Monday, 15 February 2016

Part 1: Neuroplasticity: the facts

Welcome to a three-part series I have written about neuroplasticity! This series will be covering exactly what neuroplasticity is, why it is relevant to you and some commonly believed myths surrounding the phenomenon. In the last post of the series there will be a short quiz to test your knowledge on the subject. Click on any of the hyperlinked words to find out more information on a topic!


A really exciting aspect of Neuroscience is the idea that we can modify and enhance functions of our brain, via practices like repeated training and exercise. This notion of our brains having the potential to adapt and change is called ‘neuroplasticity’.

In simple terms, neuroplasticity refers to the concept that our brains are not hard wired; that lasting change can happen at any time to both the structure and function of our brain. These constant changes can be acquired through reorganisation of pathways within the brain, as a result of adaptation to new or repeated activities. Neuroplasticity is a way for your brain to fine tune itself to be better suited to whatever you prefer to do. For example, string musician players have been shown to have a significantly larger proportion of the brain assigned to controlling the fingers of their left hand than the average person. 

Another example of neuroplasticity can be found if we look to a group of people called ‘Moken’, who live around the coasts of Thailand and Burma, and are completely dependent on the sea for food and their livelihood. Interestingly, these people have been found to have amazing ability at seeing underwater – in children this ability is more than twice as good as that of a European child. Studies have shown this results from a higher level of pupil constriction, allowing the Moken people to search for fish underwater without visual aids. This is a great example of neuroplasticity, showing how the brain can adapt to suit its needs.

Here is a short clip about Moken people:




One important aspect of understanding neuroplasticity is Hebbian theory. This proposes an explanation for how brain cells, or neurons, adapt during learning. The theory states that repeated stimulation of one neuron by another causes the connection between the two neurons to become stronger. This is summarised in the quote, ‘Cells that fire together, wire together’. The connection between two neurons is called a synapse; a small space between the neurons that chemicals (called neurotransmitters) can diffuse across. Neurotransmitters enable electrical nerve impulses in one neuron to be transmitted to the next neuron in the pathway. The increased strength of neuronal connections one aspect of establishing long-term plasticity in the brain, called Long-term Potentiation. This idea is demonstrated in the image below.




The concept of neuroplasticity becomes extremely important for people who have lost a skill involuntarily, such as in the case of deaf or blind individuals. Someone who becomes blind at, for example, age 11 will have been born with the same brain structures and functions as other sighted people. However, the blind 11-year-old brain’s priorities change once sight is lost – the brain will have areas designated for vision, but the need for these areas no longer exists. This is where neuroplasticity comes in. Neuroplasticity allows the brain to reorganise itself in a way that adapts to the lack of need for visual areas. This can be achieved by increasing the processing efficiency of other areas of the brain, or using the visual areas for different brain functions, to compensate for the effect of lack of sight. This is called ‘compensatory neuroplasticity’. 

Neuroplasticity is important to you and me because it demonstrates the capability of our brains to adapt and adjust to a variety of situations. It is an empowering concept that acknowledges that we can continue learning and developing throughout our lives. 

If you would like to know more, click here for a link to a great TED talk explaining neuroplasticity in detail. Some scientific journal articles explaining this topic are linked here and here.

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What’s your opinion on this topic? Has this blog post changed your view of the brain and plasticity? Stay tuned for the next instalment in this series later this week, which will be exploring some facts and widely believed myths surround neuroplasticity.

This blog post is part of my Final Year Project for my Neuroscience BSc at the University of Manchester. I would really appreciate if you took the time to write a comment below detailing your opinion on neuroplasticity, and how it may have changed after reading this post – feel free to write this anonymously if you so wish.

Thank you, and I hope you enjoyed this post!

20 comments:

  1. To be honest, I really didn't know much about this before your post. But it made for some interesting reading on a Monday afternoon :)

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    1. Thank you for your comment! Hope you enjoyed the post :)

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  2. Thoroughly enjoyed the post, definitely furnished the rudimentary understanding I had before hand. Particularly the discussion of compensatory neuroplasticity! The brain never ceases to amaze. I have a few questions though:

    1) In the example of the Moken people, is this strictly an example of neuroplasticity?
    Could it be an evolutionary adaptation as opposed to neuroplasticity? What exactly is the difference?

    2) How does neuroplasticity differ with respect to a) genetics and b) age?
    I have always been interested to know. Sorry this question probably deserves a whole post on its own

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    1. Also thank you very much for the post!

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    2. Thank you so much for your comment! I'm really pleased you found the post interesting.
      In response to your questions;

      1) I completely see your point in questioning whether the Moken's adaptation is strictly neuroplastic. However, it's important to note that Moken children are not born with the underwater vision ability that their parents may have. Instead, they develop this ability over time, adapting their visual pathways in order to suit their primarily water-dwelling lifestyle.

      One study has actually found that European children are able to increase their underwater vision ability to the same level of Moken children, after intensive training. This further confirms that the Moken adaptation is gained over an individual's lifetime and not passed on to later generations in evolutionary terms (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0042698906002367).

      I probably should have mentioned this to make that more clear!

      2) Neuroplastic changes differ over a lifetime. Obviously between birth and adolescence our brains go through a huge amount of change and adaptation, learning basically everything that we now know (in terms of language, motor and sensory skills). Neuroplastic changes are observed most in this time period. However, these types of changes continue on throughout life, which means that our brains permanently have the potential to adapt their structure and function.

      It is more difficult to say how genetics affect neuroplasticity. It may be that learning how neuroplasticity is affected by genetics means we have to look at diseases - if a gene is knocked out does it affect neuroplastic changes? For example, one study found that some of the genes that predispose a person to schizophrenia are important in neuroplasticity (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19519407). The implication of this is that certain genes may increase or decrease the levels of neuroplastic changes we individually experience.

      Of course, I am no expert(!), but I hope that answered your questions satisfactorily! Thanks again for your comment.

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    3. Thank you very much, it certainly did!

      I suspected that was the case with the Moken although didn't want to jump to any conclusions.

      Also your writing style is impressively accessible. Carry on doing a really good job of educating people about neuroscience!

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    4. Thank you so much, I do really appreciate any kind of feedback. I'm currently applying for an MSc in Science Communication so your comment is especially great to hear!

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  3. I totally think the brain can adapt, surely its part of evolution. After all we dont actually know everything the brain can do. Thanks for sharing

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    1. You're right, we don't. That's partly what makes neuroscience so interesting to learn about - we will never fully know how the brain works to make us think and feel like ourselves!

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  4. Great read and very informative! Hebbian theory really got me thinking to a time when I was just a child and just how little memory I have as a pre 5 y/o boy.

    This article really provides an insight into how significant a lifestyle can greatly affect the moldable engine that is my brain.

    Looking forward to the next two parts in the series.

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    1. Thanks for your comment! Really great to hear that it got you thinking about how neuroscience and neuroplasticity affects you. The next post should be up this weekend, so look out for it around then!

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  5. Great post Emily, the brain is so interesting! I was always told when I was younger that kids are like sponges and I would take this to mean that their neuronic connections strengthen at a faster rate than adults. I am just wondering whether there is any truth in this or if that's simply an old wives tale? It would be cool to see if there were any ways of encouraging people to learn as proficiently as an adult as when we are kids! Anyway best of luck with your project and the rest of your degree, by the looks of things your neuronic connections are becoming very strong indeed!

    P.S. I particularly loved the quote, it reminded me of Bad Boys.

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    1. Thank you for your comment! Apologies is has taken me a while to get back to you.

      As I mentioned in a comment reply above, between birth and adolescence our brains go through a huge amount of change and adaptation, learning basically everything that we now know (in terms of language, motor and sensory skills).

      However, these types of changes continue on throughout life, which means that our brains can permanently adapt their structure and function according to experience. This is a really exciting concept, as it means that we really have the potential to do anything we put our minds to!

      So, whilst neuroplastic changes may be observed more in children, it is hard to say whether their connections actually strengthen at a faster rate than adults. Neuroplasticity is just as much about pruning out weaker connections that we do not need. Here's some more information on that topic that you may find interesting: http://www.apa.org/monitor/2011/04/mind-midlife.aspx

      Hope that at least partly answers your question! Glad you liked the quote :)

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  6. Hey! Great post Emily. You have explained scientific terms well, and simplified what I found a very tricky topic to understand at University. My only criticism is that the description for the diagram maybe a tad difficult to understand for some people? I loved the links to the external sources as well! It's a great way to enhance reader understanding without clogging up your article! The length of the article was perfect too. There's enough to fully understand the point, but you didn't waffle or make it boring. Really looking forward to reading Episode 2 :)

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    1. Thanks for your comment! Really glad you enjoyed the post. Thank you for the point about the diagram as well - it's taken from a university-level neuroscience textbook, which could be too esoteric.. I'll definitely take that into account for my next post! Thanks again for your comment :)

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  7. Really interesting article Emily, it's amazing to see the science behind cultural difference in the world with people like the Moken.

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    1. Thanks for your comment. Really glad you found this post interesting :)

      If you would like to know more, here's a link to another article from the National Geographic about the Moken people: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/05/0514_040514_seagypsies.html

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  8. This made for very informative reading! Until this post I had no idea what 'neuroplasticity' was. I would've assumed it was to do with textiles or chemical engineering (plastic being the misleading word).

    I found the diagram a little bit tricky to understand as I'm not used to seeing scientific drawings. Reading the accompanying paragraph and looking at it again helped me grasp some understanding!

    Very well written article and interesting to know the brain can adapt to new conditions or surroundings i.e after a loss of one of the senses. Or based on something you do a lot. Who'd have thought! I guess the brain never stops learning and developing.

    Great post!

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    1. Thank you so much for your comment. It's great to hear that you found it interesting and informative!

      Your feedback is so helpful and I would love to use it in my Final Year Project - it's especially useful to hear your opinion on the diagram I used.

      Thanks again :) Feel free to subscribe to my blog if you would like to get updates when I post more about other brain-related topics!

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  9. Cool (★^O^★)

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