1. Definition – what is neuroplasticity?
2. Neural Networks
4. Rewire Your Brain
5. Teach an Old Dog New Tricks
6. Start small
1. What is neuroplasticity?
Neuroplasticity means that your brain can change. “Neuro” is nerves or the nervous system. “Plastic” is moldable or able to be shaped and the “-ity” suffix translates to quality state or degree. Put it all together and you have an electro chemical lump of clay that you get to form. You are not stuck with the brain you were born with! You can improve it, mold it, shape it and learn to become the person you want to be with consistent thoughts, activities and habits over time thanks to neuroplasticity.
Benefits of neuroplasticity
- Learn a new skill at any age
- Reduce Stress
- Improve quality of life
- Achieve life goals
- Improve emotional stability
- Improve relationships
- Improve outlook on life
- Improve professional career
(Photo credit: BrainTap Technologies on Twitter)
(Photo credit: Biology Dictionary)
Neuron: Nerve cell. The three main types of neurons are motor neurons, sensory neurons and interneurons.
- Motor neurons: motion or movement
- Sensory neurons: sight, smell, sound, taste, touch
- Interneurons: connect sensory and motor
Dendrite: the branches of the tree, or the “fingers.”
- Receive signals “signal transduction” like fingers receive sensory information from the external environment.
- Also called “receptor” or “sensor”
Axon: the “arm” of the neuron. Axons carry signals away from the cell body to receptors all over the body. Axons’ length varies from micrometers to over a meter.
Soma: cell body or “the hand” connects to the fingers and the arm. Receives input from the dendrites and sends signals via axons.
Synapse: the junction or space between where communication occurs between neurons.
- Electrical: “abundant in the developing central nervous system (CNS)
- Chemical: “the most abundant type of synapse in the mature nervous system.” (3)
Neurotransmitter: “chemical agents that act as messengers between communicating neurons” (2)
Glial Cells or Glia: named after the Greek word for “glue” although it is now understood that glia do not adhere nerve cells together. Glia support neurons in their electrical signaling abilities.
Neurons communicate across spaces or synapses via electrical and chemical signal to perform tasks. (1) The process called synaptic transmission occurs when information is passed across the synapse from the presynaptic cell to the postsynaptic cell (3).
In order for this to happen, the action potential must be activated. Action potentials are an all or nothing process. The neuron’s threshold must be met in order to activate an action potential. Like a light switch, it’s either on or off – no in between. If you only flip the switch half-way nothing happens. “Action potentials communicate with target organs, such as muscle.”
Neurons have ion channels that allow ions to flow across plasma membranes. generating electrical signals. Potassium (K+) and Sodium (Na+) are two ions inherent in nerve cells. Each neuron has variable levels of permeability to K+ and Na+.
Your brain has 86 billion neurons that connect to create complex neural circuits. First a neuron is born. Then the cell must differentiate into the axon and the dendrite. Once these polarized ends are formed, synapse selection begins. Synapses are either stabilized or eliminated affecting the overall neural circuit. The brain’s neural structure is influenced by input it receives from synaptic connections and external experiences.
The brain’s wiring depends on a number of factors. Events and actions shape our brains and our brain shapes our actions. Many studies have repeatedly demonstrated how neural networks adapt to injury, lack of use or novel stimulation. This is powerful knowledge allows us to intentionally shape our brains with our habits. The more often a behavior is repeated, the easier it is to repeat. If we don’t like a certain habit then we can change our behavior by changing our neural circuitry.
Neurons that fire together wire together, Donald Hebb’s concept was neatly summarized by neuroscientist Carla Shatz. And neurons that fire less and less eventually atrophy.
If you have ever learned to drive a car, initially it can be overwhelming. Driving or any new skill requires a multitude of neuronal activity. Remembering to buckle up, adjust the mirrors, maneuvering the vehicle, maintaining the speed limit, recognizing road signs, conversation or the radio in the car. There is a synaptic growth period followed by synaptic pruning where excess neurons are dismantled. Over time, synaptic stabilization occurs over time. As you become experienced, you’re able to perform the same task more efficiently with less effort.
According to The Brain That Changes Itself, “Everything your ‘immaterial’ mind imagines leaves material traces. Each thought alters the physical state of your brain synapses at a microscopic level.”
Nobel Prize winner Santiago Ramon y Cajal, the father of neuroscience was unable to prove that neurons regenerate due to lack of technology before his death in 1934. Almost 70 years later in 1998 neuronal stem cells were discovered in the hippocampus. (4) And it is now known that neurogenesis or rebirth of brain cells occurs in our brains for the entirely of our lives.
We are interested in long-term synaptic plasticity. Experience, mindset, genetics all play critical roles in shaping our brains.
rewire your brain
Barbara Arrowsmith Young, a girl who suffered from severe learning disabilities was able to earn her masters degree with focused brain training. She founded the Arrowsmith School and Arrowsmith Program to help children with learning disabilities.
Read her book: The Woman Who Changed Her Brain
Remember, plasticity is a process. Change takes time, just like getting into shape, saving money or learning a new skill. Adding a few healthy habits into your life will give you significant improvements in time without shocking your system. Practice plus consistency equals lasting change.
Make the effort to pay attention. Don’ worry if it doesn’t happen right away; it will. Remember trust the process. Initially your mere intention will do.
activities to rewire your brain
- Learn a new language
- Learn to write with your non-dominant hand
- Learn to dance
- Learn to play an instrument
- Take a speed reading course
- Create – paint, sculpt, draw, write, sing
- Eat fruits and veggies
- Drink water
- Get sun
teach an old dog new tricks
Over the last 30 years, Neuroscience has discovered that neuroplasticity can help rewire brains of all ages, not just the young. Why does this matter? If you’ve every that that it just wasn’t in the cards for you, now you can reconsider your prior position. Neuroscience has shown neurogenesis or new neuron creation and connection in agin brains. They continue to create new neurons so that it can be learned.
Many recent discoveries have altered our beliefs about the brain over the last 30 years. It was “common knowledge” that the brain could learn and grow mostly as a child especially before puberty. It was accepted that as an adult, the brain was set in its ways. Now it is well understood that the brain can be changed by a number of factors such as environment, experience, intention, focus and habits at all ages.
Learning a language a skill, dancing, reading – we think that deterioration is part of aging but this is a false premise – we can learn and regenerate our entire lives – and become better with age like a fine wine – you have to decide to continue to challenge yourself.
Your brain evolves with you throughout your entire life. Why do we think we stop learning as we age? Part of it may be that when we are young we are learning in school. It’s whats expected of us.
Expectation, grow up, get married, get a job, family – and we are no longer learning at the same rate as when we were in school, high school and university. this is why it’s vital to continue the learning process as we age. as an adult we have experienced how thing get easier with time and practice and become accustomed to the ease and the gym. often times we don’t like to to voluntarily throw a wrench in the mix to learn something hard – plus were busy – with life, work, staying in shape – who has time to study so we don’t. we do what we need to do to juggle and be successful at our lives. but by studying a new subject – take a new course – we continue to develop our mind – it doesn’t have to be a college course it can be public speaking, dancing, learning a new language, improving memorization skills, training for a marathon, learning to paint- learning to play chess, – the wonderful thing about our world is that we can learn about whatever we like – so pick a topic and learn. traveling and learning about each new destination.
easier said than done
Rewiring your brain is easier said than done. It takes deliberate, focused and consistent attention to your thoughts, emotions, behaviors and habits. The first step in neuroplasticity is becoming aware of your current thought processes. This can be difficult at first. Most things are initially challenging but get easier with time or we become more proficient with practice. This is where one of my favorite mantras comes from: “It’s hard until it’s easy.”
You don’t have to experience a traumatic brain injury or TBI in order to benefit from neuroplasticity. In fact we are all shaping our brains every day from the food we eat, the movies we watch, social media, the news, friends we talk to, physical activity level, hobbies. Every thought, emotion and action helps to shape our brains and create pathways. We are not beholden to our brains. We can choose how we want to shape our brains by our habits, daily activities, attitude, relationships.
If we can improve just one percent every day for one year, then we will be 365% better by the end of the year. Pick a goal that’s easy for you to do. Say you want to read more. If you read 10 minutes a day, every day for one year, you’ll have read up to about 12 books (200-300 page books) that year.
Working on these small things right now may not seem to matter but when you look back and connect the dots you see that every step was necessary. Your actions paved the pathway which isn’t always apparent until you take a look behind you to see how far you’ve come.
(2) Neuroscience 6th Edition, p.86
(3) Neuroscience 6th Edition, p. G-30
(4) The Brain That Changes Itself, p. 249