Neuroplasticity: The Self-Healing Brain
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to morph, change, and heal. This is utilized in learning and after injury. Each neuron is connected to a number of different neurons through synapses. These synapses, or connections, are made weaker or stronger with experience. Much like our muscles, the more we use or activate a neuronal connection through our experiences, the stronger the synapse will be. Also, like muscles, new synapses can form which helps us to learn new things, and adapt to our environment. It also contributes to the process of healing. Neuroplasticity opens the door to healing. Even when certain neurons die, leaving the body inadequate or incapable of functioning properly in a certain way, the brain can “rewire” and find new pathways to exhibit the same functions.
Neuroplasticity in Children
Neuroplasticity is different in children compared to adults. When a child is born, their brain is not yet fully developed. As a child experiences the world and learns to speak, read, write, etc., their brain makes new connections, strengthens existing connections, grows new neurons, and removes unnecessary connections in a process called pruning. Children’s brains are more plastic than adult’s, constantly changing and growing as their experiences and decisions define who they are going to be.
Neuroplasticity in Adults
In adults, neuroplasticity plays a somewhat different role. The brain is fully developed around age 25, but a developed brain is not stagnant. Although no new neurons are forming, all effort is dedicated to strengthening the connections between neurons. This allows us to form memories and learn from our experiences. It also is a significant part of the healing process after injury.
Neuroplasticity and Healing
When neurons are weakened or die from an injury, the same growth factors that are present in a child’s developing brain are activated, helping neurons to heal. When certain neuronal pathways are damaged, these growth factors and other important molecules help neurons find and strengthen other pre-existing pathways that allow function to be restored. This is aided by rehabilitative therapy and training. As brain-injured patients work through their weaknesses through practice and therapy, and strengthen vital connections in their brain, their brain will make the changes required for healing.
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Principles of Neuroscience by Eric Kandel