When you hear the expression brain plasticity you might initially think, "Oh, that means brain elasticity," but, on second thought, that doesn't make any sense either. What in the world is brain plasticity?
Neuroplasticity is another word for plasticity, which means the enduring ability of your brain to restructure neural pathways based on new experiences that you have had. (That was a mouth full.)
When we learn something we are gaining new skills and knowledge through experiences or through instruction. In order for us to learn this material or skill and remember it there has to be unremitting functional changes in our brain that represent the knowledge that has been acquired. The neural circuitry in your brain has to regroup in response to sensory stimulation or experience. The capability of the brain to change as we learn is neuroplasticity or plasticity in shortened form.
This concept is also called cortical re-mapping and challenges the concept that functions in the brain are fixed in certain locations. Plasticity of the brain means that the brain is not stagnant and is malleable and plastic. Scientists used to believe that the brain did not change any further after infancy.
Plasticity of the brain comes into play when we make new connections and add cells as we are learning. The brain’s nerve cells are neurons and glial cells, all of which are interconnected. It is possible that we learn when the strength of these connections increases.
When an immature brain, such as a baby’s, begins to process information, which continues throughout adulthood, this is the first stage of brain plasticity. When a baby is born, his brain is inundated with information that comes from his sensory organs. This information has to get back to the brain so that it can be processed. The nerve cells in the infant make connections with each other and send the message to the baby's brain.
The brain grows by leaps and bounds the first years of our life. Neurons mature and send out new branches, whose job it is to send and receive information. However, as we get older, some of the brain connections are wiped out by synaptic pruning, which is a process that deletes weak synaptic contacts while leaving the stronger connections in place and further strengthening them.
Interestingly, our experiences may foretell which connections will remain and, which will be wiped out. The connections that are used the most tend to stay in tact and become stronger. If the neurons aren’t being used, they have no reason to stick around. They die, which is called apoptosis, because of lack of use. Before these neurons die, they typically become ineffective and damaged. Then, they are subsequently pruned.
If someone is injured and has lost some brain function, the brain, which is adaptive, tries to compensate for these deficits. This is plasticity in action. When a brain is damaged, plasticity focuses on maximizing the function that is left. Studies on animals reveal that the areas surrounding the damaged area in the brain undergo changes in their shape and function, which enable them to take on the job of the damaged cells. It is believed that this also happens to humans that suffer brain damage.
When we learn new things, which older people are certainly capable of doing, this information is placed in our short-term memory. It may be that short-term memory is the result of reverberating neuronal circuits or incoming nerve impulses that stimulate the first neuron, which stimulates the second neuron and on and on. Branches from the second neuron synapse with the first. The information in your short-term memory slot may eventually be moved into your long-term or permanent memory bank, which happens when biochemical or anatomical changes occur in the brain.
To sum things up, your genes have a determining factor in how malleable your brain is, however your cerebral activity and your environment also play important roles. Give your brain consistent challenge, relaxation and plenty of blood flow from physical activity, and its ability to adapt and 'grow' may surprise you.