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What is neuroplasticity?

Find out the lowdown on what neuroplasticity is, with Heights Chief Science Officer Dr Tara Swart.

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Dr. Tara Swart
Chief Science Officer
May 26, 2022
5 min read

The neuroplasticity definition, although it sounds a bit intimidating, is fairly easy to explain. The neuro refers to the neurons, which are the building blocks of your brain and nervous system. Plasticity refers to your brain's malleability, which is its ability to adapt and change.

Sometimes referred to as brain plasticity or neural plasticity, it's an umbrella term for the brain's ability to adapt and change, both in structure and function.

Article breakdown

What is neuroplasticity and how does it work?

The human brain is composed of approximately 86 million neurons, all working together. You may have heard the term ‘brain plasticity’ – but what is brain plasticity? The terms are interchangeable. The full brain plasticity or neuroplasticity definition is the process of creating new pathways or connections and discarding those no longer used.

There are two main ways the brain is able to do this:

  • 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 physically restructure as a result of new experiences and learning. 

What is an example of neuroplasticity?

Examples of neuroplasticity exercises include:

  • Learning new skills

  • Recovering from brain injuries or disease

  • Adapting to new situations

  • Accessing memory

  • Avoiding cognitive decline.

Neuroplasticity is important because keeping a flexible brain is essentially "keeping your brain young". The more flexible the brain is, the more easily you can perform these functions.

Encouraging the brain's neuroplasticity is the key to sustained adult learning and emotional intelligence, which will help brain plasticity to remain open-minded, intuitive, and overcome biases throughout adulthood.

When does neuroplasticity happen?

So, what is neuroplasticity in the brain? Our brains’ plasticity is moulded and shaped by everything we experience, so it stands to reason that the bulk of these changes happen in the early part of our lives, when everything is new.

The biggest neuroplasticity action occurs before age 25 as we learn, adapt, grow, and develop our personalities. (Think of your brain like a toddler in a new place: looking around, exploring every corner, picking things up—all of those actions are creating new neural pathways.)

If there is damage to the brain, for example, after head trauma, pathways in the brain can no longer be used. As a result, it can affect some of the body functions associated with these areas. However, over time, healthy parts of the brain recreate pathways to restore some of these functions. Brain plasticity is the brain's ability to adapt and form new connections to regain functionality in the body.

It is important to note that there are limitations to the brain's ability to adapt. Some areas of the brain play a critical role in speech, language, movement, and cognition. Unfortunately, the brain is not always able to fully recover.

How can you increase neuroplasticity?

Simply put, the more we use our brain, the better brain plasticity we have. This is why it’s essential to challenge our minds as we grow and continue this as we get older. Looking for opportunities to focus, excite and challenge ourselves have been shown to stimulate positive changes in the brain. 

You can try the following neuroplasticity exercises to keep your brain healthy:

  • Take up a new hobby 

  • Try a new sport

  • Learn a new language

  • Travel to new places

  • Read  

  • Learn a new game

Well done, if you've made it this far—learning and reading are good for your brain.

What is plasticity in psychology?

Neuroplasticity is frequently studied in psychology, particularly when we consider the links to our childhood and how our characteristics are shaped as adults. So, what is the simple definition of neuroplasticity in psychological terms?

Neuroplasticity in psychology refers to how our brains react to different situations, from handling trauma to even dealing with brain damage.

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Some interesting studies on neuroplasticity

Our brains' childlike plastic flexibility doesn't stop changing as we get older. Recent scientific discoveries in neuroplasticity have proven that we have the ability to change our brains at any age. 

And there is where it gets really interesting. As the brain is one of the most complicated things on earth, the field of neuroplasticity is constantly evolving. So, if you're like us and love reading about the latest studies, we've outlined a few below. 

  • In this 2010 study of 60-89-year-olds were given a computer training program to work with. Each person had the program adapted to their skill level, so their level of challenge was equal. After some practice with the program, scientists found that each participant showed functional neuroplasticity and improved working memory on tasks they hadn't been trained on.  

  • It doesn't necessarily take a lot of effort to trigger neuroplasticity in the brain, but the more you put in, the more you get out. In this study, older adults were given ten sessions of training for memory, reasoning, or speed-of-processing, followed by booster training sessions at 11 and 35 months after the initial program. They all reported greater ease in everyday tasks. In the ten years following the training sessions, they had a significantly less cognitive decline and better targeted cognitive abilities than the control group. 

  • This study review suggests that different experiences and sensory inputs can control neuroplasticity in both healthy and unhealthy brains. This knowledge could mean we can create personalised rehabilitation strategies for learning and recovery from brain injury or disease with further understanding.

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