Neuroplasticity, The Ability of the Brain to Change

The 1990s was declared “The Decade of the Brain”. During this period scientists made many interesting discoveries. Research led to an improved understanding of many brain processes such as memory and emotions. Imaging was used to help identify areas of the brain involved in certain functions such as remembering a face to playing a computer game.

One discovery is rewriting the textbooks. It is the realisation that the brain at any age is not ‘set in stone’, but a malleable, “plastic” organ. A flood of discoveries shows the brain continually reorganises itself. It’s called “neuroplasticity.” And it means that you create your brain from the input you get.

Neuroplasticity basically means the brain is able to change and adapt. For example a part of the brain may, from birth, have been designated “the region where sensations on the right pinkie finger register.” But experiences can rezone the brain. We have all learnt a new skill or refined and improved an old skill. Those changes in learning or improving a skill require changes in the nervous system. If we continually activate certain areas of the nervous system (make them work) or certain pathways of communication, the nervous system is smart and it notes the increased use of the pathway and starts taking steps towards making that pathway more efficient. Good example of people’s nervous systems which have been refined to extraordinary levels are people like musicians or sports people. In musicians the area of the brain responsible for processing sound is so finely tuned that they can pick out an off note out of a whole orchestra of instruments. Or what about the gymnast whose co-ordination and balance is so precise that she can do a summersault and land on one leg on a thin beam.

The idea of neuroplasticity really emphasises the impact that our environmental influences have on shaping our nervous system, for the good or the bad. I often say to my patients that genetics load the gun but environment pulls the trigger. This basically means that we have an appreciation that our inherited genetics may predispose us to head down a certain neurological path, but the final destination is largely determined by our environmental influences. Our environmental influences basically involve our lifestyle factors. Contrast the expected brain health of an elderly person who eats well, regularly does cross-words, Sudoku, has a good social network and exercises regularly versus an individual who eats a poor diet, does not do mental or physical exercise and is not socially active. You do not have to be a neuroscientist to know who would have a healthier brain. Do not underestimate your lifestyle habits and the activities or things you do repetitively and the influence they can have on your brain and nervous system.

Neuro-rehab or rehabilitation of the nervous system is built on the concept of neuroplasticity. The brain is like a muscle and the more you use it, the stronger it grows. Neuroplasticity is the reason why people who have suffered a stroke are able to make recoveries or improvements in some or all of their functioning. The brain and nervous system are highly adaptable. Therapies like constraint induced therapy, which involves forcing the stroke survivor to use their affected hand, can be successful because of neuroplasticity. Performing an activity that originally involves the use of damaged areas of the brain forces the brain and nervous system to adapt, and to find a new way of executing the activity. Repetition with the goal to exercise and not exhaust is the key, especially in neuro-rehabilitation related to stroke recovery.