The human brain is incredibly resilient. Because of neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to modify its connections or rewire itself, we’re able to learn new skills and recover from brain injury.
Our neurons, the fundamental building blocks of the brain and nervous system, are malleable. Previously, scientists believed that our brains stopped changing shortly after birth. But neuroscientists now understand that neuroplasticity continues even as we age. Our neurons continue to change by:
Creating new connections
(Less often) creating new neurons
“The brain’s hardware and software are practically inseparable,” neuroscientist David Eagleman told Nautilus. He continued, “These vast seas of [neuron] connections are constantly changing their strength, and they’re unconnecting and reconnecting elsewhere.”
Structural and Functional Neuroplasticity
There are two main types of neuroplasticity: structural and functional. Structural plasticity describes the brain’s ability to change its physical structure as a result of learning. When you experience something new, your brain physically changes. The more you practice a new skill or revisit a memory, the stronger the connections will become and the easier they will stick in your brain.
Functional plasticity, meanwhile, enables the brain to move functions from one area of the brain to another. This is essential for brain injury rehabilitation. Nautilus explains that neural connections are like a forest, with different neural functions fighting for resources, just as trees fight for soil and sunlight. Areas that aren’t being used can be stolen by another function. This explains why the loss of one sense can enhance the others. For example, the visual cortex at the back of the brain is normally used for sight. But if a person is blinded, their other senses (such as hearing) will take advantage of the area.
So, for example, if a person has a stroke, an area of their brain could be permanently damaged, but there are still healthy neurons in other areas of the brain. Stroke patients can use rehabilitation to retrain their brain by creating new connections in a different, healthy area of the brain.
Brain Injury Rehabilitation
When the brain is damaged, there are tricks we can do to help develop new connections. According to The Conversation, this can include “environmental enrichment that relies on sensory (visual, auditory, tactile, smell) and motor stimuli.” Techniques such as virtual reality, music therapy and imagining physical movements can help to build new connections in areas of the brain that weren’t damaged.
However, it’s important to recognize our limitations. The Conversation points out that neuroplasticity does not mean the brain is infinitely malleable. You can’t recycle any part for a different desired function — there are constraints. The area for sensation, for example, can’t take over the movement function. That’s why some patients with brain damage might feel like they are moving their arm, even if they aren’t actually able to move it.
Training the Brain
We don’t all have the same potential for retraining our brains. Neuroplasticity depends on age, the amount of neural damage, rehabilitation treatments, genetics and our environment. As you might expect, younger brains are more malleable than older ones. The good news is, no matter how old you are, your brain will continue to change as you learn.
By understanding how our brains work, doctors can better treat patients with cognitive neural brain defects, traumatic brain injuries, strokes, neurodegenerative diseases and other ailments. Plus, we can help ourselves learn things more effectively, so we can develop new skills and habits and continue to exercise our minds as we age.