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A crash course in Neuroplasticity: Re-wiring your brain for better mental health

Neuroplasticity is the brains ability to adapt, change & re-wire itself.


The idea of Neuroplasticity, "Credit is given to William James for first adopting the term to denote changes in nervous paths associated with the establishment of habits; to Eugenio Tanzi for first identifying the articulations between neurons" Berlucchi G, Buchtel HA. (2009)


The famous, Pierre Paul Broca (1824) who discovered the region of the brain now called brocas area, a region of the brain that is associated with producing speech. Broca, observed in one of his patients that she did not have Broca's area thus she should not be able to speak. However, she could speak normally. The brain adapted and another region of the brain adapted to take over the function of speech. Just like an elastic band, the brain was shown to be malleable and not set in stone.


Our brain is amazing.


It is estimated that our brains contain between 10-100 million Neurons. Each of those Neurons is connected to another Neurons via a synapse. Certain regions of the brain can become damaged and due to the plasticity of the brain and neurons, the brain can adapt and change. A key phrase to remember with this process from the Neuropsychologist, Donald Hebb (1948) is "Cells that fire together, wire together". The image below shows this wiring of new pathways in the brain.



Figure 1: Increase in neural connections


Connections in Neurons create pathways in the brain. A group of neurons wire together that becomes a pathway in the brain that enables us to move, think, gain skills, learn and everything we do. Every behaviour, movement, emotion, thought process or bodily process has a neural pathway corresponding to it that runs like a computer program. For example, when we learn to drive a car - at first we struggle and driving is not easy. But in time and practice we get better, we learn to drive: use the gears, listen to the radio, check the mirrors all at the same time and it becomes like an automatic process that just happens. That is a new neural pathway that gets wired in and activated everytime you drive.



Think of these pathways as automatic programmes that make us do things




There are two amazing processes you should be aware of:



  1. Neuroplasticity - when neurons rearrange within the brain and create new connections

  2. Neurogenesis - The process by which new neurons are created in the brain





So neurogenesis creates new neurons altogether and neuroplasticity allows existing neurons to rewire to make changes in existing pathways.


Both processes are super interesting, exciting discoveries to come from neuroscience that can help our brain health and overall wellbeing. Both, neuroplasticity & neruogenesis represent massive potential areas of improving our overall wellbeing and life satisfaction if we can stimulate both processes. To have more positive thoughts, emotions, behaviours and less unhelpful ones. This is why there is a huge buzz about ways we can stimulate plasticity in the brain. Schaffer, J (2016)



How Neurons and Synapses work


To understand what is happening in our brains further lets take a brief look at the connections between neurons and synapses. Neurons are connected together via synapses - a connecting agent between pre-synaptic cells and post-synaptic cells. A electrical current called an action potential emerges from the pre-synaptic cell, which releases a neurotransmitter ( such as: adrenaline, noradrenaline, dopamine, endorphins, serotonin) that sends a message through the synapse to the post-synaptic cell which bonds the two together. This process then repeats onto the next two Neurons and links millions of cells together.



Figure 2: The connection betweens Neurons

Figure 2.1: source: https://qbi.uq.edu.au/brain-basics/brain/brain-physiology/action-potentials-and-synapses


"When you meet someone or learn a new fact, your brain changes its structure and function. The environment can change our brains, even if we are not aware of it. Some events change the way brain cells communicate with one another, by strengthening or weakening this communication." - Menezes Guimarães, Valério-Gomes, Lent (2017)


The bad and good of neural pathways


For an every good pathway there is a likely another pathway that is unhelpful. We may have old or outdated pathways that trigger rumination, anxiety or looping fear responses in our minds. For example, if we had a car crash in the past we are going to have a pathway in our brains that is likely to more fearful of getting in a car. The more car crashes we might have

(fingers crossed we all won’t experience too many) then the stronger the pathway linked to fear and cars becomes. "Some events change the way brain cells communicate with one another, by strengthening or weakening this communication." Menezes Guimarães, Valério-Gomes, Lent (2017)


However, plasticity towards the positive side - making good and helpful neural pathways is not guaranteed. Plasticity typically decreases with: age, poor health, poor diet, developmental issues, social isolation, lack of sleep.


Whereas, if we focus on good attributes, behaviours or experiences we can shift our conscious awareness onto creating new pathways for these things. "Perhaps love is one of the most valuable intentional emotional experiences humans can produce to drive brain plasticity in a positive direction. (...) There is a growing corpus of literature on ways to drive brain plasticity in a positive direction that could contribute more powerfully in strategies of intervention for healing and enhancement of function than would research on what drives loss." Shaffer, Joyce (2016) In the same review, Shaffer argues that mindfulness practitioners and long term meditators 'may have less atrophy of brain gray matter with aging' (Luders et al., 2015 cited by Schaffer, J (2016) The review found that even in short meditation practices boosted plasticity.


Simply put, if we want to be more: happy, loved, content, kind, fun, funny &/or anything you can dream up. Then we need to create these pathways and/or strengthen them. Which is where having a more plastic brain comes in. New pathways equals new opportunities for feeling different.


As well as regular meditation and mindfulness, other factors were listed as being important at creating a more plastic adaptive brain. Good quality sleep, a rich social network of friends & family, Regular exercise ( around 60 mins a day), listening to music and diet all boosted and promoted brain plasticity and neurogenesis (the production of new cells). Schaffer, J (2016)


So it looks like the morning meditation we ought to get back to and that health kick really does have huge repercussions not only on our general wellbeing. But, also in making our brains more plastic, adaptable, able to switch on and create new positive pathways. improved sleep, exercise, listening to music and diet all help - so you might want to adopt one or more of these things into your life more to get some of the benefits of increased neruoplasticity.




References


Berlucchi G, Buchtel HA. Neuronal plasticity: historical roots and evolution of meaning. Exp Brain Res. 2009 Jan;192(3):307-19. doi: 10.1007/s00221-008-1611-6. Epub 2008 Nov 12. PMID: 19002678.


Menezes Guimarães, Valério-Gomes, Lent (2020) Neuroplasticity: The Brain Changes Over Time!, https://kids.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/frym.2020.522413 (accessed: 22/03/2022)


Palkovits M. Agypályák--idegi hálózatok [Neural pathways--neural networks]. Orv Hetil. 1996 Jun 9;137(23):1235-43. Hungarian. PMID: 8757093.


Patrice Voss*†, Maryse E. Thomas†, J. Miguel Cisneros-Franco and Étienne de Villers-Sidani* (2017) Dynamic Brains and the Changing Rules of Neuroplasticity: Implications for Learning and Recovery, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01657/full (accessed: 22/03/2023)


Shaffer, J (2016) * Neuroplasticity and Clinical Practice: Building Brain Power for Health, frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01118/full (accessed: 22/03/2023)

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