Brain Plasticity And Mental Health

Up until around the 1970s it was widely accepted that throughout adulthood our nervous system was fixed, meaning it was impossible for new neurons to develop after birth. However, a new theory of brain plasticity, also called neuroplasticity, has become he current accepted theory of how our brain ages.

So, what is brain plasticity? The broad definition is it is the lifelong ability of the brain to reorganize neural pathways based on new experiences. Basically, we continually acquire new knowledge and skills throughout our lives. In order for us to learn a new skill or fact our brain must undergo a functional change. When the brain changes to learn new things, which is brain plasticity.

One great example of how neuroplasticity works is to imagine making a footprint in a pile of snow. In order for your footprint to appear in the snow, a change must occur in the snow. The shape of the snow changes as you press your foot into the snow. The same situation occurs in your brain. Your neural circuitry reorganizes in response to experiences.

Plasticity plays a role in learning and memory. What research over the last two decades has proven is that there are two types of modifications that occur in the brain during learning. First, there is a change in the internal structure of neurons, primarily in the area of synapses. Second, there is an increase in the number of synapses between neurons.

While brain plasticity occurs throughout your entire life, there are actually different types of plasticity that occur during certain periods. One type of plasticity will be more relevant during one period of your life and will be less prevalent during another period.

There are two main conditions that neuroplasticity occurs in the brain. First, there is developmental and learning and memory plasticity. These occur during normal brain development when your brain is first beginning to process sensory information. Second, there is an adaptive plasticity that occurs to work for lost function or to maximize the remaining functions of the brain in the event of brain injury.

Finally, it is interesting to note that genetics are not the only factor that influences the brain. The environment that an individual is in shapes the brain. Also, an individual’s actions in that environment also play a role in brain plasticity.

Brain plasticity, or neuroplasticity, is a truly remarkable concept that has taken off in the last three decades as the agreed upon theory as to how our brain changes over time. It is an interesting concept and one that I hope you have enjoyed learning about.
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