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What is Neuroplasticity?

A neuron is a nerve cell made up of a cell body from which emerge more or less branched extensions, the dendrites (entry routes) and an axon (exit route).

Communication between neurons is provided by particular junctions, the synapses.

The cell body integrates the information it receives from its neighbors, it synthesizes it and, if the "sum" is sufficiently intense, the message is sent to the nerve centers.

Neuronal plasticity or brain plasticity:

The neuronal plasticity describes the ability of a neuron to change the type of response makes it to the same stimulation (principle of Neurofeedback).

A morphological change: 

This is the appearance, disappearance or reorientation of structures such as dendrites, dendritic spines, or even axons. This plasticity is observed by imaging. The physiological effects of this plasticity can also be measured by the use of the patch-clamp technique (a technique for measuring ionic currents passing through cell membranes), in several places simultaneously, on neurons in contact.

Change in the electrochemical properties of the membrane whether that of action potentials along the axon or that of postsynaptic potentials along dendrites, the propagation of nerve signals depends on the composition of the plasma membrane in ion channels. A change in this ion channel composition, whether qualitative or quantitative, will change the way in which the electrical signal propagates. The change in membrane electrochemical properties can be short-term when only the state of the ion channels is transiently changed, or long-term, in general when the ion channels are replaced by others. This plasticity is measured by electrophysiological measurements.

Neuroplasticity, how it works and how to train the brain

Neuroplasticity is the ability of the human brain to change and adapt. This quality can be trained and is crucial in recovery after trauma and injury. Each of our experiences in a different way and with a specific force, acts on our brain, affecting both its functioning and its structure, which remains dynamic and modifiable throughout life. 

Many years ago, the few technological means available led to the definition of the brain as scarcely modifiable or, better, modifiable only in the first years of life, but not subsequently. Recent studies also carried out due to the use of new techniques, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging or positron emission tomography, have observed how the brain structure changes throughout life. This ability is called Neuroplasticity. 

What it is Neuroplasticity?

The ability of the brain is to change its structure in response to experience. Thus Daniel Siegel defines the ability of the human brain to adapt to different experiences and change in relation to what happens in the life of the individual, both in terms of learning and in relation to positive and negative life experiences. 

Neuroplasticity is the process that also determines the reduction of some neural connections, or their elimination, where there is no frequent use or, vice versa, the strengthening of others, used and stimulated frequently.

This modification ability occurs in different ways:

The first is strongly linked to neurogenesis that is the ability of the nervous system to generate other neural cells, called neurons, and connections, which persists, albeit at different levels and speeds, throughout life. 

Next to this, Sprouting is very important, that is the process that allows the formation of new axon collaterals and therefore of synapses, or the connections between neurons, through which the different areas of the brain and nerve cells communicate with each other. 

This is a fundamental element that intervenes not only where there is a lesion of neural areas, which require a new structure and a new balance of the cells that are still active, but also when there are strong and incisive experiences, which modify the brain structure.

Finally, neuroplasticity is also linked to the variation of synaptic transmission or the modification of the levels and quantities of neurotransmitters (the "messengers" of the brain, or substances that allow the connection and communication between neural cells) released by the synapses. 

Neuroplasticity: what stimulates brain modification?

To stimulate the modification of the neural structure, there are several factors. 

Among the best known are learning. Especially when you are young, learning to speak, walk, write, etc. involves an important change in the brain, requiring the formation and consolidation of connections and networks between neurons. 

But learning continues throughout life and, although it does not always involve a significant and wide-ranging structural change, it stimulates the dynamism of the system day after day, keeping the ability to change active. However, important and profound learning, such as learning a new language, playing an instrument, practising a sport requires an important change in our brain, which must adapt to the new knowledge, gestures. 

Another important stimulus is the different life experiences with a strong impact on a cognitive and emotional level. They can be both positive, like a drastic change in one's life that gives greater well-being, a sense of effectiveness and satisfaction, but also negative. With respect to this, in fact, the impact of trauma on neural structure and functioning is amply demonstrated.  

Traumatic situations, but also high and persistent stress and anxiety, have effects on neural functioning, neurotransmitters and connections. At the same time, we understand how psychotherapy can act in the long term on the structure and functionality of the brain, restoring a situation of balance, or effective functioning. So it is also implicated in brain plasticity.

In addition to these factors, there are also those linked to an alteration in the functionality of the brain both for trauma or injury and for pathologies that affect normal functioning, such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's disease. In this case, plasticity allows the compensation of the malfunction or injury of the compromised parts, activating new connections and networks which, if well trained and supported by specific programs, can reduce the pervasiveness of the pathology or trauma. 

Neuroplasticity: how to train the brain day after day

There are many activities and behaviors that keep the brain trained day after day, facilitating the reaction to change. Some things may seem obvious but, as for many other aspects of psychophysical well-being, they are very important: maintaining a good diet and doing physical activity that stimulates the release at the neural level of substances that act on synapses and structures. 

The management of excessive stress and the implementation of functional resilience mechanisms also seem to be a good aid to increase adaptive capacity. 

Compared to the more specific activities there are the continuous training of functions or skills, such as a technical gesture, a new language, playing an instrument, or in any case something that requires constant practice and a great change.

Generally, functional activities are all those that fall within the idea of ​​maintaining a continuous stimulation of the brain and its functions such as memory, attention, reasoning, language, motor skills: doing crosswords, solving puzzles, doing accounts, walking or doing physical activity, confront and dialogue. Thus maintaining good levels of social interaction, groped to do something that comes out of the daily routines and requires the adaptation and implementation of new mechanisms and strategies, giving vent to creativity and inventiveness.

Neuroplasticity is undoubtedly one of the fascinating characteristics of the human body, which allows it to adapt to change, growth, life experiences and therefore is strongly involved in the way of behaving, on the character, on the strategies to face the various situations, but also on knowledge, skills and competences. 

Neuroplasticity and the strength of habits

Neurons communicate with each other by electrochemical signals. Contact points (synapses) allow information to be disseminated. What is important to understand is that with each connection between two neurons, the communication capacity is strengthened. In other words, the more you use your neurons, the better they work. The connection is established faster and stronger with each use; we call it neuroplasticity or long term potentiation (LTP). This information, of technical appearance, is revolutionary for our mental capacities. We have power over our brains!

With repetition, a small neural path turns into an information highway. The lived experiences permanently modify the intimate structure of the brain with reinforcement or the creation of new connections. The carnal organization of the brain and the formation of neural networks are an intimate reflection of our experience.

- By modifying our activity for a time as short as eight weeks, a deliberate choice can modify our brain capacities which, in turn, will modify our behavior: the dizzying abyss of our potentials!

- This means that we can modify our performance by acting on our brain. There is a whole section of psychology that studies the possibility of improving our behavior from changes in perceptions and exercises: positive psychology. Using scientific methods related to medical and pharmaceutical research, it aims to evaluate effective actions over time. Through deliberate behavioral changes, it has been shown that we can sustainably improve our emotions, our self-esteem, our resistance to stress, our creativity, our motivation (through the search for meaning) and even our physical and mental health.

- But this new signal competes with others that have been in place for a longer time: the networks traced by your habits. The repetition created a strengthened, powerful neural path, a highway. Faced with the small forest path of your new resolution, guess who will win? Your good intentions are lost in the ocean of routineNeuronal plasticity, stress and hyper-connection.

Author: Vicki Lezama


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