Previously, scientists thought that the brain’s structure was hard-wired and immutable. Brain-damaged patients rarely made full recoveries and the living brain’s microscopic activities were unobservable. The widely held belief was that the brain was a machine: machines are capable to many things, but they do not change and grow.
New research has taught us that the brain is actually plastic, it is able to change based on experiences. Even in old age, the adult brain retains neuroplasticity and is able to change its structure and function. It turns out you can teach an old dog new tricks!
Neurons process and transmit information through electrical and chemical signals. There are around 86 billion neurons in the human brain. Parts of the neuron include: the nucleus, cytoplasm, axon, cell membrane, and the nerve ending.
Synapses are the small gaps between neurons. They allow information to pass from one neuron to the next.
At birth: Approximately 2,500 synapses.
Infant brain: large capacity for growth.
3 Years Old: Approximately 15,000 synapses.
Adult brain: Use it or lose it: 50% of neurons do not survive into adulthood as rarely used synapses are eliminated throughout adolescence.
The production of neurons, beginning week 3 of human development at a rate of 250,000/minute until birth.
Previous thought… Neurons cannot reproduce after the first few years of life.
NEW RESEARCH: neurogenesis may continue to occur throughout human life span. In 1999, researchers at the Salk Institute, San Diego discovered neurogenesis occurring in the brain of a 72-year-old adult!
The Future: there is a growing hope that science will discover an effective way to guide the process of neuronal growth to repair areas of the brain that are damaged by injury or disease.
Neural pathways connect relatively distant areas of the brain or nervous system, each pathway is associated with a particular action or behavior. Every time we think, feel or do something, we strengthen this pathway. Habits are well travelled pathways – our brain finds these things easy to do.
New thoughts and skills carve out new pathways.
Repetition and practice strengthen these pathways, forming new habits.
Old pathways get used less and weaken.
With repeated and direct attention towards a desired change, we all have the ability to rewire our brains.
Pleasure & Reward
The Mesolimbic Dopamine System
The brain’s reward pathway encourages us to seek out activities essential to species survival.
- Food & Drink
The reward pathway is activated, the brain floods with dopamine. We feel good, we seek to repeat the activity.
Hey, this cake is really good. I’m going to remember that for the future.
- Eat food
- Dopamine reward
- Hippocampus lays down memories
- Desire to eat more
REWIRING THE BRAIN: Neuroplasticity
‘Neuro’ = brains ‘Plastic’ = changeable
Neuroplasticity promises a new understanding of what it means to be human: we can rewire our brains just by thinking!
Practice, Practice, Practice!
Rewiring requires setting new goals and practicing the healthy pursuit of reward while the brain is creating new pathways.
– David Smith, M.D. co-author of Unchain Your Brain
If we don’t learn new skills, we don’t engage our brain’s plasticity. Highly focused activities help keep the brain in good shape, why not try:
- Learning a new language
- Career change
- Logistical puzzels
- New environments
When everything else is controlled for, bilinguals who come down with Alzheimer’s do so about 4.5 years later than monolinguals.”
– Dr. Thomas Bak University of Edinburgh
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