It may seem that every year brings a shiny new term or word that captivates the masses. A few years ago, “neuroplasticity” sauntered into the club. It’s not a marketing buzz term but a real characteristic of Homo sapiens.
The resource Psychology Today defines neuroplasticity as “the capacity of nerve cells to biologically adapt to circumstances—to respond to stimulation by generating new tendrils of connection (synapses) to other nerve cells, and to respond to deprivation and excess stress by weakening connections.”
In hyperbolic parlance, it’s basically the ability to “grow a new brain.” Your brain is not a stagnant organ that simply creates/stores memory, thinks, and commands movements. It is a dynamic hub that is constantly working and leading the adaptation of the organism through its life.
Yes, you can improve your brain’s structure and function, allowing for you to learn more effectively; meaning, yes, you can teach an old dog new tricks. It’s based on the Hebbian Theory, developed in the 1949 by behavioral scientist Donald Hebb. Hebbian Theory states essentially that when you learn or encounter something new, your brain’s neurons fluidly adapt to processes required to fully absorb that new information. According to one source, Hebbian Theory of learning is explained, “How neurons operate and link together creates a trend that begins the skill-building process within the brain. When they fire, then they tend to be wired together in some way. Through the Hebbian theory, that wiring is described as a process of causality. Many neurons will fire simultaneously during the learning process.”
In 1992, researchers Lowel and Singer distilled the Hebbian Theory as follows: “Cells that fire together, wire together.” The newly wired connections form engrams, which are patterns of learning; these patterns then evolve into knowledge.
Neuroplasticity is a larger form of Hebbian’s Theory and encompasses more ways the brain adapts and changes, conforms to the individual’s environment and processes a barrage of incoming information from the five senses. “Neuro” refers to nerves, nerve cells, while “plasticity” describes the brain’s nature of being modifiable, flexible, adaptable.
Neuroplasticity is like having your own natural superpower. Think about it (and if you do, there’s your superpower in action!): it enables recovery from stroke, to sidestep learning disabilities by learning in new more comfortable ways, to overcome addictions and behavioral depressions, as well as to master skills. If neuroplasticity has a key characteristic, it is resilience. Neuroplasticity enables the modification of change dysfunctional cognitive behavior patterns through overriding old mindsets with new ones.
Molecularly, neuroplasticity involves many specific proteins (e.g., receptors, enzymes, and more), that participate in coordinated and interacting metabolic and signaling activities, which form a basis for brain plasticity, according to a published paper.
Challenges to neuroplasticity include aging, situational depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. When these conditions are present, there is a drop in synapses and interruptions to synaptic activity.
Inflammation is also a disruptor of fluid neuroplasticity. According to one researcher, “Inflammation, a well-known adaptive process, becomes nonbeneficial when proinflammatory cytokines, together with other mediators of inflammation, are excessively accumulated. Neuroinflammation, affecting neuronal plasticity, is a common key link in the pathogenesis of virtually all known neurological and mind diseases.”
Another team of researchers point out that many illnesses increase production of pro-inflammatory cytokines that impair neuronal structure and function leading to reduced neuroplasticity via restricting BDNF.
There are several interesting ways to maintain and improve neuroplasticity. Overall, remember that stagnation is the enemy (it also launches the slide down into slothfulness and creates pathological boredom).
Aerobic exercise (cardio) is known to help improve neuroplasticity by accelerating release of brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), which stimulates increased neuroconnectivity. According to one team of researchers, “Aerobic fitness spares age-related loss of brain tissue during aging, and enhances functional aspects of higher order regions involved in the control of cognition.”
A review of studies linking neuroplasticity and exercise suggests that evidence shows physical exercise can stimulate processes that facilitate neuroplasticity. One study shows that in 92 older individuals, walking every day can increase/restore volume in the hippocampus, the area of the brain devoted to learning and memory.
Another review concluded that “Activity-dependent neuroplasticity is also inducible by regimens of exercises and therapies with instances in human studies proving major successes.”
This review also found neuroplasticity can be benefitted by technological advances that induce synaptogenesis, neurogenesis and clearance of toxic amyloid beta and tau protein aggregates (materials that damage the brain).
Of course, dietary patterns play a role as well. According to one research team, nutritional psychiatry is a growing field with mounting evidence demonstrating viability of nutrient-dense plant-heavy diets in providing clinically meaningful management of mental wellness.
The conventional Western diet has been fingered as a culprit in the development of numerous imbalances and diseases, and is also an enemy of neuroplasticity. Adding a probiotic to a diet may help regenerate neuroplasticity from years of a poor diet, according to one study. In this murine study, subjects that were given high doses of the probiotic VSL#3 and consumed a typical cafeteria diet showed lower diet-induced memory deficits than those that didn’t consume the probiotic. Another team of researchers also discussed links between gut microbiota damage with brain disorders, and supporting gut microbiota balance is considered as a possible strategy for treatment for cognitive decline.
Indeed, researchers emphasized, “The microbiota–gut–brain diet axis is a promising target that could be modified via dietary and nutraceutical intervention, such as prebiotics (e.g. high-fibre foods and supplements) and probiotics (e.g. fermented foods or supplements) directly targeting microbial populations.”
One mineral, magnesium, has also been shown in several studies to promote desirable neuroplasticity. In one murine study subjects that consumed magnesium exhibited greater synaptic plasticity as well as an increase in number of synaptic connections.
Other dietary supplements and nutrients shown to have positive impacts on neuroplasticity include choline (which produces acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter necessary for neuronal health), curcumin/turmeric, and omega 3 EFAs (DHA and EPA).
On another note – did you know that olfactory performance (sense of smell) diminishes as neuroplasticity does during aging? According to one source, the olfactory system is one of the most plastic in the brain. In one study, researchers investigated the effects of a 6-week olfactory training program on olfactory function and brain structure/neuroplasticity in 36 participants divided into three groups including control (no training). Results showed that those participants who underwent olfactory training improved general olfactory function compared to control participants, and this improvement is associated with changes in the structure of olfactory processing areas of the brain.
Neuroplasticity is truly a fascinating concept, and exciting because to a large degree, we can control it through learning, healthy diet, supplementation and living our lives fruitfully with purpose, goals and the pursuit of learning and doing something new, consistently.