By Andrea Watson March 12, 2021
Did you know that your brain is able to change its own structure and function, adapting as you go throughout your life experiencing things? This is called neuroplasticity, or brain plasticity. Yes, the human brain is a marvel. Your experiences are the key to this transformation, not just the time that passes. Certain factors such as aging, taking drugs, hormones, diet, maturation, stress, and disease can all affect changes in the brain and thus behavioral changes. Some of the things we can see happening in the brain as it changes include:
- Increases in dendritic length
- Altered metabolic activity
- Increased or decreased spine density
- Synapse formation
- Increased glial activity
Unsurprisingly, behavioral changes are correlated with this restructuring of the brain. The changes we see in neurons which are dependent upon experience are affected by several things, including:
- Gonadal hormones
- Trophic factors
- Brain pathology
So what we are really dealing with here is the fact that the brain can physically change long after development is complete. Now that’s amazing! When we see behavioral changes that we know are expressed because of changes in brain structure due to experience, we can also say that the following features of the brain have changed:
- Brain weight
- Cortical thickness
- Acetylcholine levels
- Dendritic structure
Now I know so far this has been a pretty heavy blog post with lots of scientific-y words. So I’ll try and keep it on the lighter side. One extra cool thing that I learned while doing this research is that this ability of the brain extends to other vertebrates as well, not just humans. Now we need to look at three different sets of behavioral distinctions when it comes to plasticity in the brain.
First, let’s look at the difference between exercise and gaining a new skill. For example, running on a treadmill is great for your physical health. However, it doesn’t do much for neuroplasticity and the related aspects of it. On the other hand, things like learning to play a new musical instrument, learning a new language, or acquiring any other new skill takes a lot of practice. These types of things are the ones that will change the structure of your brain.
I find this interesting when I think back to my childhood. I used to play the viola. A lot. And I got really good at it. So when I think of the way my fingers worked while I was playing my instrument, it’s not surprising to me knowing what I know now how it worked out. When I first started playing, my fingers didn’t really know what to do. I had to seriously think about it and concentrate on it. But by the time I had been doing it for several years, my fingers did their thing on their own without me looking or even thinking about it. They were just trained to know what to do by themselves. My brain would look at the sheet music, or if I had memorized it I wouldn’t look at the sheet music, I would just hear it in my head and my body would follow along creating actual music that could be heard. The same pattern happened as I was learning to throw knives.
Next, we look at the difference between voluntary movements and supporting reactions. When a part of our body moves voluntarily, there’s always another part of our body that has to compensate for it and hold us up or support us while we move. For example, when we lift our head up, our neck is really doing all the work. It is true that learning a new skill that involves certain movements affect changes in the brain. But it is not really known if the supporting reactions do that same thing. The assumption is that the entire motor system in the brain will be affected rather than just those areas that have to do with the parts of our bodies that are moving in new ways.
The third distinction has to do with brain injury and recovery. It is known that after a traumatic brain injury, the surviving brain tissue will compensate to contribute to recovery of the brain. It is now thought that this compensation is not due to surviving neurons simply compensating for lost ones, but is actually due to surviving neurons changing their morphology to support compensatory skills.
Depression is also one thing that can change the structure of your brain. Unfortunately, depression can be very hard to treat sometimes and many of the common treatments are basically ineffective if you have long-term depression. This cannot really be helped. Our brains are going to change based on our experiences. The best we can do is work to gain new skills, eat a healthy diet, keep an eye on our hormone levels, try to reduce stress as it happens, and other such things. Not all changes in our brains are good and not all our bad either. It’s just that both are possible. While we cannot have complete control over this, we can be aware of it and seek help if we need to. Until next time,