Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to adapt to changes in an individual’s environment by forming new neural connections over time. Neuroplasticity is sometimes referred to as “brain plasticity.” Aspects of our brains are “plastic,” meaning they are adaptive and can be altered in response to environmental and/or structural changes. Neuroplasticity explains how the human brain is able to adapt, master new skills, store memories and information and even recover after a traumatic brain injury.
What is Neuroplasticity?
Neuroplasticity refers to structural and functional changes in the brain that happen as a result of new experiences. Because of the plasticity of the brain, also referred to as neuroplasticity, the brain can “rewire” and “re-organize” itself after brain damage as new connections are formed and neural pathways to damaged brain areas are terminated. Neuroplasticity primarily occurs through processes called sprouting and rerouting. Sprouting is the creation of new connections between neurons, or nerve cells. Rerouting involves creating an alternative neural pathway by deleting damaged neurons and forming a new pathway between active neurons.
How Does Neuroplasticity Work?
We know that the neurons communicate with each other using electrochemical signals. These signals are transmitted through a structure in the neuron called the synapse. Stimulating the neural pathways through a repetitive, memory-forming cognitive function (such as studying or practicing) strengthens the synaptic communication between neurons. Additionally, the brain has the ability to create new synapses. While neuroplasticity can occur naturally as we undergo different experiences, changes in the brain can also be activated through neuroplasticity exercises and cognitive training.
Neuroplasticity and EEG
Electroencephalography, or EEG, is the electrophysiological process that records the electrical activity of the brain. EEG scans are performed by placing EEG electrodes on a subject’s scalp, which pick up on and record the brain’s activity. The collected EEG signals are amplified, digitized and sent to a computer, the cloud, or mobile devices for storage and data processing.
Neuroplasticity TED Talk
There are four main types of neuroplasticity adaptations:
- Neurogenesis: Neurogenesis is the creation of new neurons in central parts of the brain, the hippocampus and olfactory bulb. Neurogenesis occurs at high rates in the young brain and can occur in the adult brain until around the tenth decade of life according to new research from Dr Maria Llorens-Martín published in Nature Medicine.
- Synaptogenesis: Synaptogenesis is the creation of new neural connections. Synaptogenesis occurs when the brain is exposed to new environments and experiences in activities such as traveling or learning a new musical instrument.
- Long-term potentiation: Long-term potentiation is the strengthening of synapses through recurring activity like studying or practicing. Long-term potentiation is associated with learning and memory.
- Long-term depression: Long-term depression is the weakening of synapses that aren’t being used. Long-term depression is associated with memory and motor learning. Neuroplasticity research has studied long-term depression’s role in memory loss from neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s Disease and drugs that impair the prefrontal cortex, such as cocaine.
Neuroplasticity: “Healing” the Brain
Research has provided evidence that neuroplasticity helps the brain recover from trauma injuries. Depending on the extent of damage, neuroplasticity and cognitive rehabilitation can help patients “re-wire” their brains to improve their cognitive and emotional health. Neuroplasticity in stroke patients has been widely researched: after a stroke, certain parts of the brain are impaired, affecting their ability to perform their normal functions. Neuroplasticity enables healthy regions of the brain to learn how to perform those functions, “picking up the slack” for the impaired regions.
When someone suffers a brain injury, neurons in the affected brain regions die and neural pathways become dormant. In the days and weeks after the injury, the brain naturally starts to form new synapses and replace the dead brain cells. As neuroplasticity facilitates healing in the post-trauma brain, rehabilitation can help individuals recover faster.
Neuroplasticity and Addiction
Drugs, alcohol and gambling are habit-forming. When an individual engages in an addictive behavior, their brain strengthens the neural pathways associated with the habit. An easy way to understand neuroplasticity and addiction is think of the brain as “training” itself to become better at the addictive habit. To debilitate an addition, an individual has to “re-train” their brain. In rehabilitation, doctors and therapists often encourage the recovering individual to replace addictive behaviors with healthy ones. Due to the brain’s neuroplasticity, the neural pathways associated with the addictive behavior become dormant, and new neural pathways develop in support of healthier habits.
Neuroplasticity & Depression
Researchers studying neuroplasticity cases have found the connection between neuroplasticity and depression similar to that of neuroplasticity and addiction. Depression can inflict trauma on the brain by strengthening unhealthy pathways. Researchers refer to these kinds of changes as “negative neuroplasticity.” “Positive neuroplasticity” describes the growth and strengthening of healthy neural connections (neuroplasticity’s healing potential). Researchers are studying ways to induce positive neuroplasticity and stop negative neuroplasticity to treat disorders such as depression, anxiety, ADHD and addiction.
How to Increase Neuroplasticity
Daily physical and mental exercises can help increase neuroplasticity. In general, activities that help your brain fall into two categories:
- New experiences: Novelty establishes new neural pathways.
- Massed practice: The heavy repetition of a certain skill or activity strengthens neural connections.
The following examples of cognitive training may stimulate neuroplasticity. While evidence from a study on cognitive functioning in older adults suggests some commercially-available brain training products can help promote healthy brain aging, researchers are still investigating the scientific claims of many programs that claim to improve cognitive function.
- Non-dominant hand exercises: Using your non-dominant hand for everyday activities like brushing your teeth or using a mouse forces the brain to form new neural connections.
- Yoga: Practicing yoga has been associated with decreased stress levels in the amygdala, the fear center of the brain.
- Reading: New concepts and new vocabulary increase and enhance brain connectivity.
- Sleeping: While not traditionally considered an “exercise,” sleep helps with learning and memory retention by transferring information across cells and growing connections between neurons.
- Fasting: Intermittent fasting promotes neuron growth and adaptive responses in synapses.
- Playing a musical instrument: Learning a new instrument pushes your brain to form new neural networks and can increase connectivity between brain regions.
- Brain-training games: There are a number of brain-training or “neuroplasticity games” on the market that may help improve processing speed.
Neuroplasticity Exercises for Anxiety
Yoga, meditation and exercise are often recommended as neuroplasticity exercises for anxiety for their abilities to decrease stress levels in the brain.
Neuroplasticity ADHD Exercises
Neuroplasticity ADHD exercises may help those experiencing ADHD and ADD minimize symptoms. Many neuroplasticity ADHD exercises involve video or computer games designed to “train” the brain. These programs involve neuroplasticity and EEG: participants wear an EGG headset which measures their attention levels in real-time. They control the gameplay using only their brain activity—when they become distracted, gameplay slows down or pauses. The concept of using EEG data to train the brain to function better is called “neurofeedback.”
Recommended Neuroplasticity Books
Here are some fundamental neuroplasticity books and papers for further reading:
- The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science by Norman Doidge
- The Brain’s Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity by Norman Doidge
- Self-directed Neuroplasticity, Rick Hanson
- Principles of Neuroplasticity-based Rehabilitation, Michael Merzenich, Mor Nahum and Hyunkyu Lee
- My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey by Jill Bolte Taylor
- The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force by Jeffrey M. Schwartz and Sharon Begley
- The Stress-Proof Brain: Master Your Emotional Response to Stress Using Mindfulness & Neuroplasticity by Melanie Greenberg
Does EMOTIV Offer Neuroplasticity Solutions?
EMOTIV offers neurofeedback and BCI solutions for monitoring potential manifestations of neuroplasticity. EMOTIV offers EEG devices, called Brainwear, brain monitoring software such as Emotiv Pro as well as brain-computer interface (BCI) software called EmotivBCI.
BCIs detect changes in brain activity measured through an EEG device. BCIs are often used for rehabilitation after stroke or brain injury—for example, researchers have tested a stroke patient’s ability to use non-conventional signals from cortex on one side of the brain to control a hand on the same side of the body. For nervous system injuries and disorders associated with neuroplasticity (such as ADHD, brain trauma, stroke and anxiety), using BCI and EEG technology in neurological rehabilitation can help improve an individual’s ability to navigate through day-to-day experiences.