Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Neurons That Fire Together, Wire Together: The New Science of Neuroplasticity

Throughout your life, as you grow and learn, the neural circuits (“wiring”) in your brain change and adapt to novelty and variation in your environment, relationships and experiences. Scientists refer to the ability of the human brain to alter itself in response to a person’s needs, as they evolve over time, as Neuroplasticity.
“Neuro” means “related to the brain,” and “plasticity” means “adaptability” or “flexibility.”
What does this mean for you?

The Two Types of Neuroplasticity:

Medical scientists have categorized brain plasticity into two main types:
  • Functional plasticity refers to your brain’s ability (once damaged, say, in an auto accident) to rewire itself, so that it can process functions like speech or body movement in undamaged areas [1].
  • Structural plasticity refers to the brain’s ability to alter its physical structure in response to learning new information, skills or habits [2].


Practice Makes Perfect

Look back to a time when you worked hard to learn a new skill, such as a musical instrument or a foreign language. As you will recall, your new abilities developed and improved in accordance with your level of focus, and the time you put into practice. Eventually, as you repeated your efforts, new neural pathways began to form within your brain.
At the same time, your brain was also doing a little “synaptic pruning” as it eliminated pathways it no longer needed. For example, as you learn a new language, your knowledge of your native language probably also improved, and pathways corresponding to improper usage of your native tongue were re-purposed. If, afterwards, you did not practice your new language skills on an ongoing basis, they were gradually “pruned” and you forgot them.

Taking a New Look at an Old Belief Of course, you will have heard the tired old adage “You can’t teach old dogs new tricks!” Until very recently, everyone thought this was true. Scientists now know that the human brain, which consists of approximately 100 billion neural cells, with trillions of interconnections, can, in fact, generate new pathways—and even new neurons. The old model assumed that you were pretty much stuck with the neurons, pathways and brain you were born with, and that, when a cell died, no new cell grew in its place. We know now that certain areas of your brain can generate new cells, in a process called neurogenesis, as well as generating new neural pathways [3]. In fact, the brain can grow as many as 1,400 new cells in a single day! 


The phenomenon of neuroplasticity has thrilling potential applications in the optimization of human emotional states and behavior. For example, even though the neural pathways in a person with a history of anxiety are “wired” for anxiety, we now know they can be “rewired” for more serenity in the face of life’s challenges. As people learn and practice new tools and habits to help them feel calm and centered, the brain prunes away their “anxiety pathways” for lack of use.
The old question of the dynamic tension between nature and nurture (environment versus genetics) is no longer relevant, as our understanding of the interplay that goes on between a person’s outer world and DNA throughout life, improves. As scientists around the world learn more about neuroplasticity, we become more and more capable of overcoming the limits of our biology to create our own destiny.


No comments:

Post a comment