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What is Neuroplasticity?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 08 November 2016
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For many years the medical field held the belief that the brain did not make major changes after a certain point in time. It was fixed or set on a specific path. Today, in contrast, neurologists and others know that the brain is actually capable of changing and developing throughout a lifetime. It is plastic or malleable, and the terms neuroplasticity and brain plasticity are used to describe this tendency for the brain to keep developing, changing, and potentially healing itself.

This idea of the fixed brain was based on childhood development of what are called synapses, or connections between two neurons. While a very few synapses might grow in adulthood, the thought of the brain being capable of deleting some synapses and producing many others was not embraced. Yet this is a major part of neuroplasticity. All through life, the brain can be engaged in the process of creating new, and getting rid of old, neural pathways. Such an idea presents extraordinary opportunities.

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One of the ways neuroplasticity may work is when people have traumatic brain injuries. Even part of the brain could be damaged or removed and this doesn’t necessarily mean the function that that part tends to govern is lost forever. It can mean that, but the brain may adapt by growing new synapses to restore a certain type of function. Such knowledge has made it extremely clear that things like physical and occupational therapy are vital during early recovery from stroke. Encouraging the brain to exhibit neuroplasticity is very important in achieving best recovery results.

This idea is being applied in fields like psychotherapy and psychiatry. The person who seems to “never be able to change” really can under most circumstances. If undesirable behavior stems from the brain using the same synapses each time, there are methods of deleting these and encouraging new pathways to develop. These aren’t 100% successful. Yet, therapy approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy aim specifically at the brain’s neuroplasticity, helping people replace old, destructive behaviors with new ones, and this may neurologically correspond to real growth and change in the brain.

Another area of interest in this idea of neuroplasticity is stimulating the aging brain to continue developing. In senior citizens, for instance, the idea of the brain being fixed could slowly lead to deterioration. A growing number of neurologists suggest seniors do brain exercises, puzzles, and any activities that pose mental challenge to keep exercising the change potential of the brain.

Under certain circumstances, neuroplasticity is not to a human’s advantage. When people have some illnesses or injuries the brain may work against healing them by constantly regrowing synapses that maintain the effects of a problem. This might happen with some cases of blindness or hearing impairment. Still, in most settings, brain plasticity is looked at as highly encouraging and a field that needs more study to determine how to evoke or control it for best advantage to human health.

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lluviaporos
Post 3

@umbra21 - It's a tough line to draw. I've heard incredible stories about what the brain is capable of doing. There's that one man in particular who had a lesion in his brain that essentially meant he was walking and talking with less than 20% of his brain cells actually functional. The rest of them just took over.

But then you also hear about people getting rapped on the head just once and never waking up.

It's a mystery, but it's one that we are getting closer and closer to, if not solving, at least understanding a lot more.

umbra21
Post 2

@Fa5t3r - I think it's wonderful that more people can be rehabilitated from traumatic brain injury now, but I also think it's important for people to not get their hopes up. Maybe hoping for the best but expecting the worst is a good idea.

If a doctor declares that a person isn't likely to walk again because of injuries to their brain, or a stroke, it's more than likely true, no matter how hard they try to overcome it. Giving people false hope can be worse than none at all.

Fa5t3r
Post 1

I'm glad the idea of neuroplasticity has become more accepted these days. A few decades ago my grandfather had a stroke and the doctors basically told my father that there was nothing they could do and my grandfather would essentially be unable to walk or talk clearly for the rest of his life.

Luckily my father had some experience with rehabilitation and determined to try and help my grandfather anyway. He sat beside the hospital bed for months and gradually helped my grandfather learn how to walk and talk again.

The human brain is an amazing thing and capable of a lot of healing if it is given the chance.

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