Neuroplasticity describes our ability to reorganise and optimise individual synapses, neurons, or entire regions of the brain in response to use.
This is a natural process that enables the organism to adapt to changes in its environment and react to new challenges. Plasticity is thus the basis for all learning processes.
Over the course of the second half of the 20th century, researchers discovered more and more about the plasticity of our brains well in to our adult lives.
Undeniably, age is also accompanied by degeneration. In old age, our weight, body structure, and the way our brains work all change. Neural transmission also declines somewhat. Typical things you hear and which supposedly refer to these changes are: “I used to be able to do that more easily.” Or: “Nowadays, I have to write things down so that I don’t forget them.” With increasing age, we suffer from memory loss and a slower reaction rate.
Poor prospects for old age? Not quite! We have developed numerous strategies to compensate for neuronal loss – these are like sticky notes for our brains. Neuroplasticity is responsible for this ability to train and thus shape certain areas of our brains. Our brain is in constant demand. It reacts to the many different stimuli in our environment, to sensations, scents, or the movements of our body. And in doing so, everything we experience changes our brains, either in the short or long term, allowing it to adapt to the requirements of our environment. Neuroplasticity is also the reason why we can learn, store thoughts, and replace lost abilities with other skills. The good news is: it works at any age (1).
Our brains are able to learn throughout our lives – as long as we don’t stand still!
An interesting test confirmed that the imagination alone can enlarge areas of the brain: Alvaro Pascual-Leone, a Spanish professor of neurology at the Harvard Medical School, determined that the cortical maps of the fingers become significantly larger after only one week of daily, two-hour finger exercises on the piano. The amazing thing is: it wasn’t just the mechanical practice that trained the brain. Just thinking about the exercise enlarged the region of the cerebral cortex that is responsible for the fingers (2).
Draganski, B., & May, A. (2008). Training-induced structural changes in the adult human brain. Behavioral Brain Research, 192, 137-142.
Fjell, A.M. & Walhovd, K.B. (2010). Structural brain changes in aging, courses, causes and cognitive consequences. Rev Neurosci, 21 (3): 187-221.
Holtmaat, A., & Svoboda, K. (2009). Experience-dependent structural synaptic plasticity in the mammalian brain. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 10 (9), 647-658.
Mercado III, E. (2008). Neural and cognitive plasticity: From maps to minds.Psychological Bulletin, 134(1), 109-137.
Salthouse, T. A., (2011). Neuroanatomical substrates of age-related cognitive decline. Psychological Bulletin, 137(5), 753-784.
Schmidt, R.F. (1979). Grundriss der Neurophysiologie. [Outline of neurophysiology] Springer: Heidelberg.
Pascual-Leone, A. (2001). The brain that plays music and is changed by it. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 930(1), 315-329.