An average 1.5 kg Human brain is made up of approximately 100 billion neurons and their interconnections may number 100 trillion (100,000,000,000,000).
Each of our memories, beliefs, recurring behaviors, values and personality traits are encoded in individual circuits of neurons. Some of these circuits are inherited through genetics and some are developed and change throughout our lives. Using correct tools, any of these circuits can be ‘rewired’, even genetically inherited circuits, because of a phenomenon called neuroplasticity.
Simply put, neuroplasticity is that property of the brain, which allows it to change its structure and function, at any age. Neuroplasticity occurs as a result of… Our actions… Our thinking and imagination… Any brain injury when the brain has to rewire the neuron circuitry.
Neuroplasticity through history
It is commonly believed that it was the American psychologist, William James, who first talked about neuroplasticity in the late 19th century. However, it was the Polish neuroscientist, Jerzy Konorski, who first used the term ‘neuroplasticity’, in 1948.
But even earlier in history, there have been researchers who studied extensively on brain changes. The Italian anatomist Michele Vincenzo Malacarne found out in the 18th century that animals that were trained intensively had a bigger cerebellum, the part of the brain that has an important role in motor functions. The eastern mystics, over the ages, have felt that our brain and mind evolve continuously.
Brain plasticity can be broadly classified as:
1. Functional plasticity: In functional neuroplasticity, the brain moves the functions from some of its injured areas to uninjured areas. A stroke victim being able to resume his normal activity after rehabilitation is an example of functional plasticity. The brain compensates for the injury by re-organizing and establishing new connections between undamaged neurons.
2. Structural plasticity: The altering of brain’s physical structure is termed as structural plasticity. A study by researchers at the University of London showed that London taxi drivers who spend three years finding their way around the city by spatial methods have a bigger hippocampus (the part of the brain which plays an important role in memory and navigation process) when compared to the general population and even bus drivers.
How can Neuroplasticity help?
1. Increase contentment and constructive thinking
Our lives are a mix of the good and the bad. Unfortunately, our minds tend to focus on the not so good experiences.
By deliberately focusing more on the good and progressive experiences, we can break our mind’s pattern to concentrate on the bad experiences.
Over a period of time, our brain will get re-wired and start focusing automatically and naturally on the affirmative and good experiences.
2. Cure learning disorders
Dr. Dennis Charney of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine believes that we don’t make full use of our brain in general. In children with autism and learning disabilities like ADD, it is possible to create new neuronal pathways in the brain through sustained learning and experience and, thus, minimising learning disabilities.
3. Treat various psychiatric disorders
It was mostly agreed that mood disorders were mainly due to the imbalance in certain neurotransmitters in the brain. However, researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health believe that mood disorders could be genetically influenced disorders of synapses and circuits. In the brain, synapse is the point at which electric signal moves from one nerve cell to another.
The researchers believe that the symptoms of disorders such as mood swings are triggered due to the defective processing of information along nerve cell pathways. Further, this sustained defective processing leads to loss of brain cell and reduction in size and strength of neurons. Lithium compounds prescribed for the treatment of psychiatric disorders, along with certain mindfulness techniques, have been found to increase the size of the brain and reverse brain deterioration.
5. Rehabilitate stroke victims
It was believed till recently that a function performed by one part of the brain could not by any means be taken over by some other part of the brain. However, latest research has proved that brain pathways can indeed change and stroke victims can be trained to use different parts of the brain to take over the functions performed by the damaged part. Constraint induced movement therapy (CIPT) developed by Dr. Edward Taub proves the positive effect of neuroplasticity. In CIPT, the rehabilitation revolves around rigorous practice with the stroke-affected side.