Inside Learning Blog

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The Power of Brain Plasticity

July 2, 2014 by Geoff Nixon

The ability of the brain to change in response to stimuli

Brain plasticity refers to fact that the brain is adaptive — it self-organizes, meaning that if exercised appropriately it can adapt and change for the better.

This new understanding of the brain, made possible in the 1990’s by the invention of the fMRI, is in stark contrast to the prior theory, that each part of the brain has a fixed specialized function.  And that once these functions are learned, typically at a young age, they are fixed, pre-determined for life. As explained in great detail in Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain That Changes Itself, this theory was called localizationism and it has been proved wrong.

In fact, not only is the brain plastic and able to change, it is changing constantly. Brain maps, the functionality by region, change constantly depending on individual needs. This is called “competitive plasticity” (or “use it or lose it”), referring to the fact that the brain is constantly dropping connections (knowledge or skills) that are seem to be no longer needed or that are not being challenged, and it will add connections if there are new demands.

For instance, the brain of a person learning the violin will steadily add more brain capacity to the playing hand, as the demands for accuracy, speed and coordination grow. A recent study by MIT showed that visual cortex brain tissue in the blind is used for language processing.

The Brain’s Ability to Communicate Can Change

The process of neuronal communication occurs very rapidly and messages are sent almost instantaneously. However, in some people, neuronal communication takes longer than in other people or does not happen at all.

The efficiency of communication in our brain depends on an abundance of proper synaptic connections between neurons. If a message cannot get across the synapse to the next neuron, or if there are not enough pathways for the message to travel down, the message can’t be communicated to different areas of the brain. If something is described as “plastic”, this simply means that it has the ability to change. It is now well known that many different elements of the brain’s communication system have the ability to change.

Synaptic plasticity (stronger connections)

The synapse (connection between the neurons) can change in strength. For example, if there is more neurotransmitter crossing the synapse, there is more activation of the receptor sites on the next neuron, which leads to a stronger connection. Like any other form of exercise, synaptic strength will increase if there is repeated and consistent activation of neurons

Neuronal plasticity (new connections)

The brain communication network as a whole can also be improved. Neuroplasticity simply refers to the ability of neurons to form new synaptic connections with one another. When something new is heard, either existing neuronal pathways are slightly altered or new connections are formed. In this way, constant and repetitive use of language will improve the ability of the brain to change itself and thus brain’s communication can improve.

Brain Plasticity And Learning

Conventional wisdom has been that the “window” for helping children develop their learning skills ends at three years of age. This is not true. The window is open throughout a person’s life. If exercised appropriately all brains are capable of higher levels of learning skill.

It is true that in the first three years of life the brain is in set up mode and learning circuitry is “always on” and so the rate of learning — discarding old connections in favor of newer better ones — is fantastic.  Beyond that window exercises aimed at boosting learning ability need to overcome a more cemented learning process.  But that’s all.  It is very possible, and a number of therapies, exercising the brain in very different ways, targeting very different aspects of brain function are having success.

Fast ForWord As An Intervention

The adult brain is not only capable of change, change from experience is central to how it works. This means that even in the case of traumatic brain injury
or a stroke, rehabilitation using training that replicates experience with escalating complexity can be effective.

Many of the breakthrough brain plasticity experiments were conducted by Dr. Michael Merzenich, which he then applied to the real world as a co-founder of Fast ForWord software for reading and learning. Although the concept of brain fitness is relatively new, it is gaining traction fast, since it promises fast and effective results. Fast ForWord is the industry leader in brain training software.