There is an old saying, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. Perhaps that is true for dogs, but not so for old humans. In fact it has been found that you can teach an old brain “new tricks”. This is what is behind the science of neuroplasticity.
When we went to college it was believed that by the time you reached adulthood, the brain stopped developing and you didn’t get any more neurons (nerve cells) from that point on. In the past couple of decades however, it has been discovered from various technological developments such as functional MRIs that the brain does indeed grow not only new neurons but new nerural connections.
What has also been intriguing is what stimulates this new production of nerve pathways. Neuroplasticity shows us that the brain has the ability to change in response to new thoughts, feelings, to what we learn and to new activities. In other words, the brain is flexible or “plastic”; it can be moulded.
As we get older, our brains get smaller, or at least that’s what many scientists used to believe. But a study in the 2009 Journal of Neuropsychology contradicts this assumption, concluding that when older brains are “healthy” there is little brain deterioration in healthy people.
The results suggest that many previous studies may have overestimated how much our brains shrink as we age, possibly because they failed to exclude people who were starting to develop brain diseases, such as dementia, that would lead to brain decay, or atrophy.
“The main issue is that maybe healthy people do not have as much atrophy as we always thought they had,” said Saartje Burgmans, the lead author of the study and a PhD candidate at Maastricht University in the Netherlands.
So the good news is that we can now forestall or reverse the tendency to brain deterioration as we age. There are several important things that you can do to keep your brain “plastic”.
1. Learn a new activity; something that you have not done before, whether it’s taking up a hobby, learning to play an instrument or acquiring technological skills.
2. Keep up as much as possible with exercise and do new exercise which stimulates the brain. This is not just good for overall health, but does stimulate neuroplasticity.
3. Don’t let aging deter you from sexual activity, because this has a positive impact on neuroplasticity.
4. Download apps such as Lumosity which are tools whereby you can stimulate new activity for your brain.
The topic of neuroplasticity is such a vast area in science today, more than can be covered in an article such as this.
For further reading we can suggest a couple of books.
The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge
The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force by Jeffrey Schwartz