Neuroplasticity 101

“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” How many times have we heard this idiom?

Actually, YOU CAN!

Our brain is the most complex and dynamic organ in our body. And unfortunately, one that is often underestimated.  Within the approximately 3-pound organ in your head lies billions of neurons and pathways responsible for the ability to process huge amounts of information faster than the blink of an eye!  Neurons are the longest-living cells in our bodies.  They carry the information throughout our brain and then on to our muscles and other organs.  Around the age of 18, the brain may physically stop growing in size, but it is developing forever.  Therefore even as adults, we can still get better at many types of skills!

This principle is known as Neuroplasticity

Neuro– nerves and nervous system

Plasticity – the ability to modify both structure and function in response to experience and injury

Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to change based on how we use it.  As we experience internal and external changes within our body, neurons are constantly creating, rearranging or removing neural pathways.  This is how our brain learns and stores new information.

Let’s look at a simple example: remember learning to ride a bike without training wheels?  First, we had an adult tell us what to do, maybe demonstrate it for us and allow us to peddle while they held onto the bike for safety. Then you began to understand for yourself what it felt like to peddle on your own, balance your body on the bike, and turn your handlebars to go different directions.  Eventually, with practice you were able to ride that bike anywhere, on any terrain and probably tried a few tricks (“Hey Ma, look! No hands!”).

Hence the idea, neurons that “fire together, wire together.”  While practicing and refining a new skill, all the neuronal pathways that developed while you were learning were firing at the same time, over and over again, until eventually they developed a physical connection and become physically associated.

Neuroplasticity can be applied to all forms of learning.  It’s the reason we can complete self-care (dress, feed, shower, etc.) without instructions or how we developed reading, writing, cooking, musical abilities, etc. Neuroplasticity builds our cognitive skills from concentration, attention and memory to executive functioning skills like planning, organizing and goal setting. All started out as simple steps we continued to practice over and over again.  There’s truth to “practice makes perfect!”

Even when we experience injury or trauma, the brain has the amazing potential to relearn skills through the process of neuroplasticity.  This is where an amazing rehabilitation team comes in!  Through guided and supervised opportunities, anyone can relearn skills through repetitive skill practice, compensatory strategies, or the use of assistive devices.  So, when it comes to your brain function either “use it or lose it” or “use it and improve it!”  Neuroplasticity allows us to do both.

 

-Rana Diptee