Reflections on Plasticity




Neuroplasticity is a relatively new concept for researchers. Up until the 1970s, scientists held firm to the belief that once we exit childhood, our neurons are fixed and we are unable to grow any new ones, except for very select areas of the brain such as the hippocampus where memory is processed. Since that time, new research and tools such as functional MRI have suggested that our brains are constantly being molded and shaped by our experiences, and maintain some degree of plasticity throughout life. Indeed, the works of such pivotal researchers as Michael Merzenich, Ph.D. and William Jenkins, Ph.D. have demonstrated that our brains wish to conserve real estate, and will remap unused portions of the brain lost due to injury so that they can process different information. As an example, if a patient lost their eye due to a traumatic accident, over time the area of the visual cortex responsible for processing that eye would convert and begin processing information for the remaining eye.

Current thinking in the field of neuroplasticity holds that our brain development is wholly dependent upon the sum of our experiences. We all begin life as an infant with no particular skill sets or abilities to carry out tasks. As our brains develop we steadily gain more sophisticated control of our bodies, but only in respond to challenges. If a skill set is not required, then the brain has no need to invest any time or energy into developing a pathway for it. Only through steady experience and repetition does our brain lay the groundwork for semi-permanent change. As a result, when our experiences change, so do our brains.

Plasticity does not only apply to the brain, however. In the body, our ability to adapt to new situations is equally staggering. Evolution occurs on a micro scale with our everyday decisions, and our bodies have the capability to remake themselves to meet the demands placed upon them. If our desire is to have a runner’s body, then all we have to do is run. In response to the increased physical demands of that activity, our bodies respond over time by improving cardiovascular output, trimming excess body fat, increasing lean muscle mass, and improving glycogen stores to cope with the changes. Over a short period of time, the body can transform itself to serve its new purpose.

What lesson is to be learned from the study of plasticity? Human beings are very much in the driver’s seat when it comes to our long term physiological outlook. Even small changes in our lifestyle when applied consistently can fundamentally alter not only our way of thinking, but the actual biochemical composition of our bodies and brains. The first question to ask is, “Who do I want to be tomorrow?”

Recommended Viewing

Michael Merzenich on Exploring the re-wiring of the brain from TED.com.

References

MERZENICH, M., KAAS, J., WALL, J., NELSON, R., SUR, M., & FELLEMAN, D. (1983). Topographic reorganization of somatosensory cortical areas 3b and 1 in adult monkeys following restricted deafferentation Neuroscience, 8 (1), 33-55 DOI: 10.1016/0306-4522(83)90024-6

MERZENICH, M., KAAS, J., WALL, J., NELSON, R., SUR, M., & FELLEMAN, D. (1983). Topographic reorganization of somatosensory cortical areas 3b and 1 in adult monkeys following restricted deafferentation Neuroscience, 8 (1), 33-55 DOI: 10.1016/0306-4522(83)90024-6

Sajid Surve, DO

Sajid Surve, DO, is a physiatrist, acupuncturist, and osteopath who specializes in musculoskeletal medicine and integrative medicine.
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