Brain plasticity is a term which is used to refer the brain's unique ability to constantly change, grow, and remap itself over the course of a lifetime. The “plastic” in this sense refers to “moldable,” rather than to the family of products derived from petrochemicals. This distinctive trait makes the brain a very valuable organ, as it can constantly adapt itself to deal with new input and information. All animals possess this characteristic to some extent, although most studies have focused specifically on the workings of the human brain.
There are three different types of brain plasticity. The first occurs when infants are born and start developing into children. Studies have shown that the immature brain grows and creates neural networks at an unprecedented rate, as the brain is flooded with new sensory input from the outside world. The second type occurs over the course of a lifetime, as the brain changes with age to reflect new experiences and events. Additionally, the brain demonstrates tremendous plasticity in the wake of injury.
Without this characteristic, the brain would remain static, frozen at a particular point in time. It allows the brain to do everything from learn how to speak to refining physical movements such as those associated with playing a musical instrument. Every time the brain encounters information, it reworks itself to accommodate it, and creates a map of the information it contains so that it can readily retrieve information when it is needed. People always need to be able to store and interpret new information, making brain plasticity critical to function at all ages.
In addition to reworking itself to store information and organize it effectively, the brain can also repair itself, to some extent. When an area of the brain is damaged, the activities associated with that region will sometimes move to another area of the brain, allowing the person to recover functionality. This type of brain plasticity is critical for people recovering from brain injuries and neurological disorders, as the damage may be permanent, but it can be possible to mitigate the effects.
Numerous studies have been conducted on brain plasticity to explore the changes in cellular structure which occur in the brain over time. A number of factors appear to contribute, from hormones generated inside the body to environmental cues, and people appear to be able to enhance the flexibility of the brain by exercising it, much like function of the musculoskeletal system can be improved or modified with exercise.