Neuroplasticity: The science of change

Neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to reorganise itself by forming new neural connections throughout our lives. Scientists used to believe that the number of neurons in our brain was finite, and that the brain could only create new connections during childhood. But developmental neuroscience has shown that this is not the case, and that we continue to develop new neurons, and neuronal connections, until we die.  

In fact, it turns our that brain has an astonishing ability to make structural adjustments, and to grow, adapt and change its connections in response to new experience and learning. 

Norman Doidge wrote about this in his wonderful book "The Brain that Changes Itself" in 2010. Travelling the globe visiting scientists who pioneered the field of neuroplasticity, Doidge detailed fascinating examples how it was possible to transform physical and mental limitations, change lifelong character traits, recover from depression and anxiety, and to literally alter our brain anatomy. He has recently published "The Brain's Way of Healing", which continues with the theme of his earlier work, and uses cutting-edge science to show how we can use neuroplasticity to improve our brains performance. 

There is now an avalanche of evidence demonstrating the plasticity of the human brain. 

Our understanding of Neuroplasticity is exciting, as it shows us that it is never too late to change. With consistent effort, and by developing the flexibility of our mind, we can learn new skills, change the way we think, create new habits and improve the quality of our lives. Neuroplasticity gives us the opportunity to 'rewire' habits that may be harmful to us, or which have compromised our ability to develop our potential, form great relationships, or simply live healthy contented lives. 

"We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence therefore is not an action, but a habit" Aristotle.

To create the optimum conditions for neuroplasticity, so that we can learn new ways of responding and change old patterns, here is what you can do:-  

Exercise: The best way to make new neurons is to exercise. In adults, neurogenesis (the ability to make new neurons) occurs in only two parts of the brain. One of these is called the Hippocampus, which is also responsible for learning and memory. Research has shown that people who exercise regularly and are physically fit have a larger hippocampus. In studies where adults participated in cardiovascular exercise and resistance training, the size of the hippocampus increased, and their performance on cognitive tests improved compared to people who did little exercise.  

Exercise also benefits us by increasing cerebral blood flow (which helps neurotransmitters circulate around the body and brain), and by its role in discharging cortisol from the body. Cortisol is a stress hormone (neurotransmitter) which helps us adapt to stressful situations. However, too much cortisol can interfere with our sleep, memory and ability to concentrate (and is implicated in weight gain and diabetes).  In very high amounts (which occurs when we have unrelenting stress or unresolved traumatic experiences) cortisol damages the hippocampus, causing it to shrink.  

Prioritise sleep: Adults require restorative sleep to clean our brain cells and consolidate memories (learning). Scientists have recently discovered that during our sleep our brain cells are flooded with cerebrospinal fluid.  This allows toxic waste products that build up while we are awake to be flushed out of the system. At the same time our brain cells are fed with nutrients. Getting a good nights sleep allows new synaptic connections to develop, which in turn strengthens neuronal pathways. Specifically, the amount of plasticity in the brain seems to be associated with the amount of REM sleep (dreaming sleep) that we have each night. Loss of sleep can also lead to elevated cortisol levels and creates an unfortunate cycle of further sleep difficulties, more elevated cortisol, impaired ability to learn, and mood problems. 

Improve your diet: Our diet provides the body with the nutrients it needs to make new neurons and neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are the chemicals in our brain that transmit messages from one nerone to the next. They are closely linked to our mood, motivation, cognitive abilities, and to the optimal functioning of our brain and nervous system. About 200 different neurotransmitters have now been identified, however some of the more commonly known ones include Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin, Adrenalin and (as mentioned above) Cortisol. Neurotransmitters are created from the amino acids found in our food. They get circulated around the body and brain and become the building blocks of new neurons and neuronal connections. Higher amounts of certain fatty amino acts, such Omega-3, are associated with larger hippocampus size, better memory, and a much lower risk of developing problems such as Alzheimers disease. 

80% of the neurotransmitter Serotonin, which is associated with feelings of contentment, and plays a role in sleep and learning, is created in the gut. Serotonin is targeted in a group of antidepressant medications known as SSRI's (Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors). 

Meditate:  Research has also been accumulating on the positive impact of meditation, which has been shown to reduce anxiety, depression, impulsivity and anger, reduce chronic pain, and slow down cellular ageing. Using state of the art technology, including brain scans and imaging, meditation has also been shown to increase grey matter in the brain, reverse degeneration of the hippocampus, and promote neural connectivity. 

Get Mindful: The first step to changing anything is to become aware of it, and understand it. The practice of mindfulness encourages us to slow down and pay close attention to our own experience, with awareness, and without judgement. In doing so we are able to explore the connections that we have already have, the neuronal 'template' that guides our beliefs, feelings and actions. By shining a light on the stories we tell ourselves, and making us more aware of the patterns of thinking, feeling, and responding we have developed across a lifetime (and their origins) mindfulness offers a way to gently start to change them. 

Until we see how we are, we cannot take steps to become who we wish to be. 

Warmly, Fiona 

Fiona Meredith is a Clinical Psychologist, psychotherapist and passionate advocate of the mind-body connection, based in Adelaide, Australia.