The Changing Brain - Neuroplasticity
What is Neuroplasticity?
The ability of the brain to adapt, modify and rewire its connections is referred to as brain plasticity – or Neuroplasticity. ‘Neuro’ refers to brain cells and ‘plastic’ refers to the brain’s ability to change and mould itself in different ways. This special characteristic allows the human brain to transform and develop itself in response to different inputs and experiences throughout our lives.
History of Neuroplasticity
Prior to the 1960s, it was firmly believed that the brain’s ability to change was only possible for a short period following birth and once adulthood was reached, the brain’s physical structure could not undergo any further changes. However, advancements in brain imaging technology has allowed scientists to observe the finer details of the brain’s inner workings. This increased the popularity of the study of neuroscience as researchers found evidence that the brain is capable of making considerable changes throughout our lifetime, allowing us to create and store memories, learn new information and even recover from brain injury.
How Neuroplasticity Works
The human brain is made up of billions of brain cells also known as neurons. These neurons form a multitude of connections in the brain allowing information to pass in all directions at high speeds. Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to reorganize these connections on both a structural and functional level in order to form new pathways. The brain can literally change its physical structure to create new networks of connections between neurons in order to perform a particular task. On the other hand, functional plasticity is the brain's ability to reassign functions to different areas of the brain in response to brain injury or loss of function.
The process of learning strengthens the brain similar to the way exercising strengthens our muscles. When we learn or experience something new, our brain cells are stimulated through various physical and sensory inputs. These repeated stimulations cause our brain cells to fire signals through existing connections but also develop new connections and in the process. Learning a language is an example of a complex process that causes the brain regions involved to grow and become stronger. When learning to speak a new language, our brain receives inputs in the form of sounds, tones and words. As we practice and repeatedly expose our brain to these inputs, we build new connections and enhance the corresponding areas of our brain. Similarly, there are significant structural differences that can be observed in the brains of musicians compared to those that never learned to play a musical instrument.
Recovery from Brain Injury
When damage occurs in the brain such as in the instance of stroke or traumatic brain injury, certain functions and abilities can be lost. For many years, it was believed that recovery from brain injury was not possible as an adult. Although neuroplasticity cannot be utilized to revive dead brain tissue, it allows the brain to compensate for damage to a particular area by rebuilding connections and rerouting signals through other undamaged areas of the brain. As such, neuroplasticity plays a large role in the successes observed in many cognitive and physical rehabilitation programs following brain injury.
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Kleim, J.A., Neural plasticity and neurorehabilitation: Teaching the new brain old tricks. Journal of Communication Disorders. 2011.