What if you could positively affect your brain in just 30 days? If asked, nearly everyone would like to improve brain function, memory and process information faster. Changing the brain for the better is easier than one might think. The secret to improving brain function lies in brain plasticity, also known as neuroplasticity, which refers directly to the brain’s ability to adapt and change at any age. This capability not only shapes our personalities and staves off cognitive decline but can also help with the healing process throughout the body.
Technically speaking, brain plasticity is the ability of the brain to change connections or “rewire” itself. Without this ability, the brain would not be able to develop from childhood to adulthood or recover from a brain injury. The anatomy of the brain dictates that certain areas in the brain have certain functions. Changes in the brain are reflected in changes in our abilities. For example, each time we learn a new dance step, it reflects a change in our physical brains: new “wires” (neural pathways) that give instructions to our bodies on how to perform the step. Each time we forget someone’s name, it also reflects brain change— “wires” that once connected to the memory have been degraded, or even severed. As these examples show, changes in the brain can result in improved skills (a new dance step) or a weakening of skills (a forgotten name). This ability to change and adapt has shown to be extremely valuable in the healing process.
In one case that has been making headlines recently, a 6-year-old boy had a tumor removed from his brain that was causing epileptic seizures and could not be controlled by medicine. Worried that the seizures could harm his brain development or even become life-threatening, doctors performed a surgery that removed a third of the right hemisphere of his brain. The surgery worked in stopping the seizures, but the boy lost his entire left-side vision field. In addition, doctors were worried that he would also lose the ability to recognize faces, an ability that is handled by the right side of the brain. However, in tracking the boy’s progress through behavioral tests and brain scans, they noticed that the left side of his brain had made room for the ability to recognize faces. “This study shows that plasticity is real. Plasticity is key — your brain’s golden art of adaptation,” said Dr. Steven Wolf, an associate professor of neurology and pediatrics at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, in New York City. Today, the boy’s IQ is above average, his language skills are on track with his age and his test scores are good enough that he is advancing through school.
As we grow, our brains make new connections and even prune away synapses that are not needed. We continue to learn new skills into old age. Plasticity could even explain how aggressive treatments after a stroke can reverse damage caused by the lack of blood supply by reinforcing undamaged connections or forging new ones. The key to harnessing the brain’s plasticity to help the body recover from injury, illness or stroke lies in the treatments offered during rehabilitation. Perhaps one of the best things about plasticity-based therapies is that they are drug-free and non-invasive.
Whether seeking improved cognition, memory and concentration or halting the progression of Alzheimer’s, reversing dystonia or relearning skills lost to stroke, the possibilities for improvement in brain function through the power of plasticity are already impressive and continually growing.