Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to change throughout an individual’s life. Research has shown that many aspects of the brain can be altered even through adulthood. However, the developing brain (in the womb, and early childhood) exhibits a much higher degree of plasticity than the adult brain.
Neuroplasticity can be observed at multiple scales, from microscopic changes in individual neurons to larger-scale changes such as cortical remapping in response to injury. Behavior, environmental stimuli, thought, and emotions may also cause neuroplastic change. This has significant implications for learning, memory, and recovery from brain damage.
At the single cell level, synaptic plasticity refers to changes in the connections between neurons, whereas non-synaptic plasticity refers to changes in their intrinsic excitability.
– Adapted from, “Neuroplasticity.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 21 Sep. 2018
The brain is made of several types of nerves connected to each other in an intricate web, always creating new connections as we grow and learn.
I found the following sequence of GIFs on Mr. Gruszka’s Earth Science GIFtionary.
Whenever you learn something new, you grow some dendrites that made a new circuit in your brain.
Neurons send and receive electrical signals between different parts of the brain.
How are neurons connected?
Signals enter a neuron cell body through a dendrite, and then this may send an electrical signal out along the axon, towards another neuron. Dendrites and axon terminals grow relatively easy. Each time we learn something we grow new dendrite and axon terminal connections.
Whenever you continuously practice learning a new skill, your brain rewires itself.
When your brain rewires itself, new patterns are possible.
These new patterns not only store information, they help your brain learn similar information more efficiently. For instance, the more time you spend learning how to read music and play a musical instrument, the easier it will be over time to develop your skills in this area.
This process works best if you continue to challenge yourself, practicing the skills you have and attempting to learn new ones. As you do this, new connections are made in your brain, and to some extent one can literally become smarter, and better at learning.
However, unless your brain is challenged to do something difficult, or review what it already knows how to do, it will not produce new patterns. If you stop practicing and learning, then eventually the brain will begin to lose some of those neural connections.
When the brain prunes dendrites, we forget how to do something that we learned, or forget a fact that we used to know. In this sense, we say “Use it or lose it.”
Usually, all the dendrites required for a certain skill are not pruned, so we are in luck. With review and practice, we can make new connections that replace the lost ones.
What is meant by brain plasticity? The flexibility of the brain to make new connections and patterns:
This is because “plastic” does not just mean the material we make things out of. It has a second meaning of flexible, or changeable.
Also, brain cells can even travel within the brain to become neurons where they are needed. For instance, when neurons die, new cells can migrate to where they are needed and become neurons. This can happen throughout life.