What is Neuroplasticity? A Psychologist Explains [+ 14 Brain Plasticity Exercises]

Last Updated on February 8, 2019Sharing is caring.Tweet Our brains are truly amazing, aren’t they? Have you ever watched one of those specials on someone who experienced amazing, unexpected recovery after a traumatic brain injury, stroke, or other brain damage? Some of those stories seem like the only explanation is magic! Although it certainly seems inexplicable, scientists have been hard at work studying exactly these cases over the last several decades, and have found the explanation behind the magic: neuroplasticity. This article contains: What is the Meaning of Neuroplasticity? A Brief History of Neuroplasticity The Theory and Principles of Neuroplasticity Neuroplasticity and Psychology Neuroplasticity and Learning Does Neuroplasticity Change with Age? Research and Studies on Neuroplasticity 7 Benefits Neuroplasticity Has on the Brain How to Rewire Your Brain with Neuroplasticity Healing the Brain with Neuroplasticity After Trauma Neuroplasticity Rehabilitation for Stroke Recovery How can Neuroplasticity Help with Depression? Using Neuroplasticity to Help with Anxiety Chronic Pain and Neuroplasticity Neuroplasticity Therapy for ADHD, OCD, and Autism The Role of Mindfulness in Neuroplasticity How Music Changes the Brain Do Online Games and Apps Really Work? The Sentis Brain Animation Series TED Talks and YouTube Videos on Neuroplasticity 9 Recommended Books on Neuroplasticity 9 Quotes on Neuroplasticity A Take Home Message References What is the Meaning of Neuroplasticity? Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to adapt. Or, as Dr. Campbell puts it: “It refers to the physiological changes in the brain that happen as the result of our interactions with our environment. From the time the brain begins to develop in utero until the day we die, the connections among the cells in our brains reorganize in response to our changing needs. This dynamic process allows us to learn from and adapt to different experiences.” – Celeste Campbell (n.d.). Our brains are truly extraordinary; unlike computers, which are built to certain specifications and receive software updates periodically, our brains can actually receive hardware updates in addition to software updates. Different pathways form and fall dormant, are created and are discarded, according to our experiences. When we learn something new, we create new connections between our neurons. We rewire our brains to adapt to new circumstances. This happens on a daily basis, but it’s also something that we can encourage and stimulate.   A Brief History of Neuroplasticity The term “neuroplasticity” was first used by Polish neuroscientist Jerzy Konorski in 1948 to describe observed changes in neuronal structure (neurons are the cells that make up our brains)—although it wasn’t widely used until the 1960s—but the idea goes back even farther (Demarin, Morović, & Béne, 2014). The “father of neuroscience,” Santiago Ramón y Cajal, talked about “neuronal plasticity” in the early 1900s (Fuchs & Flügge, 2014). He recognized that, in contrast to current belief at that time, brains could indeed change after a person had reached adulthood. In the 1960s, it was discovered that neurons could “reorganize” after a traumatic event. Further research found that stress can change not only the functions but also the structure of the brain itself (Fuchs & Flügge, 2014). In the late 1990s, researchers found that stress can actually kill brain cells—although these conclusions are still not completely certain. For many decades, it was thought that the brain was a “nonrenewable organ,” that brain cells are bestowed in a finite amount and they slowly die as we age, whether we attempt to keep them around or not. As Ramón y Cajal said, “In adult centers the nerve paths are something fixed, ended, immutable. Everything may die, nothing may be regenerated” (as cited in Fuchs & Flügge, 2014). This research found that there are other ways for brain cells to die, other ways for them to adapt and reconnect, and perhaps even ways for them to regrow or replenish. This is what’s known as “neurogenesis.” Neuroplasticity vs. Neurogenesis Although related, neuroplasticity and neurogenesis are two different concepts. Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to form new connections and pathways and change how its circuits are wired; neurogenesis is the even more amazing ability of the brain to grow new neurons (Bergland, 2017). You can see how neurogenesis is the more exciting concept. It’s one thing to work with what we already have, but the potential to actually replace neurons that have died may open up new frontiers in the treatment and prevention of dementia, recovery from traumatic brain injuries, and other areas we probably haven’t even thought of.   The Theory and Principles of Neuroplasticity Before we get too ahead of ourselves though, let’s take a moment to look at the theory and principles underpinning neuroplasticity. First, we should note that, although we gave a fairly succinct definition of neuroplasticity above, the reality is a bit less well-defined. Neuroplasticity experts Christopher A. Shaw and Jill C. McEachern describe it this way: “While many neuroscientists use the word neuroplasticity as an umbrella term, it means different things to researchers in different subfields… In brief, a mutually agreed upon framework does not appear to exist” (2001). Shaw and McEachern write that there are two main perspectives on neuroplasticity: Neuroplasticity is one fundamental process that describes any change in final neural activity or behavioral response. Neuroplasticity is an umbrella term for a vast collection of different brain change and adaptation phenomena.   The first perspective lends itself to a single theory of neuroplasticity with some basic principles, and that research on the subject would contribute to a single, all-inclusive framework of neuroplasticity. The second perspective would require numerous different frameworks and systems to understand each phenomenon. Unfortunately, there is still no unifying theory of neuroplasticity that I can lay out in simple terms here. All I can say with certainty is that this is still a young field and new findings are popping up every day. What we do know right now is that there are two main types of neuroplasticity: Structural neuroplasticity, in which the strength of the connections between neurons (or synapses) changes. Functional neuroplasticity, which describes the permanent changes in … Continue reading What is Neuroplasticity? A Psychologist Explains [+ 14 Brain Plasticity Exercises]