olives so I eat a lot of them as they are good for the brains. I also love grapes but don’t have them quite as often, but during the season we have a whole lot of berry fruits (didn’t know they could be particularly helpful with this!) and I drink cocoa regularly since I quit coffee. Curcumin has become a huge thing in our household as well a few years ago.
    I like to sleep a lot and I often do but at the same time I also often do not so I guess the result of it is neutral in the end. Or even more likely negative because somehow I don’t think that constant internal jet lag could be beneficial.

  7. Our brains really are amazing things. Neuroplasticity has always fascinated me, partly because of how it can play into the nature/nurture debate, and partly because of how it shows the continual change and growth possible in the human brain. Of course there’s greater plasticity at a younger age and that’s why they say it’s easier to learn languages if you start as a child or you’re more likely to recover from brain injuries at a younger age. Excellent point on ways to reduce atrophy as we age. My mother does lots of crosswords – she says it keeps her brain flexible even when her knees won’t bend anymore! πŸ˜‚ xx

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