Neuroplasticity or brain plasticity is the ability of the brain to modify its connections or re-wire itself. Without this ability, any brain, not just the human brain, would be unable to develop from infancy through to adulthood or recover from brain injury. What makes the brain special is that, unlike a computer, it processes sensory and motor signals in parallel. It has many neural pathways that can replicate another’s function so that small errors in development or temporary loss of function through damage can be easily corrected by rerouting signals along a different pathway
The Nature of Brain Plasticity
The underlying assumption of studies of brain and behavioral plasticity is that if behavior changes, there must be some change in the organization or properties of the neural circuitry that produces the behavior. Conversely, if the experience changes neural networks, there must be some corresponding change in the functions mediated by those networks. For the investigator interested in understanding the factors that can alter brain circuits, and ultimately behavior, a major challenge is to find and to quantify the changes.
In principle, plastic changes in neuronal circuits are likely to reflect either modification of existing circuits or the generation of new circuits. But how can researchers measure changes in neural circuitry? Because neural networks are composed of individual neurons, each of which connects with a subset of other neurons to form interconnected networks, the logical place to look for plastic changes is at the junctions between neurons, that is, at synapses. However, it is a daunting task to determine if synapses have been added or lost in a particular region, given that the human brain has something like 100 billion neurons and each neuron makes on average several thousand synapses. It is clearly impractical to scan the brain looking for altered synapses, so a small subset must be identified and examined in detail. But which synapses should be studied? Given that neuroscientists have a pretty good idea of what regions of the brain are involved in particular behaviors, they can narrow their search to the likely areas, but are still left with an extraordinarily complex system to examine. There is, however, a procedure that makes the job easier.
Types of Brain Plasticity
There are two types of neuroplasticity, including:
- Functional plasticity – The brain’s ability to move functions from a damaged area of the brain to other undamaged areas.
- Structural plasticity – The brain’s ability to actually change its physical structure as a result of learning.
Characteristics of Neuroplasticity
There are a few defining characteristics of neuroplasticity:
- Age Plays a Role – While plasticity occurs throughout the lifetime, certain types of changes are more predominant during specific life ages. The brain tends to change a great deal during the early years of life, for example, as the immature brain grows and organizes itself. Generally, young brains tend to be more sensitive and responsive to experiences than much older brains.
- Plasticity Involves Many Processes– Plasticity is ongoing throughout life and involves brain cells other than neurons, including glial and vascular cells.
- It Happens for Many Reasons– Plasticity can occur as a result of learning, experience, and memory formation, or as a result of damage to the brain. While people used to believe that the brain became fixed after a certain age, newer research has revealed that the brain never stops changing in response to learning. In instances of damage to the brain, such as during a stroke, the areas of the brain associated with certain functions may be damaged. Eventually, healthy parts of the brain may take over those functions and the abilities can be restored.
- Environmental Factors Are Important– Genetics can also have an influence. The interaction between the environment and genetics also plays a role in shaping the brain’s plasticity.
- Plasticity Is Not Always Good– Brain changes are often seen as improvements, but this is not always the case. In some instances, the brain might be influenced by psychoactive substances or pathological conditions that can lead to detrimental effects on the brain and behavior.
It’s known that all neurons carry the same genetic information, they vary considerably in morphology and functions and respond differently to environmental conditions. Such variability results mostly from differences in gene expression. Among the processes that regulate gene activity, epigenetic mechanisms play a key role and provide an additional layer of complexity to the genome. They allow the dynamic modulation of gene expression in a locus- and cell-specific manner.
Although specific brain machinery tends to decline with age, there are steps people can take to tap into plasticity and reinvigorate that machinery. We have to keep our brains fit with a series of targeted brain plasticity exercises. Similarly, people suffering from a variety of cognitive conditions from schizophrenia to “chemobrain” may be able to retrain their brains to healthier function. The key and the challenge lies in identifying what brain mechanisms to target, and how to exercise them effectively.
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