What is neuroplasticity and how does it work? The story of your ever-evolving brain
Your brain is a fascinating organ. Like a top-level manager, it directs important functions like regulating movement, breathing, the five senses, and thought processes. The real superpower of the brain is its durability and adaptability throughout life. The brain is highly evolved to adapt structurally and functionally. This quality of the brain to reorganise its structure, function, or connections in response to the environment is called the neuroplasticity of the brain .
Your brain likes to be well prepared for all possibilities. If you are anticipating rainy weather on your day out, you will arm yourself with a raincoat, umbrella, and waterproof boots to protect yourself before you leave. Your brain does the same in a more sophisticated way and arms itself with extra brain cells and connections in anticipation of possible events.
Neuroplasticity: How and why does the brain do it?
Your brain adapts in 2 ways :
- Structural organisation: The brain has the ability to produce new brain cells and eliminate unneeded cells. It can also strengthen the physical connections between cells.
- Functional organisation: The brain delegates tasks to different areas. In case of injuries, the brain can allot tasks to different areas to ensure proper functioning.
The connection of neuroplasticity and learning is through the brain’s ability to make these structural and functional adaptations.
Imagine you encounter a road closure on your way to work. If you know another route to get there, you can make it to work smoothly and on time. Your brain stores all sorts of information for varying lengths of time. As you grow older, some connections may weaken. Your brain uses its neuroplastic ability to access that information through another route. The better adapted your brain is, the more multifunctional it can be.
Though it may seem like a good back-up plan, it is essential for life. In accidents where brain damage occurs, doctors have witnessed the brain’s miraculous ability to retrain different parts of itself to take over the function of the damaged area. Even in situations where half the brain was removed, brain scans found that the remaining half reorganised itself to restore the lost functions .
How to increase neuroplasticity?
There are many evidence-based ways through which you can enhance the neuroplastic powers of your brain. Nutrition, physical activity, mental activity, and sleep  are areas that can direct your brain’s ability to make strong, new connections. Here are 4 ways to increase your neuroplasticity:
Eating to feed big brain cells.
Diets like the Mediterranean diet and the MIND diet encourage intake of foods that support brain health and consequently, its ability to transform. Certain nutrients have been shown to provide the right resources for the brain’s neuroplastic abilities. Healthy brain fats like DHA and plant nutrients like flavonoids are 2 such top tier nutrients that can enhance neuroplasticity.
- DHA is a fat that forms 25% of the brain’s structure and must be taken from the diet to maintain brain health . DHA is found in high amounts in fatty fishes like mackerel, salmon, anchovies or in vegan sources like algae. DHA enhances neuroplasticity by :
- Increasing the production of new brain cells and connections in the memory and learning areas.
- Enhancing the protective layer of the brain cells to improve connections between cells.
- Flavonoids are nutrients found in fruits and vegetables like berries, parsley, cabbage, and kale. These have shown to promote neuroplasticity by :
- Increasing blood flow to the brain: Blood carries oxygen and nutrients to the brain. Flavonoid enhances the blood flow within 2 hours of consumption and increases size of blood vessels to allow maximal blood flow
- Flavonoids enhance the thickness of brain cells in the memory and energy production areas of the brain. This helps strengthen and promote new brain cells connections.
Exercise to pump up brain power.
If exercise could be bottled in a pill, it could be one of the most powerful brain health treatments. A device is used to measure neuroplasticity by assessing the activation of different areas of the brain. It was found that exercise promotes activation of these areas after a single session . A review of multiple studies found that even 10-60 mins of exercise provided numerous brain benefits like :
- increasing size of the cognitive brain areas that support skills like attention and memory
- increasing blood flow to the brain
- increasing new brain cells production
- strengthening connectivity between different brain areas
Some of these benefits are seen in a single workout, with regular exercise providing lasting benefits. All types of exercises, whether they are aerobic or weight bearing exercises have shown to induce neuroplasticity, with a combination of both showing the highest effect .
Mental stimulation for continued brain adaptation
Your brain needs constant productive stimulation to hone its neuroplasticity powers. Seeking education, learning a new language, playing brain games and positive social interactions are all part of neuroplasticity exercises. It was found that those with higher education were better protected against cognitive loss when parts of the brain were damaged . Constantly learning new things will add to the same effect. Mentally stimulating hobbies like reading, dancing, crafting, and others are associated with 40% lower risk of cognitive impairment . Providing an enriched environment to the brain through developing new skills allows the brain to form multiple connections and build different routes. These changes enhance the structure of the brain, in addition to increasing the brain’s ability to resist damage. Mini challenges like learning languages, solving puzzles, learning a musical instrument all serve as practice for the brain to step up in old age and in traumatic incidents of damage.
Sleep well for a recovered and organised brain
Getting good quality rest is equally as important as stimulating your brain. Your brain does a deep clean to get rid of toxic materials as you sleep. With the overload of information it receives regularly, it allocates the time you sleep to organise this information and transfer it to long term storage. Sleep is also important to ensure that your efforts of building new brain cells and connections are solidified. Being sleep deprived for 24-48 hrs can breakdown connections in the learning area of the brain and can also reduce new cell production by 80% . Consistently getting a good night’s sleep of 6-8 hours has shown to promote optimal size of 46 important brain structures involved in memory, learning and emotions .
Making lifestyle changes in your diet, physical and mental activity, and sleep can help your brain become more multifunctional, leading to better cognitive health in old age.
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