As you might remember, I took up piano a couple of months back. Now before you get all excited and think I found an easy brain hack to become the new Mozart, let me remind you what I wrote last week about the myth of effortless learning. Now regardless of my skills for playing the piano and regardless of the repeated complaints of my neighbor, a lovely old woman who suddenly realized that being deaf has also its upsides, something truly remarkable did happen. You see, my piano knowledge could be resumed to me being able to find the do. That’s about it. So when I first started, as you can imagine, there was a huge potential for improvement. It didn’t took me long to be able to play a couple of chords and even sing along. And from there onward, every single time I played, I could see, I could feel, how I was progressing. My hands and fingers were learning the positions of the keys, remembering them automatically, to the point that I didn’t need to look anymore. And that got me all excited, because I was witnessing first hand how my brain, throughout my sing-along sessions, was creating new neural pathways. My brain was re-wiring itself and I was sitting in the front row.
For a long time, it was a wide held opinion that the brain did not develop any further after the first few years of life. The scientific community believed that the connections that were formed between the nerve cells of the brain at a critical early period were in place for the rest of one’s life.
However, new research has shown that the brain continuously reorganizes itself and forms new connections throughout one’s life. This phenomenon is referred to as neuroplasticity and it allows for the neurons in the brain to adjust their usual activities in response to changes in the environment and new situations.
How does it work?
A majority of the research done on this subject tries to unearth the exact mechanism behind the continual adjustment and reorganization of the brain. One such study done with monkeys showed that the neural connections in many of the brain regions were different each time they were examined. Existing pathways that have become inactive or are used for other purposes can take over and carry out the functions that have been lost to degeneration. In other words, the adult brain can reorganize itself and form new neural connections.
Genes aren’t the only determinant of how our brain develops and forms inner connections. Environmental conditions, like challenging experiences, social interactions and even fresh air can help in forming new connections. Similarly, the brain can also reorganize itself in response to disease or injury. It takes place by a mechanism known as axonal sprouting, where the undamaged axons grow completely new nerve endings to help the damaged neurons reconnect. The undamaged axons can end up sprouting new nerve endings and connect with the other undamaged cells, forging new neuronal pathways to accomplish a damaged function. For instance, even though each hemisphere of the brain has its own tasks, if there is damage to one, the intact hemisphere can take over the functions of the damaged one.
The brain can also respond to deficiencies in a particular sensory input by augmenting the processing of the other inputs. For instance, in blind individuals, areas of the brain that are usually assigned to process visual information can adapt and process different inputs, like touch or hearing. So, when they say that blind people have heightened senses, there is solid science behind it.
Strategies to promote brain reorganization
Brain workouts can help the brain to form new connections quickly and stimulate reorganization. Simple brain exercises like interacting in social situations, facing intellectual challenges or getting involved in physical activity will boost the growth of new connections.
Studies have also shown that drugs which increase the availability of norepinephrine help in rehabilitating movement loss. These drugs provoke or stimulate the synapses of nerve cells, making it possible for them to form new connections. However, these drugs can be costly and have a lot of unintended side effects. The drugs need to be combined with rehabilitation or physical therapy for optimal results.
The goal behind rehabilitation therapy is to promote new connections by stimulating particular neurons that haven’t been active for a long time. The idea is to promote selective reorganization and self-repair through specific motor activity. Since brain organization gets more difficult with age, adults need a jump start to re-form connections. For instance, practicing a specific movement many times helps your brain to form and strengthen the connections that are necessary for that particular movement. In a research conducted in Germany, seven patients who had lost their ability to walk were put on a treadmill with a harness and a parachute. They were given with ample physical support, but the treadmill forced their leg movements. Towards the end of the therapy, the forced movement made it possible for some undamaged neurons to form new connections. This, in turn, made it possible for three of the test subjects to walk without support and three more to walk with assistance.
Neurogenesis and neuronal growth factors
A study conducted in the year 1999 at the Salk Institute in California discovered neurogenesis in the brain of a 72 year old adult. A chemical marker was used to identify the new neurons and observe neurogenesis in the hippocampus, a region of the brain that controls memory, emotion and the autonomic nervous system. This clearly showed that neurogenesis continues to occur throughout one’s life span.
This discovery has led scientists to use neuronal growth factors to stimulate the stem cells into producing new neurons. One possibility is to use growth factors with the brain tissue of the patient to generate cells. But these neurons will be produced in the lab and need to be transplanted to the brain of the patient. Another possibility is to stimulate the production of the growth factor in the damaged area, which would stimulate neuronal growth. In one of the studies, scientists removed the skin cells from rats with an incapacitated spinal cord and added new genes to their cells, which led to the production of growth factors. The cells were then let to multiply and the daughter cells were implanted in the damaged area. And surprisingly, the rats were able to grow new neurons and regained their lost function.
What can you do to remodel your brain?
Lab research aside, you can help yourself grow by putting your brain in the right circumstances. Even though the brain machinery declines with age, you can follow a few steps to re-oil the jig.
- Change is possible if you are in the mood for it – If you are ready for action, your brain releases neurochemicals that enable change. If you are inattentive, disengaged or distracted, your neuroplastic switches turn off.
- Immersive practice strengthens neurons – The more you practice something, the more your connections are changed to include all the elements of your experience (movement, sensory info, cognitive patterns). It is like forming a master controller for a particular behavior, allowing it to be performed with remarkable reliability and facility over time.
- Coordinated activity increases cell-to-cell cooperation – Imagine there is a stadium full of Mets fans who are clapping their hands together at the same time. Now think how cacophonous it would sound if all of them clapped at different times. The more coordinated your nerve cells are, the more reliable and powerful their behavioral productions.
- Associative flow – The brain tends to strengthen the connection between different teams of neurons that represent separate moments of successive things which occur reliably in serial time. This lets your brain predict what is going to happen next and have a more continuous associative flow. This ability is crucial to keep your thoughts from getting reduced to a series of separate and stagnating puddles.
- Two-way street – Most important of all, remember that it is just as easy to drive changes which impair your memory and mental and physical capabilities as it is to improve things. As a matter of fact, older people are masters at encouraging brain plasticity in the wrong direction. Exercise good judgment and make sure you are doing things that improve your brain capabilities for the better.