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Neuroplasticity: Experience Changes Your Brain

Your brain can change; its current state is not its forever state. Neurons in the brain are as numerous as stars in the Milky Way, with over 100 trillion connections between them. 

Two neurons communicating

What is it?

Neuroplasticity, a term that encapsulates the brain's remarkable adaptability, refers to the changeable nature of the neuronal connections in the brain. Neurons, the building blocks of communication in the nervous system, are connected by synapses, the gaps that enable signals to travel from one neuron to the next. Neuroplasticity results from the central nervous system's ability to “undergo structural and functional reorganization in response to the environment, its afferent stimuli, and efferent demands” (Christiansen et al.).

There are two types of neuroplasticity: structural plasticity and functional plasticity. 

  • Structural plasticity: the brain’s ability to change physical structure due to learning 

  • Functional plasticity: the brain’s ability to move functions from one area of the brain that was damaged to other undamaged areas to maintain some of its normal functioning. 

Why is neuroplasticity important? 

Understanding neuroplasticity is fascinating and empowering. It's the key to unlocking our brain's potential for learning. The concept of “use it or lose it” is directly applicable here, as synapses are strengthened or weakened depending on how much the pathways are used. Since the brain is only two percent of the body’s mass yet requires 20 percent of the body’s energy, it is critical for the brain to be efficient in its connections and only maintain the pathways that are likely to be used to conserve energy.

  1. Neuroplasticity enables us to learn new things. As we learn, the synapses between neurons strengthen. These physical and structural changes lead to changes in functioning and learning. It is due to experiences and new information that our brains change their neuronal connections and we can retain new knowledge. 

  1. These improvements can enhance brain fitness. The term Cognifit defines brain fitness as “the ability of the brain to learn what the organism needs to know in order to survive in a changing environment.”  Neuroplasticity enables the brain to acquire this new information in a changing environment, thus increasing brain fitness. 

Additionally, functional plasticity is critical in the rehabilitation and recovery process from brain injuries such as traumatic brain injuries/concussions (TBIs), stroke, tumors, etc. 

  1. According to Harvard, due to neuroplasticity, individuals can regain functions that were previously there before the traumatic event. This is likely due to an increase in dendritic spines that researchers at University of California Santa Cruz found in mice that were learning new information. 

  1. When individuals undergo stroke or TBI rehabilitation, their brains are being rewired to regain functions. Otherwise, these individuals would not be able to recover at all. Although in most cases, a 100 percent regain of functions is rare, being able to continue some of these daily life skills is instrumental. Rehab and therapies aim to create rewiring in the brain by drilling lost skills, thus enabling synaptic connections to strengthen. 

  1. Synaptic strengthening can lead to previously weak connections becoming strengthened, enabling patients with physical or motor deficits to regain function through nearby areas of the brain taking over some of these functions. 

How can we influence neuroplasticity?

Neuroplasticity, which is so critical in learning and rewiring, can be influenced by many factors. 

  1. Exercise: Loprinzi et al. found in 2020 that exercise can lead to increased levels of neuroplasticity. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain and heightens levels of growth factors that are critical in neuroplasticity: Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor and IGF-1. This research specifically notes the benefits of both aerobic exercise as well as resistance training in promoting neuroplasticity. Loprinzi et al’s study is one of many that highlights the critical impact of exercise on learning and rehabilitation. 


  1. Nourishment: Many studies have highlighted the large impact that our food choices have on our ability to strengthen, prune, and create new synaptic connections. For example, Curcumin, a compound in turmeric, as well as Omega-3 fatty acids are known to increase levels of neuroplasticity. Some of these foods include nuts, avocado, salmon, dark chocolate, and leafy greens. Conversely, excess levels of saturated fats have been demonstrated to decrease levels of cognitive functioning and neuroplasticity.  

  1. Sleep: One of the most important factors in increasing levels of neuroplasticity is sleep! Sleep deprivation is associated with a significant loss in our brain’s ability to strengthen synaptic connections. Having adequate levels of blood supply to the brain is crucial in neuroplasticity, and sleep facilitates this.  

  1. Experience: Cognitively engaging activities such as learning a new language, playing an instrument, reading, and logic games can promote neuroplasticity as well. This is because repeated “usage” of neural pathways leads to strengthening. Enriched environments, especially during the early years known as the “critical period,” but also throughout adulthood promotes neuroplasticity. 

In conclusion… 

We have the potential to change not just how our brain functions but its structural connections. Neuroplasticity plays a large role in our ability to learn and regain loss functions. We can further enhance these functions through enriching our environments, making sure we’re getting adequate sleep, exercising, and getting our nutrients! 



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