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.
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.
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
- learning new skills
- doing puzzles
- cognitive remediation training
- mindfulness meditation
- 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?
- Ackerman, C.E. (2018). What is neuroplasticity? A psychologist explains. PositivePsychology.com.
- Hoiland, E. (n.d.). Brain plasticity: What is it? Neuroscience for Kids.
- Puderbaugh, M., & Emmady, P.D. (2022). Neuroplasticity. Stat Pearls.
- Shaffer, J. (2016). Neuroplasticity and clinical practice: Building brain power for health. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 1118.
- Voss, P., Thomas, M. E., Cisneros-Franco, J. M., & de Villers-Sidani, É. (2017). Dynamic brains and the changing rules of neuroplasticity: Implications for learning and recovery. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 1657.
- Wikipedia: Neuroplasticity
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
BScPharm BSN MPN
Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.