2.12 What is Neuroplasticity? – Definition & Concept

Jan 18, 2020 | ch2 Biological Bases of Behaviour, Courses, Intro to Psychology

In this lesson, we will look at what neuroplasticity is and how it works. We will also explore up-and-coming research that shows how neuroplasticity can help individuals with depression.

What Is Neuroplasticity?

Neuroplasticity, also called brain plasticity, is the process in which your brain’s neural synapses and pathways are altered as an effect of environmental, behavioral, and neural changes. When it comes to neuroplasticity, the brain is a lot like film. When you photograph a picture, of say, a mountain, you’re exposing the film to new information. It reacts to the light, and its makeup changes in order to record the image of that mountain. In the same way, your brain’s makeup changes when it’s exposed to new information, so that it may retain that information.

How Does Neuroplasticity Work?

The process of neuroplasticity isn’t a quick or simple one; rather, it takes place throughout your lifetime and can involve many processes. Along with altering your neural synapses and pathways, it can involve changes to your neurons, vascular cells, and glial cells. Neuroplasticity also occurs hand-in-hand with synaptic pruning, which is the brain’s way of deleting the neural connections that are no longer necessary or useful and strengthening the necessary ones. How your brain decides which connections to prune out depends on your life experiences and how recently connections have been used. In much the same way, neurons that grow weak from underuse die off through the process of apoptosis. In general, neuroplasticity is a way for your brain to fine-tune itself for efficiency.

Neuroplasticity happens continually as you learn and memorize new data, and as your brain develops; however, it can also be spurred by a physical trauma. In such cases, neuroplasticity serves as an adaptive mechanism that allows someone to compensate for function loss after suffering a bodily injury. For example, if someone suffers a brain injury, neuroplasticity allows the brain to ‘rewire’ itself in order to restore or maximize brain functioning by rebuilding neural circuits and allowing an uninjured part of the brain to take over the damaged part.

Neuroplasticity’s Role in Depression



It’s been long known that mood disorders are related to neurochemical changes; yet, the relationship between neuroplasticity and depression has been unchartered territory until relatively recently. Researchers have discovered that depression, chronic stress (which can worsen depression), and other mood disorders may decrease neuroplasticity, resulting in a reduced number of synaptic connections. This, in turn, can lead to lower chances of cell survival as well as decreased efficiency of neural synapses. Conversely, it’s been found that antidepressant treatment creates the opposite effect – it increases neuroplasticity.

Of course, these findings negate the outdated belief that each person was born with a set number of brain cells and that, once a cell dies, it was gone forever. Instead, the brain continues to alter its synapses and pathways and grow new cells. Even into adult life, your hippocampus and other areas of the brain can continue to grow new brain cells.

A person’s neuroplasticity, however, depends on his or her daily activities. For example, British researcher Eleanor Maguire studied London taxi drivers who had to memorize the complex London map in order to get a license. She found that after completing the intense and lengthy study involved in memorizing the map, those who had been driving the longest had the greatest improvement in the hippocampus region of the brain. It’s also been suggested that a healthy exercise routine can positively affect neuroplasticity.

Lesson Summary

Neuroplasticity is the change in neural pathways and synapses that occurs due to certain factors, like behavior, environment, or neural processes. During such changes, the brain engages in synaptic pruning, deleting the neural connections that are no longer necessary or useful, and strengthening the necessary ones. After a physical trauma, such as a brain injury, neuroplasticity allows the brain to rewire itself, in order to restore or maximize brain functioning. Research reveals that depression can decrease neuroplasticity, resulting in a reduced number of synaptic connections. Even into adult life, the brain continues to alter its synapses and pathways and grow new cells, but this neuroplasticity depends on the person’s daily mental and physical activities.

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