Use it or lose it: developing good brain plasticity
From the minute you are born you lose neurons and the older you are the fewer neurons you have. You have lost hundreds of neurons just in the last few minutes. So why are adults so much more capable than infants? For that matter, why are some seniors sharper and more quick-witted than the catatonic teen waiting on you at the coffee shop? Because it is not just about the number of neurons you have, but how well they communicate with each other. This is called plasticity, the ability to build a pathway in the brain.
In a healthy brain, stimulated neurons create more branches into each other so they can communicate more efficiently. So even though you have fewer neurons as you get older, you also have more branches and improved communication.
Plasticity helps determine outcome from brain injury
Brain plasticity depends on stimulation to activate branching into other neurons and a healthy environment. This is why there is so much variation when you look at recovery from brain injuries.
Let’s take for example a brain injury patient who has been a smoker for 30 years, has led a sedentary lifestyle, and eats fried or processed foods every day. Compare this person’s potential for recovery to that of a brain injury patient who has eaten a healthy diet and been an athlete his entire life. It is likely the active patient with a better diet will have a better recovery since he probably has a healthier environment for neurons to develop plasticity with each other.
Plasticity explains why older people can have sharper brains than those younger
I was recently fortunate enough to see an interview with 85-year-old Eric Kandel. He is considered one of the leading neuroscientists in the world and was the recipient of the 2000 Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine for his contributions to neuroscience research. I was completely blown away by the integrity of his brain. He was mentally sharp, fast, and articulate. Despite his age, his brain functioned at a very high level because of the plasticity he has developed as a devoted academician his entire life.
The same day I went to a Starbucks to order some tea. The young man behind the counter, in the prime of his life, could not calculate the proper change to give back to me because his register was malfunctioning. Although the younger man had more neurons than Professor Kandel, he had not developed plasticity so his brain was not very efficient.
Ozzy Osbourne and brain plasticity
Ozzy Osbourne is a fascinating study in neurology. Whenever I watched his reality television show several years ago, I was amazed at how he slurred his speech, needed to wear sunglasses indoors, and shuffled around. The years of drug abuse and life on the road had clearly taken their toll. However, once he got on stage in front of 50,000 people, all his finely tuned synaptic pathways for singing kicked back into gear, and he performed as if he were still in his 20s.
We can do better than Ozzy and not only perform well at the tasks that matter to us, but also stay sharp and active well into old age.
How do you know if you have good brain plasticity?
How do you know if you have good brain plasticity is? It’s easy—just ask yourself if it is easier or harder for you to learn something new or acquire new skills than it was five years ago. If it is easier, then you have developed a brain with greater plasticity potential. If it is harder, then you have developed a brain with inefficient plasticity and you are also probably losing neurons more rapidly.
I know for myself it takes me about one-third of the time it did five years ago to read research papers and write educational materials. Over the years my brain has become more plastic and efficient at these tasks. I have not declined in my function despite being five years older. This is an indication my brain plasticity has improved.
Developing positive plasticity: be a scholar and an athlete
Learning a new sport or skill can be painstakingly slow in the beginning, but with continued practice you become more efficient at, say, tennis or knitting because the neurons involved develop what is called “long-term potentiation.” In long-term potentiation it appears receptors on the postsynaptic neurons become more sensitive, so that over time fewer neurotransmitters are needed for the same effect.
The best thing you can do to develop plasticity is to challenge your brain constantly with both cognitive and physical activities. In other words, in order to maintain your brain well into old age you need to be both a scholar and an athlete.
Keep brain healthy for plasticity
Plasticity also requires a healthy brain environment. This means the neurons must receive enough oxygen, glucose, and stimulation. Neurotransmitter function must be healthy and the brain must not be battling ongoing inflammation or degeneration, which compromise neuron health.
If you notice a decline in your brain function and if it has become harder for you to learn new things, you need to shift the chemical environment in your brain to regain function. This primarily requires changes to your diet and lifestyle and perhaps support with nutritional therapy. Do not blame your declining brain function on aging.
In my book Why Isn’t My Brain Working? you will learn the necessary steps to maintain positive plasticity, such as ensuring proper neurotransmitter and synaptic function, avoiding brain inflammation and accelerated degeneration, and learning how and why addressing your bodily health—gut, hormones, immunity, and more—can so profoundly affect brain health and plasticity.