The Gift of Neural Plasticity

The gift of what, you ask? It’s plasticity, and it’s a characteristic whose discovery revolutionized the way we think about the brain.

Neural plasticity is the brain’s ability to adapt to changing conditions. Years ago, we thought that after the earliest years of life were past, the human brain remained in a relatively fixed form. In other words, it used to be assumed that an adult brain no longer could change and grow in the many ways a younger brain could.

But thank goodness for the reality of neural plasticity. Modern studies have shown that, while the infant brain is capable of the most astonishing growth, the adult brain is far more plastic–changeable, able to adapt, able to grow–than once thought. In fact, our brains continue changing throughout our lifetimes, and science is discovering more ways these changes happen all the time.

See, the brain functions through a network of neurons (specialized nerve cells) that exchange information. Neural pathways–sort of like maps throughout the brain–are formed by the connections between neurons. They are joined by chemical chains called synapses. When we exercise a skill or learn a new one, our brains build more synapses between the required neurons. Likewise, stop using a skill or never learn it at all, and the brain stops maintaining the synapses that connect those neurons.

This means opportunity! It’s true you can’t force your grown-up brain to make tons of new neurons, but you can optimize its ability to form synapses. You can influence how and Synapse xt whether your brain grows (or suffers) by changing the environment, nutrition, and experience you give it.

Research has found that the brain can also build new synapses in order to bypass damaged neurons. In one study, scientists worked with rats that had begun to show a build-up of the neural pathway-hardening proteins of Alzheimer’s disease. Half of the rodents continued to receive a standard diet while the other half was put on a diet rich in the antioxidant compounds found in blueberries. At the end of the test period, the antioxidant-nourished rats performed better in solving a maze. Despite the fact that the blueberry-fed subjects still showed brain plaque when autopsied, these animals didn’t just maintain their learning capacity on their antioxidant-dense diets–they improved.

Now you’ve heard of antioxidants before. These are the same compounds that attach to dangerous free radicals throughout the body and render them harmless. Chances are, the blueberry-fed rats thrived for two reasons. Not only did the well-nourished individuals benefit directly from the antioxidants that became part of new synapses; their brains and bodies also enjoyed a decrease in exposure to free radicals. (Now that’s nutrition that packs a punch!)

Besides nutrient compounds, the brain also needs other factors to keep synapses strong. Oxygen is one of them. A great way to improve the brain is through a regular regimen of aerobic exercise. A study by a team at Trinity College, Dublin, showed that a habit of aerobic exercise stimulates the hippocampus, the region of the brain that is largely responsible for memory. The conclusion is, it’s true: Exercise sharpens your memory.

Long story short, keeping your brain cells bathed in nutrients and oxygen and protecting it from harmful free radicals will keep it strong and healthy. And because of the miracle of plasticity, it’s even possible a few healthful changes can make you more sharp and more capable now than you were in your youth.

Think (pun intended) about it. What are some simple things you can do today to improve your diet and daily routine in order to keep your entire being fit? A little effort can go a long way…and what a reward, both in body, and in mind.

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