For decades, scientists have wondered if the brain can change over the course of a lifetime. Today we know it is possible.
Neuroscientists call this “brain plasticity”. Also called neural plasticity or neuroplasticity, it sometimes involves a process called neurogenesis, which is defined as the creation of new neurons.
Although there’s still a lot we don’t know about the brain, experts agree that its structure and function are far from static. This article describes current research on neural plasticity and neurogenesis, their impact on aging, and what you can do to improve your brain health.
“Brain plasticity” refers to the ability of the nervous system to change and reorganize throughout your life, usually in response to experiences or stimuli.
This process is not unique to humans, or even mammals or vertebrates. In reality, even insects show neural plasticity.
In human fetuses, the brain begins to develop a few weeks after conception. While genes provide the blueprint for brain development, environmental factors — such as stress, hormones, diet, medications and relationships — can greatly influence the outcome. This is known as developmental brain plasticity and continues throughout childhood.
It was once thought that brain development stopped completely a few years after puberty, but we now know that the brain continues to adapt and change well into adulthood.
While the changes are certainly less dramatic than those in the developing brain, they are crucial to our ability to learn, form memories, and recover from illness and injury.
Neurons form the basis of the nervous system. These cells are responsible for receiving and processing information from the outside world, as well as relaying messages throughout the body.
Neurons communicate via electrical and chemical signals that cross a space called a synapse. These connections form complex neural networks that help us learn.
One way to think about how brain plasticity works is a slogan coined by neuroscientist Donald Hebb: “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” This means that when neurons are active, connections are strengthened.
That said, brain plasticity is a complex process that involves molecular, cellular, and structural mechanisms that can change throughout your lifetime.
Plasticity tends to be greatest in utero and during the first years of life, when the brain is developing rapidly. While the adult brain is also capable of change, the possibilities are more limited.
There are many documented cases of brain plasticity throughout human life, some of which are described below.
Mental health during pregnancy
According to a
Additionally, researchers from a
Creative music therapy in premature babies
In a study 2020 With 82 infants, researchers used MRI scans to test whether creative music therapy could stimulate brain structure and function in preterm babies.
The researchers reported increased neural activity and connectivity in areas of the brain responsible for thinking, social, emotional, and motor functions. In other words, music therapy could improve brain development in preterm babies.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
According to a Meta-analysis 2016, children with ASD tend to have atypical neural activity and connectivity. This can lead to difficulties with social interactions, emotion recognition, and language skills, among other areas.
The researchers assessed six studies that assessed brain activity following behavioral interventions designed to help people with ASD develop specific skills.
They reported that targeted training can significantly alter neural activity and connections, leading to significant improvements in autism symptoms. The effects were particularly noticeable in young children.
In other words, behavioral interventions that use the principle of brain plasticity to strengthen neural networks may be helpful in alleviating ASD symptoms.
During pregnancy and the postpartum period, new mothers undergo a series of functional and structural brain adaptations, according to a
An example of functional plasticity comes from functional MRI (fMRI) studies. They reveal that new mothers experience increased activity in the neural circuits responsible for rewards, motivation and emotional regulation.
Studies have also shown that activation in these areas is a predictor of responsive parenting actions and a strong emotional bond with a child.
Additionally, mothers’ brains actually increase in size during the postpartum period. This is an example of structural plasticity. Researchers believe this growth occurs in brain regions associated with parenthood.
Substance use disorder can lead to lasting changes in areas of the brain associated with rewards and motivation, habit formation, and decision-making processes.
The process can be similar to what happens when we learn something new through practice and reinforcement, according to a 2018 review. In the case of substance use, however, learning is not beneficial.
“Neurogenesis” refers to the formation of new neurons. It’s an important part of brain plasticity, but it’s not the only example.
New neurons form mainly before birth and in the first years of life, when the brain is still developing. They migrate and then differentiate to perform a wide range of functions within the nervous system. There are thousands of different types of neurons in the human brain.
It’s only recently that neuroscientists have uncovered evidence for adult neurogenesis, but it’s still a subject of intense debate.
According to a
- In the hippocampus, the formation of new neurons in this area of the brain may play a role in long-term memory and learning.
- In the subventricular area, the creation of new neurons in this area has been linked to our sense of smell.
Brain plasticity is essential to human development from the moment the nervous system begins to form in an embryo. In fact, it’s hard to imagine what human life would be like if the brain didn’t change and evolve.
Without the ability to learn from new stimuli, would we still be unique individuals? Would we be able to hone our skills, learn facts, or create memories? Could people with strokes or head injuries recover?
Brain plasticity plays an essential role in all these adaptive capacities.
A number of ongoing studies are also focusing on the importance of neuroplasticity and neurogenesis in aging. Specifically,
Brain plasticity varies greatly from person to person. Although age is a crucial factor, researchers believe your personality and lifestyle also influence it.
If so, it may be possible to stimulate neuroplasticity and neurogenesis with certain behaviors. This includes the following proven actions:
- Regular exercise. Exercising regularly promotes neuroplasticity. To incorporate exercise into your life and keep doing it regularly, find an activity that you enjoy and that gets you moving.
- Stress management. Stress can reduce neuronal plasticity and neurogenesis, according to a 2022 review. Although it’s not possible to completely avoid stress, there are steps you can take to minimize and manage its effects.
- A nutritious diet.
To researchsuggests that diets high in fat and sugar may impair adult neurogenesis. On the other hand, the consumption of polyphenols, such as turmeric, can promote neuroplasticity.
- Lifelong learning. Learning is a proven way to stimulate brain function. Try taking a class, learning a new language, playing an instrument, reading books, playing games, or doing puzzles.
- Good quality sleep. Sleep plays a role in synaptic plasticity, according to a
study 2017. Try to prioritize your sleep and aim for 7-8 hours of sleep each night.
- Mental health care. Studies show that depression can prevent neuronal plasticity. In contrast, antidepressant treatments can increase neural plasticity in adults.
- Treatment of substance use disorders. Alcohol and substance use disorders can decrease neuroplasticity, according to a
2020 review. If managing or quitting alcohol or drug use is difficult, help is available now.
Plasticity allows your brain to adapt to new situations, experiences, and environments throughout your life. It is greatest in embryos and babies, whose brains are still developing, and slows down with age.
Yet there are many examples of neuroplasticity in adulthood. In fact, research suggests that areas of the brain involved in learning and memory may even grow new neurons. This process is called neurogenesis.
Increased brain plasticity has also been associated with a lower risk of cognitive decline associated with aging. A number of simple steps can help boost brain plasticity, including exercising regularly, eating a balanced diet, managing stress, and continuing to learn.