Our brains can shape-shift!
I’d like to start by asking you a question – have you ever thought it’s too late for an adult to learn an instrument? Fortunately, it may never be too late for anyone to learn an instrument, or many things for that matter! It’s because of this amazing shape-shifting ability our brain has called neuroplasticity, which is one of our greatest discoveries of the human brain in modern science.
So what is Neuroplasticity?
As a child I often heard people say that you need to start learning an instrument while you’re young, otherwise it’ll be much harder and take much longer to learn if you start when you’re older. This often stemmed from a traditional belief that our brain became fixed and unchangeable once we reached adulthood. Incredible recent advances in brain imaging, mapping and stimulation technology have allowed us to check out our brain and investigate whether this theory holds true. Fortunately, this technology has shown that all brains, young and old, appear to dynamically change their structure over time. In fact, our brain may never become fixed, but may continuously remodel itself throughout our entire lifetime. Neuroplasticity describes just this – this ability of millions of nerve cells in our brain to rewire and remap their pathways. This is thought to allow signals to travel more efficiently and effectively in response to how we think, activities we do and brain injuries we might occur. It’s essentially the optimisation of brain signalling to improve our functions!
Have you ever heard of blind people being able to echo-locate? If not, it’s an ability used in animals like dolphins and bats, that some blind people learn, in order to visualise their environments in detail from sounds that echo off objects. Some blind people even make a clicking noise with their mouth to create echoes around them. Several studies have recently looked into the brains of blind people with these abilities and they’ve discovered that the echoes they hear appear to be processed by regions of their brain that are responsible for vision, not sound! Their brain seems to have adapted and restructured itself to create some sort of visual image from these sounds in place of their lost eyesight. People born blind might be better at echo-locating, but people who’ve become blind during their lifetime have still been able to develop this ability, suggesting that our brain could still adapt to such a significant change during life!
Exercise is something we all love doing don’t we! Or do we? Many studies of the brain of patients who complete a consistent aerobic exercise regime over several months have shown signs of physical changes in their brain, coupled with improvements in their cognitive control. Covering many different types of exercises, these studies seem to commonly show increases in the volume of their grey matter, albeit in both similar and different parts of the brain depending on the exercises. One example is in the hippocampus. Hippo what? Basically it appears to be a very important part of the brain that converts short-term memory into long-term memory. If you remember this tomorrow, you can thank that part of your brain! These cognitive improvements I mentioned before refer to signs of better emotional control, attention, problem solving and processing information faster, like when you overclock a computer’s processor to run faster!
Although we’ve come a long way in such a short period of time, we still have so many questions about the potential of our brain’s plasticity! For activities that already appear to change our brain, could these changes also benefit us beyond those activities? Imagine if learning an instrument or a second language improves your memory and attention when doing completely unrelated activities! On that note, we still don’t know how long any benefits last if you stop doing a ‘brain-changing’ activity. If you stop exercising, how long would it take before you start to lose those possible benefits? Speaking of benefits – is neuroplasticity always beneficial? If the spiral into something like depression or addiction goes hand in hand with changes in the structure of our brain, could these changes make it harder to overcome something like depression or an addiction?
What the future might hold
We still know so little about the hidden powers that cause our brain to change in certain ways. But when we discover a lot more, maybe we could somehow control and adjust our brain, for example with specific activities, to accelerate improvements in our physical movements, learning, attention and memory etc. This could hopefully help patients recover from brain injuries, improve the quality of life of people born with disabilities, and help prevent or reduce the symptoms of age-related brain disorders, such as Alzheimer’s and Dementia! Fortunately, science is already on it! Anyway, one thing’s already quite clear – you can teach an old dog new tricks! The fact that the people at the forefront of studying our brains are ‘adults’ is already proof that you’re never too old to learn something new!