Neuroplasticity

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Neuroplasticity

 

You know the old saying; “You only have one brain”?  Well science is now saying that this may not be the case!  Scientists have now discovered that we do not have a limited amount of brain cells, and our brain is constantly developing and changing to adapt to various environments, damage and cognitive decline.  Neuroplasticity is probably one of the most intriguing elements of the brain known within the Psychological field to-date, and most definitely one of the most studied by psychology students alike. 

What is Neuroplasticity?

Neuroplasticity is the scientific term for the phenomenon of the brain developing new neurons (your brain cells), and new synaptic connections (the connections between neurons) to compensate for any damage that may have been done to the brain.  Neuroplasticity is basically the term used for the brain repairing itself.  The brain is aware of itself, and it will continue to adjust and adapt to various environments and situations. 

There are three elements to Neuroplasticity;

  • Synaptogenesis
  • Myelination
  • Dendritic Branching

Some of the most important factors in Neuroplasticity

  • Neuroplasticity allows for the brain to regenerate , or rewire itself to accommodate for any damage
  • The brain can form new neural pathways for neural messages to be sent faster
  • Environment plays a key role in Neuroplasticity, such as learned behavior
  • Cognitive deterioration can be delayed with regular and challenging mental stimulation

Our experiences affect the brain on a daily basis.  Without realizing we continually mold and sculpt our brain to adapt to continuously changing situations.  Experiments with rats had shown that those who were living in a sensory rich environment were found to have more synapses and dendritic connections compared to those living in a sensory depraved environment. 

This is also relevant for humans as well.  The key factor to keep your cognitions sharp is to continually challenge your brain.  Learning a new language, learning to play a new instrument, or taking a psychology course, can all initiate and shape brain development.  This is also apparent in nursing homes where there is a plethora of games, and puzzles to slow senior cognitive decline.

The Brain and Rehabilitation

One of the most amazing factors in Neuroplasticity is the formation of new neural pathways to replace damaged ones.  This is especially true in those that suffer a stroke.  It takes a lot of physiotherapy, but with the retraining in movement or speaking, the brain can adapt itself, and almost correcting itself so that the motor functions lost during the stroke may be able to repair. 

Neuroplasticity and Phantom Limb Pain

As you may have heard, phantom limb is the perceived limb that has been amputated from an individual.  The pain is real, and it can be severe.  Dr. Vilayanur Ramachandran challenged the idea that the pain came from the location of the amputation, and hypothesized that the pain was actually coming from the brain.  In fact, this was true, the brain was sending out pain messages for a limb that no longer existed.  There was a patient of Dr. Ramachandran, and he had severe pain, which felt as though the phantom limb was locked in a disabling and awkward position at the elbow.  The patient tried everything to relieve the pain, but nothing was successful.  With Ramachandran’s theory that the pain was coming from the brain, he came up with a treatment called ‘Mirror Visual Feedback’ to and created an ingenious invention called ‘The Mirror Box’.  This box consisted of mirrors and a hole in it for his patient to put his one arm in one opening, and his phantom arm in the other opening, and the position of the mirrors looked as if the patient had his amputated arm back. (Although it was the reflection of his good arm), and this invention was created to trick the brain into thinking the good arm was the phantom limb, and by doing exercises in the mirror of this box that eventually the pain would be corrected by tricking the brain into thinking the moving arm is the phantom arm, and thus (unlocking of the agonizing position of the phantom arm) and relieving the pain.

Neuronal Death

This may sound ominous; however it is vital to life-long brain development. There are two types of neuronal death, passive or ‘necrosis’ and active or ‘apoptosis’.  

  • Neural Degeneration
  • Neural Regeneration
  • Neural Reorganization

 

 Sources

  1. Pinel, J. P. (2011). Biopsychology (8th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.
  2. Wade, C., Tavris, C., Saucier, D., & Elias, L. (2007). Second Canadian Edition Psychology (2nd ed.). Toronto, ON: Pearson.
  3. Douglas, David. (2016).Neuroplasticity: The Secret Behind Brain Plasticity
  4. http://brain.oxfordjournals.org/content/132/7/1693

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