Brain plasticity is a concept that refers to the brain’s ability to re-wire or re-route itself to enhance thinking or recover from damage. In this instance, “plasticity” simply means “flexibility”. Researchers use the concept of brain plasticity to help us understand how children’s thinking and learning expand as well as how the human brain is able to recover following an injury.

The concept of brain plasticity is still evolving and represents one of several theories as to why we think and act the way we do. Keep reading to find out more.

For brain plasticity, the term doesn’t mean our brains are made of plastic (although it may feel that way sometimes). Instead, plasticity means the brain is modifiable — that it can be changed based on our experiences and repaired after injury. Researchers first described the concepts of brain plasticity in 1890, and the definition has expanded with time and research.

To better understand plasticity, it’s good to look at the other theory related to the brain, which is localizationism. This concept states that each part of the brain has a distinct function, and if that area is damaged, a person cannot recover the function.

The theory of brain plasticity, on the other hand, is drawn from instances of the brain being able to adapt different locations to nonstandard functions. Researchers have been able to identify examples of plasticity in both animals and insects. Studying plasticity examples in animals allows researchers to better describe what may be going on in the human brain, too.

Are neuroplasticity and brain plasticity the same thing?

Yes. It’s not uncommon to see brain plasticity referred to interchangeably as neuroplasticity. “Neuro” is a Greek word root meaning “nerve”.

One example of brain plasticity is recovery after a stroke or a traumatic brain injury, such as a blow to the head. These conditions can cause nerve cell death due to a lack of blood flow to the brain. Nerve cell tissue is famous for not being able to regenerate or grow back well.

However, researchers have found that although the brain doesn’t change in structure (new tissue doesn’t grow back), the brain seems to “re-wire” itself to start to transmit messages around the damaged brain portions. The idea the brain can re-wire itself is the basis for some treatments for brain injury, including:

The brain’s ability to recover after an injury is just one example of plasticity. Others include:

  • Taxi drivers have a larger volume (weight) in their hippocampus, a brain structure involved in navigation.
  • Learning to juggle induces changes in the brain’s white and gray matter, especially in the areas related to vision and movement.
  • Professional basketball players experience increases in volume in multiple brain areas compared to those who don’t play professional sports.
  • Professional musicians and mathematicians experience changes in their brains compared to those who aren’t professionals.

These are just some examples of brain plasticity and the effects of learning on the brain. New research is coming in all the time, but two things are becoming clear: your brain is capable of “re-wiring” and growing in the areas you use it most and to recover from damage.

Brain plasticity and bilingualism

Can you imagine being able to tell that a person speaks two languages just by looking at a scan of their brain? That’s what researchers are finding.

One approach to studying the effects of language learning on brain plasticity is having learners undergo a brain scan before and after they take a language course.

Researchers have found learning a new language creates changes in the brain related to language, typically in the left hemisphere. One study found even an hour of vocabulary training started to create changes in the brain.

Brain plasticity likely fluctuates throughout your life. Some of it depends upon your age, as young childhood is a time of significant brain development and plasticity. What happens next is often up to the person and their experiences — if you challenge yourself, your brain plasticity will continue to grow.

Brain plasticity in childhood

Childhood is thought to be a time of significant brain plasticity. Children are developing, growing, and learning, and their brains are no exception. Early childhood is what researchers call a “sensitive” phase where brain plasticity is especially heightened.

Interestingly enough, some research suggests there may be an element of reduced brain plasticity in adolescence. Other researchers suggest there is a “re-routing” of nerve transmission in adolescence, so some areas have higher levels of plasticity while other areas are lower.

Brain plasticity in adults

Can you teach an old dog new tricks? Brain plasticity researchers would likely answer “yes”. Studies regarding older adults and solving complex tasks, learning, and retaining newly learned skills have found older adults are able to utilize brain plasticity.

Doctors use plasticity in the treatment of brain-related conditions, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, or depression. Cognitive behavioral therapy is an approach to helping a person make new connections between their thought patterns and their behavior.

This concept, that a person can consciously change their responses, is important because it illustrates how adaptive the brain is — which is the definition of plasticity.

The possible connections between brain plasticity and behavior are not simple, but the connections are there. Animal studies have connected changes in behavior with changes in nerve connections or plasticity.

Potential connections between brain plasticity and behavior include that a person’s environment impacts their brain development. Personality is developed over time, and experiences can create changes in the brain. Strong emotions specifically have been shown to alter the brain’s responses.

One element researchers have studied is how behavioral changes impact plasticity. For example, changes such as a new diet, quitting smoking, or a new exercise routine can create new neural pathways. An important element of maintaining the neural pathway is repetition or continuing to reinforce behavioral changes.

A key element to maintaining brain plasticity is practice. Researchers have found the brain’s changes are only maintained if a skill is practiced frequently: a “use-it-or-lose-it” approach. Otherwise, the brain has a tendency to return to its normal structure (though interestingly enough, you don’t necessarily lose the ability to perform a skill).

To maintain your brain plasticity, you must first keep challenging your brain either by learning a new skill or skills or by trying to improve the skills you already have. Then, you must practice the skill frequently.

Another way to maximize brain plasticity is to switch tasks in your practice session. This further challenges your brain. This approach has been shown to enhance brain plasticity more so than performing tasks in a row. This could be as simple as taking a different route home from work every day.

Brain plasticity helps the brain heal and find new ways to continue after injury. Research is continuing to develop, but current studies seem to show that the brain is able to grow and adapt in fascinating ways throughout your life.

If you challenge yourself mentally, through memorization, new tasks, and enhancing old skills, you will likely maintain or enhance your brain plasticity.