November 27, 2013

The Miracle of Neuroplasticity

Regardless of age, your brain has the ability to make new neurons and construct new neural pathways throughout your life. Every time you engage in new activities, think in novel ways, learn a skill or do things differently, new pathways are forged and your cognitive reserve expands. This process, called neuroplasticity, has been a revelation in neuroscience.

Numerous studies have helped us to understand how learning transforms the brain. Take, for example, a landmark German study of a group of people who had never juggled before. After giving them three months of juggling training, the investigators scanned the newly minted jugglers’ brains and found an increase in volume of areas that process complex visual motion. Although the change was temporary, the study demonstrated an anatomical modification as a result of learning.

Another study by German researchers looked at the effect of intense studying on brain structure. Medical students preparing for their board exams underwent MRI scans of their brains before, during and three months after they completed their exams. The students experienced a significant volume increase in various brain regions including the hippocampus (the brain’s memory center) over time.

And what’s even more exciting is that three months after they stopped studying for exams, the student’s hippocampi continued to enlarge. This is thought to be due to the proliferation of new neurons induced by learning.

Every part of the brain serves a special function. In recent years, there’s been an explosion of research in the field of neuroplasticity. Using MRI technology, the brains of athletes, musicians, video gamers and even cabdrivers have been studied. This has provided a new understanding of how the brain is shaped by the way it’s utilized. For example, the scan of an accomplished pianist will show expansion of the cortical areas associated with finger dexterity while those of experienced cabdrivers reveal enlargement of regions dedicated to spatial navigational skills.

Researchers have even begun looking at how brain structure may be molded by online social networks. They’ve found that college students with more friends on Facebook had enlargement of various brain regions, including an area linked with the task of putting names to faces. This kind of research underscores the fact that the brain you have at this very moment mirrors the way you have spent your time. But more importantly, the future structure of your brain is yet to be determined.