What is the Meaning of Neuroplasticity?
Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to adapt. Or, as Dr. Campbell puts it:
“It refers to the physiological changes within the brain that happen because of the results of our interactions with our surroundings. From the time the brain begins to develop in utero until the day we die, the connections among the cells in our brains reorganize in response to our changing needs. This dynamic process allows us to find out from and adapt to different experiences” – Celeste Campbell (n.d.).
Our brains are truly extraordinary; unlike computers, which are built to certain specifications and receive software updates periodically, our brains can actually receive hardware updates additionally to software updates. Different pathways form and fall dormant, are created, and are discarded, consistent with our experiences.
When we learn something new, we create new connections between our neurons. We rewire our brains to adapt to new circumstances. This happens on a day to day, but it’s also something that we will encourage and stimulate.
A Brief History of Neuroplasticity
The term “neuroplasticity” was first employed by Polish neuroscientist Jerzy Konorski in 1948 to explain observed changes in neuronal structure (neurons are the cells that structure our brains), although it wasn’t widely used until the 1960s.
However, the thought goes back even farther (Demarin, Morović, & Béne, 2014)—the “father of neuroscience,” Santiago Ramón y Cajal, talked about “neuronal plasticity” within the early 1900s (Fuchs & Flügge, 2014). He recognized that, in contrast to current belief at that point, brains could indeed change after an individual had reached adulthood.
In the 1960s, it had been discovered that neurons could “reorganize” after a traumatic event. Further research found that stress can change not only the functions but also the structure of the brain itself (Fuchs & Flügge, 2014).
In the late 1990s, researchers found that stress can actually kill brain cells—although these conclusions are still not completely certain.
For many decades, it had been thought that the brain was a “nonrenewable organ,” that brain cells are bestowed during a finite amount and that they slowly die as we age, whether we plan to keep them around or not. As Ramón y Cajal said, “in adult centers, the nerve paths are something fixed, ended, immutable. Everything may die, nothing could also be regenerated” (as cited in Fuchs & Flügge, 2014).
This research found that there are other ways for brain cells to die, other ways for them to adapt and reconnect, and maybe even ways for them to regrow or replenish. this is often what’s referred to as “neurogenesis.”