We republished this article from Loles Villalobos Turnerresearcher at the department of experimental psychology, cognitive processes and speech therapy at the Complutense University of Madrid (UCM) published in The Conversation on January 19, 2023.
You may have never heard of the neuroplasticity and it seems a somewhat complex concept at first glance, but keep reading: it is the key to our development and the changes we experience from birth.
we call neuroplasticity to the extraordinary capacity of our thinking organ to turn Y reconfigure functionally and physically its structure in response to environmental stimuli, behavioral experiences, or cognitive demands. In short, to the situations we live.
This is possible mainly thanks to the creation and control of the number of neuronsthe migration of these nerve cells and the formation of new connections.
After the ravages of a cardiovascular accident
To understand it better, let’s think about a person who has suffered a brain injury. It can be the result of a tumor, a head injury or, most commonly, a cerebrovascular accident (ictus). The latter occurs when an artery that supplies our brain ruptures and the blood takes up space that does not belong to it (hemorrhagic stroke). Or when an artery becomes clogged and blood flow cannot reach the areas of the brain for which it is intended.
The ictus cause serious consequences in the brain and in the lives of those who suffer them. It may involve activities such as walking, moving an arm, talking, remembering what we did yesterday, or putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes. In short, to everything we do every day thanks to the proper functioning of this exciting organ.
At that time, the brain undergoes a sudden change and the affected areas stop working as they did previously. How can we try to get the patient back to walking, talking, or controlling his mood? Thanks to the fact that the brain, just as it is affected and modified abruptly, is also capable of readjusting and changing in a guided and effortful way.
In search of the lost language
Recent studies have shown the effect of neuroplasticity in patients with communication problems (aphasia) after suffering a brain injury. For the vast majority of people, language is located in the left hemisphere: important regions of that half of the brain need to function properly for us to understand and produce words.
When this gear is interrupted by a stroke, we must appeal to neuroplasticity if we intend to recover what has been lost. A) Yes, it has been found that intensive language therapy is capable of recover the functioning of damaged regions of the left hemisphere and their connections. It can even cause changes in structures of the right hemisphere, further aiding recovery.
Power of music
If the above is already interesting, another recent study has been able to observe the changes produced by music therapy in patients who have suffered a head injury. In his case, the injury had impaired executive functions. These higher cognitive abilities allow us to achieve goals, adapt to novel situations, or manage social interactions, among other daily tasks. They include processes such as inhibition, cognitive flexibility, planning, reasoning or decision making.
The researchers verified that music therapy improved the executive functions of the affected patients after three months, and that the changes were maintained over time. they also saw that there was a brain substrate: the patients presented significant changes in important regions of your frontal lobe. Specifically, in the prefrontal cortex, responsible for the correct performance of these skills.
Key process in learning
But, Does neuroplasticity intervene in a healthy brain? Could it be the key, since we have brought up music, to learn to play an instrument? Yes. In fact, the correct formulation would be to say that acquiring any new skill requires changes in our brain.
Music training has been considered an interesting framework to investigate induced neuroplasticity in healthy brains. Although certain brain differences make it easier for certain people to learn to play an instrument, longitudinal studies show that listening and producing music generate functional changes in the cerebral motor network and its connections with the auditory system.
Too are produced important transformations when we learn a new language. This occurs in young people as well as in adults and older people, and it takes place in the short term. Therefore, when we begin to become familiar with the language, with its vocabulary and grammatical structures, our brain undergoes the modifications that make it possible.
Taxi drivers with specialized brains
Experience is the cause of these changes to occur. a classic study revealed that the taxi drivers of London, experts in memorizing the routes of the city and driving agilely through its streets, presented a larger than normal volume in certain areas of the hippocampus. This brain region, belonging to the limbic system and located in our temporal lobe, is strongly associated with our memory; especially, to our spatial memory and our ability to orientate.
Even more interesting, a study compared taxi drivers with the bus (which tend to repeat the same route) and only the first ones presented these differences in your hippocampus. This rules out that it could be due to other variables, such as different driving abilities or the stress that this job entails.
The brain is the organ in our body that makes everything we do possible. Fortunately, thanks to neuroplasticity we can change, evolve and progress. We should not wait for something to happen without time and effort, but it is clear that our brain will be in charge of helping us achieve many of the things that we set out to do.