How does neuroplasticity work and how do we optimize our neuroplasticity potential?

By Jenny Tang

Neuroplasticity is similar to developing and strengthening a muscle: you have to continue using the brain in order for it develop. Some muscles may be used more frequently in comparison to other muscles, which causes them to mature better. When you use certain area of the brain, it causes that area to grow or develop stronger. However, this can be detrimental because areas of the brain that are used less frequently become weaker in result. For example, depression is impacted by the plasticity in the hippocampus region in the brain. The hippocampus is heavily connected to the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala which are both known as emotion related regions. (Liu et al, 2017) In people who have depression, their hippocampus has changed due to neuroplasticity from negative stimuli to the extent that it impairs the hippocampus, including decreasing number of dendrites. This simply means that there are less connections made in the brain. There are numerous different factors that are related to how much neuroplasticity occurs. For one, the older the brain, the less plasticity there is, while on the other hand, the younger the brain is, the more plasticity there is. This is one of the reasons that people suggest learning a language at a young age, as the brain is much more plastic during this period. Language learning in general helps with the brain’s ability to form memory circuits for new information. (Paddock, 2016) 

In one study, this concept was explored by teaching native Finnish speakers with no other language knowledge new languages, and teaching others their third to fourth language. Researchers then monitored brain activity using EEG (electroencephalogram) electrodes on their scalps. The EEG electrodes are used to monitor the amount of electrical activity in the brain as neurons and records the brain wave patterns. The researchers analyzed the speed that the participants reacted to unknown words in different languages, discovering that the more languages that the participant knew, the faster the new word could be processed. Through simply learning another language, it is shown that you are able to increase the amount of grey matter, decreasing the ratio of grey to white matter in the brain. Grey matter is best described as the matter in the brain that results in higher functioning, such as memory, and sensory functions. 

Arithmetic and mental math also has been shown as useful in positive neuroplasticity. One study done with kids that had Developmental Dyscalculia (DD), a neurodisorder that impairs the ability to perform arithmetic calculations (Shalev, 2004) which causes them to be maths learning disabled (MLD). The researchers monitored the brain using a fMRI during problem solving math equations, over the span of eight weeks. An fMRI is a MRI that monitors the changes of cerebral blood flow to show which brain areas become more active during an activity. They had found that there was overactivation of numerous areas in the brain, including the prefrontal cortex, parietal cortex and the temporal lobe. This was all measured relative to the brain plasticity index (BPI) which is measured by a fMRI. They have found that even with DD, the more BPI occurs in the brain the better the child’s performance arithmetically. 

Music is another thing that can cause neuroplastic changes in the brain, where simply just listening or playing music can create small changes in your brain. It is shown that those who play music  have more grey matter in the cerebellum and cortex regions. Musicians also have more volume in the auditory cortex, usually more in the areas that are related to pitch perception. (McDermott & Oxenham, 2008) The instrument played had an impact on the areas that the brain as well: for example, pianists and violinists had a bigger corpus callosum and in the motor cortex. These neuroplastic changes proves to be significant as in one study, lifelong practice in an instrument proves to help decrease memory loss and have a better cognitive health through simply consistent music practice. 

It is essential to be able to realise that the brain is not static. Instead, it is a dynamic region of the body that is constantly adapting and building in certain areas. With practice, we are able to shape our brain and use it to our benefit in the future, decrease the chances of developing numerous common neurodegenerative diseases and maintain our cognitive health.  

References:

“Language Learning Boosts Brain Plasticity and Ability to Code New Information.” Www.Medicalnewstoday.Com, 5 Sept. 2016, http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/312708#Brain-reacts-faster-with-more-languages-mastered. Accessed 23 Sept. 2020.

Lin, Jo-Fu Lotus, et al. “Neuroplasticity, Bilingualism, and Mental Mathematics: A Behavior-MEG Study.” Brain and Cognition, vol. 134, Aug. 2019, pp. 122–134, 10.1016/j.bandc.2019.03.006. Accessed 18 Oct. 2019.

Liu, Wei, et al. “The Role of Neural Plasticity in Depression: From Hippocampus to Prefrontal Cortex.” Neural Plasticity, 26 Jan. 2017, http://www.hindawi.com/journals/np/2017/6871089/#:~:text=26%20Jan%202017-.

McDermott, Josh H, and Andrew J Oxenham. “Music Perception, Pitch, and the Auditory System.” Current Opinion in Neurobiology, vol. 18, no. 4, Aug. 2008, pp. 452–463, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2629434/, 10.1016/j.conb.2008.09.005.

Shalev, Ruth S. “Developmental Dyscalculia.” Journal of Child Neurology, vol. 19, no. 10, Oct. 2004, pp. 765–771, 10.1177/08830738040190100601. Accessed 6 Jan. 2020.

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