Question: I keep hearing the term neuroplasticity. Can you give me an overview of what it is and how it works?
It is understood that the brain possesses the remarkable capacity to reorganize pathways, create new connections, and, in some cases, even create new neurons -a concept called neuroplasticity, or brain plasticity. Neuro refers to neurons, the nerve cells that are the building blocks of the brain and nervous system, and plasticity refers to the brain’s malleability.
Neuroplasticity is an ongoing process through life. It is the ability of the brain to adapt to changes in an environment by forming new neural connections over time. It explains how the human brain is able to adapt, master new skills, store memories and information, and even recover after a traumatic brain injury. Because of the plasticity of the brain, it can “rewire” and “re-organize” itself after brain damage or traumas. Our amazing brain changes and adapts as a result of these experiences. But how?
You may already know that our neurons communicate with each other through electrochemical signals which are transmitted through a part of the neuron called the synapse. Neurons also have specialized projections called dendrites and axons. Dendrites are the short branched projections of a neuron that receive signals or information from other neurons. Axons, on the other hand, take information away from the cell. Through repetitive functions like studying, practicing, or copying, the synaptic connections strengthen. This works for acquiring both good or bad habits.
Types of Brain Plasticity
There are two types of brain plasticity: Structural plasticity involves our brains changing its physical structure as we learn new things or form new memories. Functional plasticity is the brain’s ability to move functions from a damaged area of the brain to other undamaged areas. Are you still with me? Good… we’re almost done.
Sprouting, Rerouting, and Synaptic Pruning
These changes occur through two processes, sprouting and rerouting. Sprouting is the creation of new connections through neurons and rerouting involves creating an alternative neural pathway by deleting damaged neurons and creating new pathways between other active neurons. As we adapt to new environments or situations, our brains dispose of unused or unnecessary neural connections while strengthening and preserving those that are frequently used. This process is called synaptic pruning.
Although neuroplasticity occurs naturally, there are two ways to “help it along.” The first is by having new experiences because novelty (the quality of being new, original, or unusual) establishes new neural pathways. The second way is through heavy repetition of a skill or activity which can strengthen neural connections. But wait! There’s more…
Neuroplasticity and Cannabis
Cannabis also promotes neuroplasticity and has been helpful for those suffering from PTSD. Research on this topic is ongoing, however, recently, we have been seeing a surge in studies involving neuroplasticity and psychedelics. Substances such as LSD, DMT, and ketamine are linked to increased structural and functional plasticity in the brain. They also promote dendritic spine growth and stimulate synapse formation. It will be interesting to see how these medicines change the future of mental health. Until that time there are still “traditional” ways to keep your brain happy, healthy, and active.