It was once thought that brain cells, called neurons, were created mostly during infancy and did not change much as a person aged (1). It was believed that the brain became static, unchanging after a person passed a critical age. However, as imaging techniques advanced, researchers discovered that new neurons, and pathways through neuronal connections, are created throughout the whole lifetime! Not only are new neurons created, but the brain can alter the structure and function of these connections. The property of something being able to change its own structure is called plasticity (1). When the brain can modify its own structure in response to stimulation, it's called neuroplasticity.
How can the power of neuroplasticity improve our daily lives, and are there any particular brain health strategies that manipulate neuroplasticity to make new brain pathways?
What is Neuroplasticity?
The human body's ability to adapt to the environment is a true marvel. The brain seems particularly flexible in this manner. Each neuron in the brain has many appendages called dendrites that branch out and communicate with other neurons by releasing chemicals into the narrow areas between them, called synapses. The release of chemicals is caused by an electrical impulse that moves down the dendrites.
When electro-chemical communication from one neuron to another is traced with current technology, a picture of a neural pathway emerges. Whole branches of connections are seen, similar to trees whose roots and branches touch each other. After an initial period of practice, each time an action (or thought) is repeated, the same basic pathway is used.
New actions that have never been done before forge new pathways. Dendrites may move over to communicate with a different nearby neuron, or a new dendrite may grow where it's needed to create the preferred pathway. Repetition of an action or thought strengthens these pathways. The opposite is true as well; if an action is not repeated often enough, the brain connections and pathways fade.
To summarize, there are general statements about neuroplasticity we can make:
Repeating actions strengthens and maintains brain pathways.
Lack of repeating an action will cause associated brain pathways to weaken or fade.
New, novel actions may create new brain cells, connections, and pathways.
Novel actions that are not frequently repeated will not be maintained. The responsive brain both creates new pathways of communication and allows those that are not being actively used to be pruned away.
Benefits of Increasing Neuroplasticity
Researchers have long established that the human brain is responsive to many types of stimulation, such as sight, sound, or even thinking. Repeated actions work through neuroplasticity to solidify learning and memory. Some actions, such as learning a challenging skill, encourage neuroplasticity and create new brain pathways.
Strengthening these new pathways in the brain has a positive effect on memory, and helps resist neurodegeneration, which is aging and decline of the brain (2). It's the classic "use it or lose it" phenomenon, backed by studies and testimony alike.
A 2008 study revealed that the effects of small periods of musical training increased a particular type of neuroplasticity (3). Indeed, numerous studies going back decades link musical training to staving off age-related decline (3). One study on participants ranging from 60 to 84 years old required them to take piano lessons for 4 months. The results showed many benefits, including improved mood, attention, control, motor function, visual scanning, and executive functioning (4).
Studies in 2010 used computer programs to increase participants' capacity for memorization while also using electroencephalography to measure brain plasticity. Results showed that working memory could be greatly improved with computer training (4).
While the results above are fantastic, neuroplasticity has profound implications beyond just preserving memory and brain function, because this mechanism enables one to (1):
Modify negative thought & behavioral patterns into beneficial ones
Create a new mindset
Forge new memories, new skills, and new abilities
Please read our article, "Care & Maintenance of the Human Brain for Optimal Brain Health" and consider incorporating the strategies for improving brain health that are detailed there. We will not review those strategies in this article, rather, we will focus on two strategies that deserve special mention: learning new skills, and visualization.
Continuously Learn Challenging Skills
Neuroplasticity research has unearthed some fascinating information. One of the best ways to increase neuroplasticity is to learn a new skill. Interestingly, acquiring a new skill must be challenging. Studies indicated that if the new skill was easy for you, there were no significant gains! The more challenging the activity, the better the result on the brain (5). Indeed, "challenging activities strengthen entire networks in the brain” (5).
What's truly interesting is that it doesn't matter if you actually master the challenging activity! In a study about acquiring a second language, the increase in neuroplasticity had no link to how well the participant spoke the second language. What mattered was the learning process itself (6).
You might rank potential skills by how hard they would be to acquire, and pick something that will take time, attention, and some problem-solving on your behalf. The repetition of doing something difficult will build some brain pathways, so pick a skill that interests you, but will take several months or years to master. Then, once the skill becomes easy, choose another skill to learn.
Challenging activities that require multiple, simultaneous brain functions to learn are:
Playing a musical instrument
Using (or troubleshooting) a computer or application
Speaking a foreign language
Playing games involving strategy
The Value of Visualization
As stated above, thoughts can also influence the growth of neural pathways. When imagining an action, the brain responds very similarly to actually performing the action - the same neurons react (7). Elite athletes have known this for a long time, and use their imagination to form mental images of every move they must perform in a competition. Repetitive visualization trains and strengthens the neural pathways so that when the action is eventually performed, there may be fewer mistakes, or perhaps the series of actions takes less time. Visualization can be applied to many activities:
Athletic or music performance
Maintaining old memories
Combating fears, phobias, or anxiety
Fake It Till You Make It
The fact that the brain reacts similarly to external reality and to private thoughts is quite profound. This implies that a person who continually thinks positive thoughts and "sees" themselves mastering their challenges is training their brain to be cheerful and competent. The opposite holds true as well; the brain can be trained to be negative and cynical. However, through the power of neuroplasticity, a person can practice being optimistic - and it will eventually become routine! Being optimistic is worth a try, as one researcher claims it not only combats depression but may lead to living about 8 years longer (8).
Measuring the Brain: WAVi Scans
WAVi scans not only provide an early warning system for neurodegeneration but they can also be used to monitor restorative therapies. For example, if a person began to have cognitive decline but combatted it with learning a new skill and visualization, the WAVi scan may pick up the result of increased neuroplasticity if the changes are significant enough.
Tiny changes in the brain can be tracked by Whole Brain Analysis and Volumetric Imaging (WAVi) scans. These non-invasive, FDA-cleared scans are achieved through a headset and software combination. The specialized headset measures the brain's electrical activity through electroencephalography (EEG), recording the brain's reactions to sound and visual cues.
WAVi scans are so sensitive, they can detect a potential issue with the speed of communication across the neuronal pathways of the brain. A variety of reports from the scan can be analyzed for patterns that can give early warning signals about the brain, which may signal neurodegeneration, cognitive decline, or a lack of adequate neuroplasticity. Depending on the results, a referral to a neurologist may be necessary for further information and a more specific diagnosis.
One caveat is that the WAVi scan is only valuable if one has been performed before significant decline has occurred. In other words, it is necessary to get a baseline scan when the brain is not yet exhibiting symptoms, as a comparison for later scans.
At the Temecula Center for Integrative Medicine (TCIM), WAVi testing may be added to the round of tests performed during an Executive Physical based on an individual’s risk factors and symptoms.
Preserving brain function through learning a difficult skill and visualization is a low-cost but high-yield set of strategies. TCIM heartily promotes prevention strategies that help people avoid heartache, hospital bills, and loss of time and energy. Loss of brain function is devastating; however, there are ways to avoid becoming a statistic! By manipulating your neuroplasticity, you can make your brain resilient by strengthening and maintaining brain pathways. Fortunately, brain health is measurable. If you would like to create a plan to improve your brain health or want to track your brain function and would like to obtain a baseline scan, please let us know.We are always happy to help people become proactive about their health!
Jonathan Vellinga, MD is an Internal Medicine practitioner with a broad interest in medicine. He graduated Summa cum laude from Weber State University in Clinical Laboratory Sciences and completed his medical degree from the Medical College of Wisconsin.
Upon graduation from medical school, he completed his Internal Medicine residency at the University of Michigan. Dr. Vellinga is board-certified with the American Board of Internal Medicine and a member of the Institute for Functional Medicine.
1. [Internet]. [cited 2023 Nov 17]. Available from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/neuroplasticity
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7. Stephen FA, Ermalyn LP, Mangorsi BY, Louise LJD, Juvenmile TB. A Voyage into the Visualization of Athletic Performances: A Review. American Journal of Multidisciplinary Research and Innovation [Internet]. 2022 Aug 11;1(3):105–109. Available from: https://doi.org/10.54536/ajmri.v1i3.479
8. Gallo C. Brain Science Reveals The Striking Power Of Optimism. Forbes [Internet]. 2017 Nov 19; Available from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/carminegallo/2017/11/19/brain-science-reveals-the-striking-power-of-optimism/?sh=584130db71aa