Neuro plasticity is a term we Boomers are doing a lot of research on these days, as we begin to notice age related changes to our word recall, for example, and worry about that change being a precursor for Alzheimers disease.
So what is neuro plasticity? When we learn something new, neurons connect in a new circuit or a re-organized circuit, and if that new connection is used frequently enough, then the circuit becomes stronger and has a chance of being kept.
Here is how to experience this kind of learning, brush your hair, or your teeth with your non-dominant hand, or use your non-dominant hand to move your computer mouse.
You will be reorganizing the circuits for that non-dominant hand, and if you continue to practice, you will notice an increasing effiency, which means the reorganized neuronal circuit is becoming permanent.
Why do you want to practice the new behavior? Because your brain pares unused circuits and neurons to save energy.
Other kinds of learning which will workout your entire brain like this are the kind of learning involved in learning a new language, a new musical instrument, or from using computerized brain fitness programs. (Doing more of what you already know how to do does not count as a challenge to your brain, so I cannot enhance my neuro plasticity by reading another counseling book).
Nobody knew the extent of our neuro plastic capabilities until not too long ago, and nobody knew that we also grew new neurons daily, until perhaps a decade or so ago.
Yes, we grow new neurons, but we may not get to keep them if we do not challenge them with a novel learning experience.
So it looks like learning is a key piece of the neuro plastic puzzle.
Michael Merzenich,Ph.D. is a leading researcher in the field of neuro plasticity and the following information is from the Posit Science Brain Fitness Program.
..."But what recent research has shown is that under the right circumstances the older brain can grow, too. Although certain brain machinery tends to decline with age, there are steps people can take to tap into neuro plasticity and reinvigorate that machinery. We just have to “exercise” the brain in the right way. Similarly, people suffering from a variety of cognitive conditions—from schizophrenia to “chemobrain”—may be able to retrain their brains to healthier function. The key—and the challenge—lies in identifying what brain mechanisms to target, and how to exercise them effectively.
The Senses, Memory and Cognition
One of the more important findings of recent research is how closely connected our senses (hearing, vision, and so on) are to our memory and cognition. Because of their interdependence, a weakness in one is often related to—or even the cause of—a weakness in the other. For example, we all know that Alzheimer’s patients slowly lose their memories. One way this manifests is that they eat less food. Why? As it turns out, visual deficits are also a part of Alzheimer’s. People eat less because they can’t see the food as well.
Another example is in normal age-related cognitive changes. As we grow older, we get more forgetful and distracted in large part because our brain does not process what we hear, see, and feel as well as it once did.
The result is that we can’t store images of our experiences as clearly, and so have trouble using them and recalling them later.
As scientists gain more knowledge about the relationship between sensory perception, memory and cognition, they are learning to design brain exercises that strengthen brain function.
For example, a team of scientists at Posit Science has developed plasticity-based software programs that helps normally aging adults retain or regain mental sharpness. They are effective because they don’t just exercise memory—which is as much an effect as a cause of age-related cognitive changes. Instead, the programs address other root causes of these changes, including the brain’s increasing inability to quickly and accurately process what it hears and what it sees. (For more about the programs, click here.)
One of the most attractive features of plasticity-based therapies is that they are drug free. They rely on retraining the brain through repetitious, challenging activity.
Certainly there are conditions that require medications, and thank goodness science has made such incredible forward leaps in providing them.
But in an era when people take more and more medications, with more and more side effects and interactions, it is exciting to think that the next great breakthrough in health might come from a less invasive source.
The Plasticity Revolution
The growing understanding of and interest in brain plasticity is driving a revolution in brain health and science. In addition to the work being done at Posit Science, scientists at institutions around the globe are beginning to look to plasticity-based therapies for treating a wide spectrum of other cognitive problems.
Ultimately, brain-plasticity based programs might help schizophrenics improve their symptoms and live more normal lives. Musicians stricken with focal dystonia might learn to play again, without pain. People with mild cognitive impairment or early-stage Alzheimer’s might halt the progression of their disease. Cancer patients whose ability to function has been impeded by the lasting cognitive effects of chemotherapy treatment might find their old selves again. Stroke or traumatic brain injury victims may relearn skills they thought were lost forever. The list goes on."
If you are interested in reading a very interesting book on brain fitness including a very interesting take on enhancing neuro plasticity and neurogenesis, then you should read Brainfit for Life by Simon Evans, Ph.D. and Paul Burghardt,Ph.D. on the pillars of brain fitness. They discuss what research tells us about how physical exercise, nutrition, sleep, stress management, and novel learning experiences help us age with a bit more cognitive ability.
The first pillar of neuro plasticity and neurogenesis is physical exercise, and this pillar is the most important.
And this kind of physical exercise does not have to involve flinging around big barbells and getting all sweaty. The Brainfit for Life authors report that the intensity of the exercise need only be to the level where it is hard for me to breathe and talk at the same time.
Evans and Burghardt say it also OK to start with more physical activity, doing more of what you are already doing, like walking, before moving up to physical exercise, like the workout Scott and Angie Tousignant have put together for couples to do, at home of all places. Can you imagine doing your ten minute HIIT or high intensity interval workout in your utility room? That is correct, ten minutes of thirty second intervals of various exercises daily will take care of your brain fitness and neuro plasticity.
Of course, as you are doing your HIIT, you will be playing close attention to your nutrition, including your omega 3 fatty acids intake.
Omega 3's are vital to your neurons which about 60% covered with omega 3 fatty acids, and need regular replenishment or the neurons become brittle and do not communicate well, leading to very poor decisions.
The best source of omega 3 fatty acid is fish, but in consuming fish one must be very careful not to also consume mercury. If you are not a fish eater, then perhaps a omega 3 fatty acid supplement is in order.
The next pillar is the stress management pillar, and that is certainly helped by physical activity/exercise.
However, if you want to really do a number for your neuro plasticity, then you will want to explore the HeartMath tool, which is recommended by the Sharp Brains folks, as the best stress management tool on the market.
The last pillar of brain fitness is the novel learning experience, which keeps those circuits firing.
If you do not have time to learn a new language, or a new instrument, then I invite you to explore the following programs to flex your dendrites and stretch your neurons.