The Fantastic Plastic Brain

Brain Plasticity Small
It’s one of the most extraordinary discoveries of the 20th century. Neuroplasticity or brain plasticity is the finding that the brain can change, that new brain cells are constantly being born and dying, that new connections form, and that the internal structure of the existing synapses can change. 

When a person becomes an expert in a specific domain, he will have growth in the areas of the brain that are involved with that particular skill. Neuroplasticity allows brain cells to compensate for injury and disease and adjust their activities in response to new situations or environmental changes.

Neuroplasticity changes lives

In Cape Town, a proud mother and her twin sons know exactly how practical brain plasticity is.

Armien’s twin sons were diagnosed with foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). When they were in Grade 3, Armien realised that her boys were going to have to attend a special school unless she could find another way. And she did.

The twins joined Edublox mid-way through Grade 3. Within three months, there were drastic improvements in their handwriting and ability to concentrate because their brain’s plasticity was utilised for optimal development. They are now in Grade 10 and doing well.

Further afield, there is, of course, exciting research to back the experience of this Cape Town family. A study done in 2000 concluded that London taxi drivers have larger hippocampi than London bus drivers. The hippocampus is a brain structure involved in learning routes and spatial representations. The development in the size of the hippocampus correlated positively with the length of time being a taxi driver, suggesting that driving taxis in London develops the hippocampus.

How juggling transforms the brain

Another fun study involved 12 people in their early twenties, who were required to learn a classic three-ball juggling trick over a period of three months until they could sustain a performance for at least one minute. Another 12, the control group, did not juggle.

The jugglers showed a significant increase in grey matter in brain area V5, an area implicated in the processing of visual movement. “This makes sense,” says Dr. Arne May, who initiated the study, “because what you need most in juggling, as a beginner, is to estimate where the ball will go and to move your hand in that direction before the ball gets there.”

But what happens when a newly acquired skill like juggling is allowed to stagnate? The participants were asked to stop practising their juggling skills for three months and were scanned again.

The results? Their amount of grey matter in V5 had reduced. This finding supports the idea that the brain needs to be exercised or stimulated. Otherwise, one will lose skills.

Learn a new language or play an instrument

Another interesting finding is that plasticity can be observed in the brains of bilinguals. Learning a second language seems possible through functional changes in the brain. Those who learned a second language at a younger age were also more likely to have more advanced grey matter than those who learned their second language later.

Did you know that being a professional musician is good for the brain? A study by Gaser and Schlaug found that the length of time musicians used to practise each day positively impacted the volume of grey matter in each participant. In contrast, their white matter was strengthened by the number of years they had been practising.

Many scientific studies prove that the brain is plastic throughout life; the brain is constantly changing. New neurons are continually being born, particularly in the learning and memory centres, which explains the academic progress that Armien’s twin boys made after joining a comprehensive cognitive skills development programme.

Enhancing your brain health

Exercising or stimulating your brain is highly recommended as part of a brain-healthy lifestyle. Brain exercises impact brain health, just like physical exercises enhance the body’s muscles and joints.

When you exercise or stimulate your brain through new or unfamiliar activities, you can trigger changes in the brain, such as increased connections between neurons. These changes contribute to an increase in what is called your brain reserve. Research suggests that the more brain reserve one has, the more resistant the brain is to age-related or disease-related damage.

Your brain should be a jungle 

To better understand brain reserve, consider the following scenario: You are flying 300 meters above the ground in an airplane. Looking down, you see two distinct scenes. The first scene is a jungle with so many trees you cannot see the ground. The second scene is an island with one palm tree blowing slowly in the wind.

A healthy brain should be like a jungle, with a tremendous number of synaptic connections. Scholars refer to this as synaptic density, a direct measure of brain reserve. A brain should not look like an island with one palm tree. The reason is simple: Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia will invade the brain and begin to cut down the neurons and synaptic connections, like a weed-eater cutting through the weeds around your house.

If the brain looks like a jungle, filled with synaptic connections, Alzheimer’s and other diseases will take a long time to show their ugly clinical faces. However, if the brain looks like the island with one palm tree, the clinical signs of Alzheimer’s will manifest quickly because there is no reserve to fight it off.

How brain reserve delays Alzheimer’s 

According to the brain reserve concept, people who never manifested Alzheimer’s disease in life, even though they had the neuropathological characteristics in their brains at autopsy, had built up brain reserve to fight off or delay the onset of the disease.

In their study on brain reserve, neuroscientist Michael Valenzuela and colleague Perminder Sachdev concluded: This study demonstrates robust evidence that complex patterns of mental activity in the early, mid-, and late-life stages are associated with a significant reduction in dementia incidence. “In one sense, the brain appears to be no different from the muscles of the body,” said Valenzuela, “it’s a case of use it or lose it.”

Edublox is an educational method that integrates cognitive training and solid learning principles with reading, writing, or maths tutoring. Edublox assists children in becoming life-long learners and empowers them to realise their highest educational goals. While Edublox is not a quick fix, it can permanently alleviate the symptoms of learning disabilities like dyslexia. Contact us.

Share Button

Leave a Reply

Notify of
Skip to toolbar