Neuroplasticity is a phenomenon widely discussed among specialists of different spheres due to its considerable implications for therapy. Neuroplasticity, or brain plasticity, refers to the brain’s ability to adjust the distribution of its functions depending on external circumstances (Cherry, 2019). The brain was initially believed to be able to change only in childhood, recent findings suggest that it can adapt by creating and reorganizing connections between neurons or creating new neurons (Costandi, 2016, pp. 4-12).
These new findings suggest that neuroplasticity can be used for healing various neurological, psychological, and other conditions, including dyslexia, autism, and Parkinson’s disease (Doidge, 2016, p. 5). The present paper argues that neuroplasticity is a vital characteristic of the brain, which needs further examination to find new uses for therapies.
While neuroplasticity is a matter of increased interest, its definition is ambiguous since it refers to a wide variety of phenomena and mechanisms. It is generally accepted that there are types of brain plasticity. Functional plasticity is the ability to assign undamaged regions of the brain with tasks of the damaged area. (Cherry, 2019). Structural plasticity is the ability to recover brain tissue and change the physical structure (Cherry, 2019). Before discussing the effects of the phenomenon, it is worth considering its history.
While the idea is viewed as revolutionary, it has been around for more than 200 years. In the 1780s, Charles Bonnet and Michele Vincenzo Malacarne did several experiments trying to prove the idea that mental exercise may make the brain grow (Costandi, 2016, p. 4). Later, in the 1890s, Ramon y Cajal used a microscope to state that the brain consisted of cells he called neurons, which could die but never regenerate (Costandi, 2016, p. 6). Llinás (2003) argues that Ramon y Cajal may be considered one of the most proficient anatomists in neuroscience. He was the first to utilize the positivist point of view and scientific method for making hypotheses and testing those (Llinás, 2003).
His outstanding drawing skills helped to make sketches of what he saw in the microscope, study them, and share the findings with a visual aid (Costandi, 2016, p. 6). The anatomical findings were explained functionally, and later these explanations were tested using experimental methods (Llinás, 2003). For instance, Ramon y Cajal was the first to understand that the brain needed to convert the image from both eyes in one area, and the inversion had to be corrected (Llinás, 2003).
Ramon y Cajal claimed that brain cells could not regenerate because he had not witnessed the emergence of new neurons (Costandi, 2016, p. 6). The belief that the human brain cannot change positively prevailed until the 1960s when David Hubel and Thorsten Wiesel proved that neurons could make new connections (Costandi, 2016, p. 11). In 1990, scientists found neural stem cells in the adult brain, which was a revolution in the field, proving that new brain cells could be created (Fuchs & Flügge, 2014). Since then, neuroplasticity has gained increased attention due to the possible implications of the findings. Today neuroplasticity is used for high-validity therapies, which address various conditions.
Neuroplasticity can be stimulated with the help of environment alteration, changes in habits, and exercise. Shaffer (2016) states that recent research demonstrates that newness and challenge can positively affect cognitive function due to brain plasticity. In other words, new experience, education, and increased career achievements are associated with a decreased decline of cognitive function (Shaffer, 2016).
Memory training, mental exercises, or listening to new music are just several examples of how challenge and newness can be introduced in one’s life (Shaffer, 2016). Doidge (2016) supports and the matter and also suggests that physical exercise is of extreme importance for enabling neuroplasticity (p. 64). Moreover, a healthy diet and adequate sleeping patterns are also vital for improving cognitive functions (Shaffer, 2016). In brief, maintaining physical and mental activity, together with healthy habits, is the key to boosting neuroplasticity.
Emotional health should also be considered while discussing improvements in brain function. Shaffer (2016) points out that, on the one hand, love and affection are associated with improved outcomes in mental health due to positive effects on brain plasticity. On the other hand, stress and depression are associated with a decreased ability of the brain to adapt (Shaffer, 2016). Positive perception of reality is also positively associated with neuroplasticity, which means that daily meditations can decrease dementia and symptoms of Parkinson’s disease (Doidge, 2016, p.65). In short, the effectiveness of exercises for neuroplasticity can be improved with positive emotional thoughts.
Some substances can positively influence neuroplasticity. For instance, Fuchs and Flügge (2014) mention that sex steroids such as estrogen and anti-inflammatory drugs may stimulate the regeneration of brain cells in the adult brain using various mechanisms.
Moreover, corticosteroids and certain anti-depressants can improve structural neuroplasticity (Fuchs & Flügge, 2014). However, the effects of these drugs need further testing; therefore, Shaffer (2016) does not include pharmaceutical methods in its review of currently used methodologies for stimulating brain plasticity. In other words, physical exercise, learning, and optimism are critical modifiers of the phenomenon.
Implementing the Findings
In children, neuroplasticity can be used for treating various cognitive and psychological disorders. For instance, Doidge (2016) describes that some children were able to decrease their autism symptoms using therapies stimulating neuroplasticity (p. 57). The matter is confirmed by a recent study by Losardo (2016), which suggests that early interventions can reverse some of the autism symptoms. In particular, Losardo (2016) claims that the principles of brain plasticity can be used to design interventions for children focusing on critical development, which can improve the condition. Doidge (2016) also reports cases when neuroplasticity was used for curing dyslexia and addressing attention deficits and sensory processing disorder (p. 5).
At the same time, the damaged brain can also be cured by stimulating functional elasticity. Costandi (2016) promotes that increased physical and mental activity can help children and adults to restore from trauma (p. 102). Even though neurons may not regenerate after brain damage, the phenomenon of functional elasticity may help patients to recover (Costandi, 2016, p. 16). It is especially relevant for children since neuroplasticity decreases with age (Costandi, 2016, p. 35). To improve the chances for recovery, all the methods suggested in the previous section should be used.
In adults, brain plasticity is used for preventing the decrease of cognitive function and treating psychological conditions. For instance, research by Månsson et al. (2016) suggests structural plasticity positively influences the receptivity of neurons within the amygdala. Such changes are found to be vital for addressing anxiety disorders using cognitive-behavioral therapy (Månsson et al., 2016). It is crucial that the principles of brain plasticity can be utilized for addressing the entire spectrum of anxiety disorders, including speech anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, social phobia, panic disorders, and generalized anxiety disorder (Månsson et al., 2016). Costandi (2016) also suggests that said principles can be used to deal with a wide variety of other psychological conditions (p. 146).
Since cognitive function decreases with age, the principles of neuroplasticity should be used to prevent dementia and other mental health issues. All the strategies for stimulating brain plasticity discussed by Shaffer (2016) are originally designed for adults to avoid dementia and Parkinson’s disease when they grow old. In other words, if adults seek education and challenge in their workplace or social activity with a positive mind, they have a decreased chance of developing adverse conditions (Shaffer, 2016). In short, addressing neuroplasticity in adults is used to prevent the conditions of older adults.
While neuroplasticity is a phenomenon vital for all age groups, older adults are the population that can benefit from it the most. Doidge (2016) described a case when a male aged seventy-seven was able to reverse the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease by physical exercise (p. 64). He walked for several hours every day on a rocky beach concentrating on positive aspects of his life (Doidge, 2016, p. 65). Even though the therapy was designed by the person himself (Doidge, 2016, p. 65), it adheres to modern therapy methods for the disease discussed by Shaffer (2016).
Concentration on positive thoughts and high doses of physical activity stimulates brain stem cells, which is associated with the regeneration of dead neurons (Doidge, 2016, p. 66). A similar effect is used for addressing dementia and memory loss in older adults (Shaffer, 2016).
As suggested by Shaffer (2016), the effect of the therapy can be increased by incorporating a healthy diet with reduced calories and a decreased amount of animal products. For example, the Mediterranean Diet and Okinawan Diet, which are based on fruit, vegetables, and fish, can reduce cognitive decline in older adults (Shaffer, 2016). In short, the principles of neuroplasticity are vital for maintaining a high level of cognitive function in older adults.
However, cognitive disability is not the only matter that can be addressed by brain plasticity. As in the case described by Doidge (2016), the neuroplasticity method helps to control mobility impairment, which is the core symptom of Parkinson’s disease (p. 64). Without medication, most of the patients diagnosed with the condition lose the ability to walk within ten years (Doidge, 2016, p.66).
However, experiments show that this symptom can be controlled and reversed using the methods described by Shaffer (2016). Moreover, the chances of acquiring cardiovascular diseases are also reduced by applying neuroplasticity methods (Shaffer, 2016). Even though one may argue that the effect is reached because the described methods are similar to cardiovascular disease prevention strategies, it is still a fact worth mentioning.
Neuroplasticity is a widely appreciated phenomenon discussed for more than 200 years. While it was originally believed that brain cells could not form new connections or regenerate, the notion was proved wrong in the 1990s, when neural stem cells were discovered. Positive thoughts, physical exercise, mental training, a healthy diet, and adequate sleeping patterns can stimulate the adaptive function of the brain. Such stimulations may be used to treat various conditions in children, adults, and the older population. Recent findings demonstrate that the potential of the phenomenon is high. Therefore, additional research is needed to improve patient outcomes and quality of life.
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Månsson, K. N., Salami, A., Frick, A., Carlbring, P., Andersson, G., Furmark, T., & Boraxbekk, C. J. (2016). Neuroplasticity in response to cognitive behavior therapy for social anxiety disorder. Translational psychiatry, 6(2), e727.
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