Neuroplasticity, Animation.

Neuroplasticity, Animation.


Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain
to change, or rewire, throughout a person’s life. It is the basis of learning and brain repair
after injuries. The brain consists of billions of neurons. Neurons communicate with each other through
a space between them, called a synapse. This communication is made possible by chemical
messages, or neurotransmitters. Basically, the pre-synaptic neuron releases
a neurotransmitter, which binds to, and activates a receptor on the post-synaptic neuron. A typical neuron can have thousands of synapses,
or connections, with other neurons. Together, they form extremely complex networks
that are responsible for all brain’s functions. Synaptic connections, as well as neurons themselves,
can change over time, and this phenomenon is called neural plasticity, or neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is activity-driven and follows
the “use it or lose it” rule: frequently used synapses are strengthened, while rarely
used connections are weakened or eliminated; new activities generate new connections. Changes in synaptic strength can be temporary
or long-lasting depending on the intensity and reoccurrence of the signal the synapse
receives. Neurons can temporarily enhance their connections
by releasing more neurotransmitter, activating a new receptor, or modifying an existing receptor. This is the basis of short-term memory. Long-term memory retention requires strong
or sustained activities that produce structural changes, such as growth of new dendritic spines
and synaptic connections, or even formation of new neurons. Structural neuroplasticity may also result
in enlargement of the cortical area associated with the increased activity, and shrinkage
of areas that receive less or no activity. For example, in right-handed people, the hand
motor region on the left side of the brain, which controls the right hand, is larger than
the other side. Neuroplastic changes can also be functional,
meaning neurons may adopt a new function when they are sufficiently stimulated. This is how the brain survives injuries, such
as strokes. Healthy brain tissues can take over the functions
of the damaged area during post-stroke rehabilitation. Some stimuli, such as stress or physical exercise,
can cause certain neurons to switch from one neurotransmitter to another, often converting
them from excitatory to inhibitory or vice versa. This neurotransmitter switching is thought
to be the basis of behavioral changes induced by such stimuli. An intriguing example of neural plasticity
is the phenomenon of phantom limb sensation, in which patients who have lost a limb through
amputation can still feel the limb. For example, patients may feel that their
lost arm is being touched when their face is touched. Because incoming sensory signals from the
arms and face project to neighboring regions in the somatosensory cortex, it is plausible
that sensory inputs from the face spill over to the now inactive arm region that no longer
receives any inputs, tricking the brain’s higher centers into interpreting that the
sensation comes from the absent arm. The plasticity of the brain is not limited
by age, but is much more remarkable in children as their young brain is still developing. Neuroplasticity is essential for normal brain
development, it helps create functional brain circuits and is the basis of learning. This is why acquiring a new skill, such as
speaking a language or playing a musical instrument, is much easier in childhood than in adulthood. But changes brought about by neural plasticity
can also be negative/maladaptive and have unfortunate consequences especially if happen
in childhood. Childhood traumas are more likely to have
long-lasting effects into a person’s life. Neuroplastic changes happen all the time,
but their magnitude depends on the amount of activity the brain receives. More practice leads to more learning. Keeping the brain busy is the way to keep
it healthy and effective.

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