Updated: Jan 8, 2021
The brain’s ability to change and adapt throughout life is truly remarkable. It begins in utero and lasts until we take our last breath. We have built-in potential to change our thinking our feeling and our minds.
This special quality of the brain to change in a positive way is why you see remarkable recoveries of people who have had traumatic brain injuries or strokes. For people who haven’t sustained any injury at all, the brain creates new neural pathways when repeatedly learning a new task and organizing itself on an ongoing basis as we adapt to changes in our environment. Our brains change as a direct result of our daily exposures; our subjective sensory and perceptual experiences from our environment. And the more we challenge ourselves with novelty and curiosity and enthusiasm, the more our brains adapt to new positive habits. Brains also have neuroplastic change to toxic chemicals, inflammation, stress, difficult relationships and traumatic experiences, but I refer to that as negative neuroplasticity.
Learning and growing
Neuroplasticity is sort of a “catch-all” term that refers to the brain’s inherent ability to adapt, morph, and reorganize itself as in response to external and internal sensory snd perceptual experiences. In essence, from the moment the brain is formed in utero, our brain continues to change and adapt to its input throughout life, yes, even into late aging. Well-established phenomena like synaptic pruning in children as they develop is considered a neuroplastic-dependent change. When a 90 year old learns a new language or skill, neuroplasticity is at work once again.
In essence, when we are exposed to a novel event, and we practice it, and we learn it, our brain wires itself based upon the newly learned task. As you continue to practice a skill, functional connectivity studies using brain imaging reveal that the connections between relevant assemblies of neurons grow stronger and stronger. You can see the strength of these connections by using functional brain imaging and show the individual thicknesses of key white matter tracts. By optimizing this natural potential which the nervous system is already set-up for, we can enhance brain connectivity and create a strengthening of communication between brain regions. Enhancing positive neuroplasticity when we are younger might even protect us from decline later on in life.
How can neuroplasticity help us heal after a trauma?
Neuroplastic changes focused on emotional healing can improve mental health and cognitive abilities, with recent studies showing network-level changes in people who meditate regularly, are musicians or are bilingual. There are many ways to engage the flexibility of the brain because it adapts to what it’s exposed to! Depression and anxiety lay down their own physical and chemical pathways. Emotional trauma and PTSD also change the brain in a negative way (negative neuroplasticity), but various therapeutic modalities can help heal the trauma and improve brain function (positive neuroplasticity). for example therapies which treat depression successfully can increase the size of the hippocampus,a small brain region responsible for memory consolidation.
Temporary calorie restriction can enhance the production of ketone bodies which are small molecules made by the liver during periods of low food intake, or food restriction. Intermittent fasting has been linked to improved cognitive performance in both clinical and normal populations. For example, mouse models have shown that when glycogen stores in the liver are metabolized, the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is upregulated. BDNF is responsible for improved synaptic plasticity, cognitive enhancement, and greater cellular robustness against stress.
Intermittent fasting can include different schedules, plans and food types. For some people, it can mean skipping breakfast, or only eating between certain hours of the day. If you choose to try intermittent fasting, remember to always keep your physician or health care provider informed of your choices because any kind of fasting can affect many systems in your body. Caloric restriction is contraindicated in some people, so be sure to become informed.
Musical training appears to train the brain in ways that other forms of exercise do not. Learning an instrument and becoming well-versed in playing it are both associated with volumetric differences in the hippocampus, medial temporal lobe, and somatosensory cortex. This is to say, musicians are drawing upon and training different cognitive processes and stimulating neural pathways than non-musicians. You can start singing, or learn a new song and your brain will benefit.
Cardiovascular exercise and strength training are both associated with long-term changes in the brain, including greater preservation of cortical volumes in the hippocampus across age. This effect is so strong that clinicians are interested in potentially finding an ideal personalized “prescription” for exercise for each patient. Exercise is also recommended in order to combat pharmacologically-resistant types of depression, anxiety and attentional disorders. Exercise works as a cognitive enhancer and mental health booster & has been shown to enhance the effectiveness of some medications.
Get your regular ZZZZ's
Sleeping improved working memory by sending it into long-term memory storage within hippocampal areas such as CA1 and dentate gyrus. At the single-unit level, recordings show richer dendritic spines in neurons after sleep. Numerous studies have implicated poor sleep in disorders of mood and memory, and the buildup of beta amyloid, a protein associated with Alzheimer’s. Contact a good sleep doctor or psychologist who specialize in sleep. To optimize neuroplasticity at night, some people might need to get a sleep study, use a CPAP machine or get cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia. Sometimes just developing better bedtime rituals and habits can help.
Vagus nerve and parasympathetic tone training
The vagus nerve is almost like an “on” button that engages your parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system, stimulating feelings of calm and balance. It has more efferent connections to different parts of your nervous system than any other nerve. Stimulating the vagus nerve by way of either cold temperature stimulation, breathing exercises, or yoga have been shown to change the brain’s production of serotonin and dopamine. In this sense, vagus nerve stimulation appears to have powerful mood-improving effects. You can also engage your vagus nerve by laughing, chatting, and engaging in positive social activities. In fact, a great way to stimulate the ventral vagus nerve is to have very connected and positive social interactions.
Take Your Brain into Your Own Hands
If you learn about the different ways your brain changes in response to your environment, you can better understand the impact of neuroplasticity in your everyday life and find ways to get curious, get motivated and find new opportunities for learning and positive cognitive stimulation. The best way to start is to recognize that you have control over your mind. Your thoughts will just come and go and feel as thought they are taking over until you can steady the mind enough to not allow this to happen. There is nothing more empowering than knowing that the efforts you make to challenge yourself by noticing your thoughts, focusing more, or learning a new skill can create incremental positive changes in the health of your brain. There are also so many cool bio-hacking devices to look out for which influence the brain to create new internal connections.
The brain’s special properties of adaptation and reorganization are ones we can take advantage of in order to improve our brain health and possibly even protect it from illness down the road. Try using some of the strategies I mentioned above so that you are more empowered and driven to develop your own positive neuroplasticity habits, and keep me posted about what you're up to.