Historically it was believed that brain is a fixed structure without any ability to change after early childhood. Modern neuroscience has rejected this belief and confirmed that brain continues to grow and create newer connections and pathways and also alter the existing ones as an adaptation mechanism. The process is evident both in normal healthy brain and also in brain of patients suffering from various brain disorders like stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and others.
The modern life is full of stress due to increasing demand for better efficiency in complex environment of competition and rat race. There is an extraordinary demand on brain to adapt to new complexities met in personal and professional lives. Thankfully our brain is capable of reorganizing itself till our last breath. It is now well established that brain cells (neurons) can form new dendrites and axons (parts of the nerve cells) to cope up with challenging situations. This process of remodeling of brain is termed as neuroplasticity, brain wiring, remodeling or neurogenesis that gives tremendous hope for preventing age related memory problems and preserving our mental ability throughout the life. Besides genetic influences, neuroplasticity is influenced by our thoughts and experiences that we encounter on daily basis- compensatory regeneration.
Neuroplasticity is enhanced by physical exercise, dietary choices, mental stimulation like learning newer skills like music and language, reading, writing or solving complex puzzles and increasing social connectedness.
Physical exercise is an important factor for preserving and improving brain health. Lack of exercise has detrimental effects on brain similar to smoking and obesity. It causes faster decline in processing speed and increased memory loss. Physical exercise enhances neuroplasticity resulting better cognition and faster processing of information. It also reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Greatest benefits of physical exercise on neuroplasticity have been seen with aerobic exercises. Combining cognitive training with natural aerobics like dancing could be most effective way to enhance cognitive skills. The clinical studies with MRI have shown that physical exercise regardless of its type and duration increases brain (grey matter) volume central to cognitive function.
The optimum intakes of various food nutrients also positively affect the neuroplasticity. Dietary choices have a significant effect on neuroprotection by reducing chronic inflammatory changes in the brain. Latest researches have demonstrated the benefits of calorie restriction by intermittent fasting on physical and mental health. Calorie restriction is associated with improved synaptic resilience and performance. Intermittent fasting also increases the longevity of a person. Some of the foods that are known to improve cognitive ability are vegetables, fruits, fish, polyunsaturated fats, curcumin, omega-3 fatty acids (EPA & DHA). These are full of anti-oxidants and anti-inflammatory properties.
Music has a significant impact on neuroplasticity as it requires integration of audio-visual information as well as appreciation of abstract rules. Magneto encephalography has shown that long term training in music is associated with higher neuroplasticity in prefrontal cortex region of the brain. “Use it or lose it” is a simple phrase that highlights the significance of using our brain for developing new knowledge and skills.
Social interaction or pro-social behavior with enrichment of love, compassion and kindness is found to be linked with increased neuroplasticity with favorable structural and functional changes in the brain. Love is the one of the most important emotion and experience that human can produce drive to increase brain plasticity. In contrary, emotional stress and negative thoughts causes release of steroids in the brain that inhibits the process of neurogenesis.
Memorizing poems, or any piece of text and learning stimulate the formation of new nerve cells. Taxi drivers have a longer hippocampus (a part in brain) than bus drivers due to higher navigation required in case of former. Hippocampus is a specific region in the brain for using complex spatial information for efficient navigation.
Sleep deprivation is significantly associated with faster ageing and decline in memory. Sleep deprivation causes reduced neurogenesis that is not quickly reversible. Sleep is essential for disposal of wastes and distribution of essential elements that are associated with neurogenesis.
Brain reorganization takes place by mechanisms such as “axonal sprouting”. Healthy axons grow new nerve endings to reconnect with injured neurons or can also connect with other healthy neurons forming new neural pathways to accomplish a desired function. In case any part of the brain is damaged, the intact part may take over some of its functions. The brain compensates for damage by reorganizing and forming new connections between intact nerve cells. In order to reconnect and reorganize, the neurons need to be stimulated through activity
Certain empirical rules of neuroplasticity are:
- Failure of doing specific functions causes functional degradation
- Training to brain function can enhances brain function
- Nature of training or thoughts determine the nature of regeneration
- Regeneration require repeating of the same function or thoughts.
- Neuroplasticity in response to training enhances acquisition of similar behavior.
Meditation enhances the process of brain transformation by expansion of consciousness and also by switching on right genes. Mindfulness meditation produces anti-inflammatory effects similar to those produced by prescription drugs with a faster response noted in experienced meditators. The phenomenon of both structural and functional neuroplasticity has been observed in short term (4 weeks) as well as long term meditation of tens of thousands of hours.
Albert Einstein has reinforced on letting go things and flexibility to be more adaptable. Do not put so much emphasis on being right all the times. Being right is less significant than being happy. In the fast pace of life you need to redefine yourself every day. Allow your mind to higher vision and positive attitude.
Certain companies are engaged in developing cognitive training computer game to improve the symptoms in children with cognitive deficits and attention deficit disorder (ADHD). The phenomenon of neuroplasticity is a great boon to humans to allow them to alter their thoughts and activities in favor of developing right attitude, stress free living, healthy diets and better cognition. People should leave the old myth of “fixed brain” or fixed attitude and work continuously on developing good moral behavior with healthy living.