Neuroplasticity: The Amazing, Changing Brain
This article is adapted from 30 Days to a Better Brain, by Richard Carmona, M.D., M.P.H., F.A.C.S., president of the Canyon Ranch Institute and a former Surgeon General of the United States.
Doctors used to hold as a universal truth that we were each born with all the brain cells we were ever going to have or need. While other parts of the body were able to regenerate with age, the cells of the brain would progressively die off as we age. And once they died, they would be gone forever, and there was nothing we could do about it. In this model, the brain was perceived as stagnant, unable to grow, and a decline in brain function with age was inevitable.
Luckily for us, scientists and researchers did not take this “truth” for granted. The latest advances in brain imaging have shown that the brain can grow new cells, just like every other organ in the body. You see new cell growth on your skin every time you get a cut and it heals. The same may hold true for some cells of the brain.
The ability of the brain to change and grow is known as neuroplasticity. Plasticity does not refer to being synthetic, or fake. Instead, it refers to being moldable, pliable and repairable. In this sense, it means that the brain has the capacity to repair itself—to change and grow—through the creation of new neurons and neuronal connections.
Neuroplasticity occurs through a process we call neurogenesis: the creation of new neurons. As these brain cells increase and make new connections, you can continue to learn, improve your thinking and your mood, create new memories and retain cognition well into your old age. In short, we are not predestined to have dementia. You can even train your brain and enhance its abilities, including getting smarter, as you get older. Last, neurogenesis has a positive effect on your overall health, because what is good for the brain is good for the body.
How Do We Know Neuroplasticity Really Exists?
Neurogenesis makes sense theoretically because we can, and do, learn new things all the time. We master new skills, create new relationships and hone our understanding of both history and current events to make sense of our world. What’s innovative is that we now have a scientific pattern that explains new learning as new brain connections.
But for those who need more proof, science has proven neurogenesis exists in relation to our sensory perceptions. In a study financed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and published in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers found that when one sense is lost, the corresponding brain region can be recruited for other tasks: Those cells don’t waste away and die. In deaf people, the part of the brain that is supposed to handle auditory processing is instead recruited to enhance the other senses. Other studies have shown that structural changes in the auditory cortex are noticeable in the brains of deaf children from a very early age. As reported in the New York Times, the bottom line is that losing one sense can cause the brain to become rewired, which is neuroplasticity in action.
Reverse an Aging Brain Now: It’s Never Too Late to Start
The goal of enhancing brain health is to improve anatomy as well as brain chemistry—both structure and function—by increasing our capability for neurogenesis. At Canyon Ranch, we believe that these kinds of improvements can be made through simple changes in lifestyle. While your genes do play a role in your overall health, many preventive therapies exist that can allow you to keep your brain healthy as you age. This is where epigenetics comes into play—lifestyle changes will transform your health to create a whole new destiny.
The health of the brain is a result of all the positive and negative impacts we’ve encountered over the course of our lives. The negative aspects include poor health, physical injury like a concussion and simply following a poor diet. So it’s never too early to start to heal the brain, and it’s never too late. The truth is, some damage can be repaired if you start to take care of your brain long before you experience the symptoms of cognitive decline. If you don’t address these issues, the damage can become permanent. At Canyon Ranch, we prefer to prevent problems with the brain rather than reverse them: It’s a lot tougher to reverse damage than to thwart damage.
The goal we are trying to achieve is optimal well-being. We know that people have not lived perfect lives. We can’t erase the past, and we certainly don’t want to. But at the same time, we’re not here to add to your levels of stress. So the first step to better brain health is to take a deep breath and realize that you don’t have to be perfect now, either. All we’re asking is that you start to take the steps needed to put you on this path.
Your current lifestyle may be contributing to poor brain health. Or you may already be doing the right things to enhance your cognition, like eating a brain-friendly diet, getting plenty of physical activity, staying social, being heart smart and even meditating. If you take care of your body, you’ll have enhanced brain functioning. And when you take care of your brain, you’ll have enhanced overall health. The Canyon Ranch philosophy is to address all aspects of your health together—holistically—and when you do that, you’re going to see results.