What is neuroplasticity? The power to change your mind

September 29, 2021 - 28 min read

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What is neuroplasticity?

How does neuroplasticity work?

5 benefits of brain plasticity

Key characteristics of brain plasticity

Neuroplasticity and psychology

Does neuroplasticity change with age?

How to rewire your brain with neuroplasticity training

History and research of neuroplasticity

Healing the brain with neuroplasticity after trauma

Neuroplasticity rehabilitation for stroke recovery

How can neuroplasticity help with anxiety and depression?

The power to change your mind

The human brain is one of the most incredible and intricate parts of the human body. In fact, it’s capable of creating more ideas than there are atoms of the universe.

Did you know that the brain changes constantly through a process called neuroplasticity? 

But, what is neuroplasticity?

Through neuroplasticity, the brain is consistently rewiring itself and modifying its connections. It can reorganize itself both in structure and how it functions. 

Without neuroplasticity, we wouldn’t be able to do many of the things that make us human. This includes learning, developing, and forming memories.

So if the brain is malleable, can we rewire it? 

Can we “rewrite” patterns in our brain to improve well-being

Here’s everything you need to know about how neuroplasticity works. Plus, we’ll show you how you can improve your brain’s plasticity.

What is neuroplasticity? 

Let’s start with a plasticity definition.

Neuroplasticity is also known as neural plasticity or brain plasticity. It's the brain’s ability to reorganize and restructure itself on a cellular level.

This reorganization allows our brains to adapt to changes. These changes could come from: 

  • New experiences 
  • Environmental changes
  • Brain damage

Neuroplasticity frees us from responding reflexively because of our genetic hard-wiring. This helps us be adaptive to: 

  • Environmental pressure 
  • Physiological changes 
  • New experiences

How does neuroplasticity work?

The human brain consists of vast networks of neurons. These are the single individual working units of its structure. 

Even the simplest of tasks require millions of interconnected neurons. These neurons function as connectivity networks to accomplish the action at hand.

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The neural network is a unique and specific pattern of neural connections. They fire in equally specific sequences to allow you to accomplish different tasks. 

From raising your hand to playing “Chopsticks” on the piano, they are always working. The ability of the brain to adapt is based on the alteration of existing neural networks. And the generation of new ones.

Psychologists have found that there are two primary types of neuroplasticity: 

  • Functional neuroplasticity. This refers to the permanent structural changes in neural synapses. It's brought on by development and learning.
  • Structural neuroplasticity. This refers to the strength of the connections between neurons and changes to this strength.

Synapses between neurons alter through a process called synaptic pruning. This occurs mostly between early childhood and your mid-20s. 

In this phase of nervous system development, synapses are removed. 

This is the developing brain’s way of maintaining optimal brain function as we grow older and absorb more complex information. It creates room for new growth and removes connections that aren't used often enough.

5 benefits of brain plasticity

Neuroplasticity is beneficial to our cognition in every way. 

It shapes our views of the world and how the brain works. It also impacts our: 

  • Memories
  • Learning abilities 
  • Subconscious beliefs

These are the five significant benefits of improving your brain plasticity.

1. Helps you learn new things

Every time you learn a new skill, you have your neurons to thank for it. 

Activity-dependent neural plasticity is a form of functional and structural plasticity. It comes about due to the use of cognitive function and our personal experiences

Essentially, it’s the biological mechanism for learning and creating new memories.

Repeating an activity and retrieving memories help build stronger connections in the brain. In turn, this allows you to develop new skills over time.

2. Helps with depression

Neuroplasticity deficits are a possible contributor to conditions like anxiety and depression

Studies show that the brains of people with depression indicate problems with plasticity. Plus, many antidepressants are believed to work because they promote neuroplasticity.

Experts suggest that certain lifestyle changes could cause neuroplasticity enhancement. In turn, this could potentially improve the symptoms of depression. These changes include: 

3. Helps you engage in activities more thoughtfully

Mental exercises help create new connections between neurons and generate new brain cells. This develops plasticity. 

It builds a functional reserve to guard against future brain cell loss. It also enables you to engage in activities more thoughtfully and consciously.

All mentally stimulating activities can help boost your brainpower and improve focus. This includes everything from Sudoku puzzles and reading to mindful breathing and math problems. 

You can engage in activities that require manual dexterity. This includes activities like: 

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4. Aids recovery from strokes and other traumatic brain injuries

After suffering a traumatic brain injury, neuroplasticity can help you regain brain function.

A neuroscience study found that task-specific activities promoted stroke patients' recovery. It encouraged increased neurogenesis and neural plasticity.

5. Increases brain volume and memory

Improving your neuronal plasticity also boosts neurogenesis. This is the formation of new cells in your brain. This can boost your brain’s volume considerably. 

A high rate of neural plasticity strengthens the connections between these new neurons. This can further enhance your memory and learning abilities.

Key characteristics of brain plasticity

It was once thought that as we age, our brains’ neural networks become fixed and rigid. But recent research shows that our brains never stop adjusting and changing. 

Younger people are generally more sensitive to changes in their plasticity. But even seniors can learn new things and boost the plasticity of their brains as well.

Our neural connections constantly become stronger or weaker. This depends on which networks we use more frequently. 

If you play an instrument often, you’re likely to become better at playing that instrument. This is due to your constant use of those neural networks.

Likewise, if you were to stop playing your instrument for a while, and you take it up again in a few months, you might find your playing rusty.

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Although neuroplasticity is a promising scientific field, it does have its limitations. Brain plasticity cannot fix everything. Unfortunately, it cannot fix brain damage in severe cases. 

For example, most of the evidence of neuroplasticity is around the cerebral cortex. When this area is damaged, other areas of the brain can often compensate for the loss. 

However, the cortex cannot replicate the functions of more complex brain regions like the hippocampus.

Neuroplasticity is an ongoing process. It’s hindered or promoted by factors like: 

Practices such as neuroplasticity training can promote ongoing brain plasticity. They increase your brain’s formation of strong synapses between neurons.

Neuroplasticity and psychology

Neural plasticity is a crucial element of effective coaching and counseling. 

People who undergo therapy need to learn vital new coping skills to handle life’s challenges. As they do, they build new neural connections that promote lasting emotional regulation and resilience.

As you learn new habits, your synapses will replace the neural pathways that prompted unhealthy behaviors.

Once these synapses are removed, your counseling will rewire your brain. New coping mechanisms that you need to practice to turn into a habit will emerge.

Conditions such as depression and chronic stress have been associated with suppressed neurogenesis. Psychiatry experts believe that promoting this process could reduce their symptoms. It could even prevent the conditions in some cases.

Certain psychiatric medications can also improve neuroplasticity. 

The reasons behind the efficacy of antidepressants were long thought to be a mystery. But today, neuroscientists know that they are at least in part based on brain plasticity

SSRI and SNRI antidepressants often boost neuroplasticity. They may even reverse some of the negative effects inflicted on the brain during a depressive episode.

Often, boosting neuroplasticity can form part of a mental health treatment regime. Brains in the first stages of dementia use neuroplasticity to compensate for rapid cognitive declines. 

Neuroplasticity training exercises can increase the plasticity of the brain. As can physical exercise and mentally challenging activities.

Research shows that doing these activities can help dementia patients and delay their symptoms.

Does neuroplasticity change with age?

As kids, our brains are more capable of change. Children are constantly learning and experiencing new things. This creates extraordinary changes in their brain’s structure.

At birth, a baby’s brain has 100 billion neurons. As the neurons mature, more synapses are made. When we're born, there are 2,500 synapses per neuron. But by age two or three, it’s about 15,000 per neuron. 

That’s more than double the number of synapses of the average adult brain.

This explosion of synapse formation is called synaptogenesis. It plays a crucial part in early brain development.

Neuroplasticity continues to happen throughout our lifetime. But different types of plasticity are more prevalent during certain periods.

There are four main types of neuroplasticity observed in children:

  1. Adaptive plasticity. This happens when children practice a skill or learn new information. It enhances skill development and recovery from brain injury.
  1. Impaired plasticity. This type of neuroplasticity happens due to an acquired or genetic disorder. It’s associated with cognitive impairment.
  1. Excessive plasticity. Also known as maladaptive plasticity, this process involves the reorganization of maladaptive pathways. This can cause disorders or disabilities. The best example of maladaptive plasticity is focal dystonia. It is a rare neurological disorder that involves involuntary spasms in small muscles in the body.
  1. Injury vulnerability plasticity. This type of neuroplasticity involves the formation of harmful pathways in the brain. This makes the brain more vulnerable to injury.

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As we age, the brain starts to remove synapses that it no longer needs. Old connections are deleted through synaptic pruning. This happens when we are about 2 to 3 years old, after the number of synapses reaches a peak level.

Our brain’s plasticity is at its highest during the first 20 years of life. What’s more, we are constantly losing neurons as we age. 

But the adult brain can still create new neuronal connections. Neuroplasticity is not only prevalent in children.

With the right lifestyle, adults can increase their brain’s plasticity.

How to rewire your brain with neuroplasticity training 

Neuroplasticity training includes lifestyle choices that promote the regeneration of nerve cells. With regular practice, it helps to improve: 

Let’s look at five ways you can promote neuroplasticity.

1. Utilize brain games

Brain training exercises create targeted mental stimulation and activation. This reorganizes the connections between neurons and improves brain plasticity.

A study found that younger adults who enjoyed brain training games had better executive function. They also had improved memory, self-control, and brain-processing speed than their peers.

Another study found that adults over 60 using computerized cognitive games improved their memory. These training programs also improved their executive function and processing speeds. 

Nowadays, you can easily use apps like CogniFit and BrainHQ for mental stimulation.

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2. Rest when you need to

Sleep restores the strength of the synapses between your neurons. When you rest, your brain restores performance by refining your cortical plasticity. 

Enjoying enough quality, uninterrupted sleep every night can change how your brain works.

A good night’s rest helps to create lasting memories. It also generates synapses to store skills and information that you learned in the day. 

Keep in mind that there are other types of rest beyond sleeping, all of which have their own benefits for your well-being.

3. Exercise regularly

Research shows that daily exercise is essential for focus, concentration, and mood. It’s recommended that you get in 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week. 

Studies show that exercise improves neuroplasticity by altering the structure of brain synapses. This includes those in the hippocampus, which governs memory and learning.

Exercise boosts the density and size of cortical neurons. This can benefit: 

  • Attention 
  • Perception
  • Memory 

There's even some evidence that it can delay Alzheimer's disease.

Physical activity also helps to decrease inflammation and improve your quality of sleep. Both of which are factors that can impact your cognitive function.

4. Adopt a healthy diet

Nutrition plays a role in so many areas of our lives, and it’s important for brain health too. You can promote neuroplasticity by eating a healthful, anti-inflammatory diet. This should include plenty of essential antioxidants and brain-fuelling omega-3 fats.

Improving the health of your gut microbiome can also promote neuroplasticity. 

Eat unprocessed foods with prebiotic fibers to feed the good bacteria in your gut. Consider adding fermented foods such as kimchi to your daily menu.

5. Connect with others

Positive social experiences prime our neural connections to make meaningful connections with others. 

The more we make an effort to connect with and care for others, the stronger these impulses will become. And the more naturally we'll find ourselves gravitating toward our peers.

History and research of neuroplasticity

Let’s take a look at both early and modern theories surrounding the concept of neuroplasticity.

Early theories

The idea that the brain is not fixed was first proposed by William James in 1890. Later in the early 1900s, the father of neuroscience, Santiago Ramón y Cajal, used the term ‘neuronal plasticity.’ This referred to non-pathological changes in the structure of adult human brains.

In 1923, Karl Lashley performed experiments on rhesus monkeys. He noted changes in their neural pathways, which he believed was evidence of plasticity. 

Then in 1945, Justo Gonzalo theorized that the central cortical mass was a ‘maneuvering mass.’ It could reorganize its functions with its neuroplastic properties.

Modern theories

One of the key founders of the modern field of neuroplasticity was Dr. Michael Merzenich. In the early 1970s, Merzenich conducted experiments to prove that the brain was fixed. He tried to prove that the brain was not capable of structural or functional change.

Interestingly, he proved his own theories incorrect. He discovered that the brain and its neurons are plastic. Lost skills stored in damaged tissue could be relearned in other parts of the brain.

Merzenich also found that the human brain has a ‘cortical map’ of the physical parts of the body. If one map was deprived of its information inputs, it could become active again in the future if other maps close to it were stimulated.

Merzenich suggested that neuroplasticity could happen beyond developmental periods and into adulthood. 

In a study with Clinton Woosley, Merzenich tried to observe what happened in the brain when one peripheral nerve was severed and then regenerated. The pair micro-mapped the hand maps of monkeys’ brains before and after severing the nerves and reattaching them. 

They found that the brain maps could normalize their structure, even in response to abnormal inputs. This proved that the brain had to be plastic in order to reach this degree in compensation.

Merzenich was awarded the 2016 Kavli Prize in Neuroscience for his work in discovering adult brain plasticity.

Healing the brain with neuroplasticity after trauma

People with varying degrees of brain trauma can recover full functionality thanks to neuroplasticity. Based on research published in Translational Research in Traumatic Brain Injury, the brain goes through three main phases of neuroplasticity after experiencing trauma:

Phase 1

Directly after the injury, neurons start to die. Cortical inhibitory pathways are decreased. This initial phase lasts 24–48 hours. 

It may stimulate secondary pathways that had rarely been used before the trauma.

Phase 2

The second phase takes place a few days after the trauma. The activity of these cortical pathways changes from inhibitory to excitatory.

New synapses are created. Neurons and other brain cells replace the damaged cells to facilitate healing.

Phase 3

The final phase takes place after a few weeks. The new synapses continue to be generated to remodel the brain.

During this phase, therapy and rehabilitation can help the brain learn new neural pathways. This allows for the brain to reduce the effects of the trauma.

There are several medical treatments in development that encourage neuroplasticity after brain injury. There are also therapies involving stem cells and gene expression being studied for their potential to treat trauma.

Neuroplasticity rehabilitation for stroke recovery

A stroke causes damage by cutting off the flow of blood to certain parts of the brain. This deprives the brain of oxygen and essential nutrients. 

Depending on the severity of the stroke, volumes of brain cells may die. Brain volume may be reduced, and dysfunction may occur as a result. The recovery process after a stroke relies on the brain’s ability to heal itself.

The brain works around the dead brain cells. It attempts to build other neural pathways to compensate for lost function. 

Physical, occupational, and speech therapies are all designed to promote neuroplasticity. They encourage the brain to overcome any mental and physical deficits. 

It’s important to begin the rehabilitation process as soon as possible after a stroke. This will make use of the brain’s natural increase in neural plasticity after the trauma.

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Stroke victims can promote recovery by participating in therapies that:

  • Focus on massed practice. This is the consistent repetition of a movement or skill that promotes fast learning.
  • Include physical exercises and therapies to improve patient mobility and strength.
  • Reteach them the skills they will need to go about their daily lives. This includes standing up, basic personal hygiene, simple cooking, and communication skills.
  • Include speech therapies. This will enable patients to practice their language skills while stimulating their brains.

How can neuroplasticity help with anxiety and depression? 

Depression and anxiety have both been linked to a decrease in neural plasticity in the brain. 

Modern therapies are aimed at encouraging neuroplasticity. This is so that patients can learn valuable coping skills for life’s many challenges.

Neuropsychiatry’s understanding of neuroplasticity can be summed up as follows: 

Our daily behaviors can have remarkable effects on the structures of our brains. Anxiety and depression can, at least to a degree, be "unlearned." Their tendencies can be replaced with more constructive pathways through professional neural training.

COVID-19 PTSD is set to become a significant public health concern in the future. Prolonged exposure to stress and anxiety can lead to PTSD. But therapies focusing on promoting neural plasticity may induce positive plasticity. 

This could help combat these conditions before they have a chance to develop into a disorder.

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Simple neuroplasticity exercises can all promote neural plasticity. These include: 

  • Regular exercise 
  • Healthy diet 
  • Connecting with your loved ones 

They also help reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Experts recommend activities like learning a new language or skill. You could also perform a manual motor activity like painting or building a model. Or you can try playing brain-training games to promote neuroplasticity training.

The power to change your mind 

Neuroplasticity and synaptic plasticity are intrinsic in every facet of our lives. Our brains are constantly performing synaptic pruning and making new neural connections. This is true regardless of what we happen to be doing at any given time. Or even whether we are awake or asleep. 

Improving your brain’s plasticity will sharpen your memory,  concentration, and cognitive skills. Plus, it can help you address depression and anxiety. It may even promote healing in the case of adult brain trauma or injury.

BetterUp Coaches can help you understand the amazing ability of your brain to constantly learn. Coaching can guide you with how to put plasticity to work to your advantage to change behaviors and show up at your best. Use your brain’s innate healing abilities to perform better and unlock more of your human potential.

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Published September 29, 2021

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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