Thursday, January 24, 2008

Neuroplasticity and You

We're born with the major interstates and highways in place. That is, at birth, our nervous system has developed its primary trunks--the ones for breathing and simple digestion, basic reflexes and survival instincts. During the first one to two years, our nervous system continues to GROW AND GROW at a speedy clip. Local freeways and routes, parkways and boulevards and avenues, roads and lanes are all laid down as we learn to see and recognize, to respond and in turn affect our environment. Every tiny street and driveway and path is formed as part of the network of nerves we need to first move our fingers individually, then in concert to pinch and grasp, then in harmony to maneuver spoon to mouth.

All this is to say that the trillions of nerve pathways we use daily are created, grown, and developed while we are out here in the world. Indeed, our nervous system depends on external stimulus in order to form at all. It is only in response to our environment that neurons shape and stretch and arrange themselves into functional pathways. And as we repeatedly respond to the same stimulus, our bodies strengthen and reinforce the pathways that serve us, while allowing the others to wither away and disappear.

Neuroplasticity is the idea that our neurons are plastic and pliable. They grow and fade according to frequency of use, and they are also constantly re-forming to be more efficient and effective. Other tissue in our bodies are also plastic in this way, including the expression of our DNA, but neurons are particularly sensitive and quick to respond to change. What is most extraordinary about neuroplasticity is that it is in play throughout our lives! The assumption had been that all this neuron growing and pathway creating primarily occurred in those first couple of years of life. But we now know that neural pathways continue to adapt and develop as we age, and that NEW NEURONS CONTINUE TO GROW well into our senior years. That's right, new neurons have been found in the brains of seventy-somethings.

So what does that mean in our lives? It means that what we need to keep our nervous system thriving is the same thing we needed to develop as infants: novel stimulus. We need to consistently present our brains and nervous systems with new challenges and new environments, whether external or internal, to navigate, to learn from, to respond to. Just as an athlete trains her body by asking more of her muscles and coordination, so our minds and neurons require variety and constant change to develop, no matter what our age.

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