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Neuroplasticity – a New Word is Born

Sunday 20th November 2016

The Oxford English Dictionary is regularly updated, and the latest addition is one of my favourite words, neuroplasticity. I have mentioned neuroplasticity in many blogs over the last few years, and it truly is a power word in every sense.

As a medical student I learnt that the brain was organised into distinct different areas, each carrying out a particular sensory or motor function. This is known as localisationism, where the parts of the brain are hardwired from birth to perform particular activities.

The bad news is that if the brain is damaged by a stroke or through injury then this damage was considered untreatable, and so there would be little if any recovery in symptoms or functions.

The good news is that neuroplasticity research has illustrated that the brain can change its structure and its function from cradle to grave. These changes can be the result of our thoughts, emotions, behaviours and other external factors. In simple terms a commonly used expression is “neurones that fire together are wired together.” Another expression is  “we use it or we lose it.”

Examples of neuroplasticity in action include recovery in sight in individuals who have been blind since birth. Another example relating to blindness is how areas of the brain that would normally process visual signals become adapted to processing auditory signals, a process called recruitment.

There are blind people who have learnt advanced echolocation skills in a manner similar to that used by bats. They make clicking noises and are able to reconstruct their surroundings from the echoes, even to the point of being able to ride a bicycle through traffic. Please note I would not recommend this as an experiment! Researchers make the point that we see with our brains, and not necessarily our eyes.

In summary brain function can be enhanced in two different ways. First, an area of the brain and its neurones normally associated with one function can be recruited to perform a different function. Second, and at least as important, is that each one of these brain cells can perform its function at a higher level of performance.

London taxi drivers have a literally geographic memory and are only licensed after passing stringent examinations. It has been shown that their brain structure changed during their memory training, and lead not only to an increase in grey matter, but also that each cell performed its function more efficiently.

People who exercise regularly also show the same positive changes, as do individuals who practice regular meditation.

More encouraging news is that people who suffer brain injury can recover some or all function. Treatments currently being evaluated include physiotherapy, certain drugs, and electrical stimulation techniques.

I am sure we will hear a lot more about neuroplasticity, and how it will change the way we work, rest and play!