To understand neuroplasticity you really have to understand the basic functions of brain cells. The most important type of cell in the brain is the neuron. It has a cell body which is the main information center of the cell and usually a long tube or “axon” that travels from one area of the brain to another. The cell body and the axon have lots of branches called “dendrites” that help it reach out to neighbouring neurons. Neurons communicate with one another at microscopic junctions between them called “synapses”. Chemical are exchanged at these synapses and that is how an electrical impulse can travel from one neuron to the next. These electrical impulses are the reason you see what you see, feel what you feel and move what you move.
When I first thought of something that was “plastic”, I had images of stiff plastic play toys that eventually cracked and were discarded; but in the case of “neuroplasticity”, “plastic” means malleable or flexible. This amazing brain of ours can change. What we do (our behaviour) changes it…Think about learning something new. I think about riding a skateboard since it is something I currently cannot do. However, if I were to practice every day balancing on and riding the skateboard, eventually I would learn to ride it and perhaps be able to do a trick or two. Yes, my balance and coordination will improve but remember, balance and coordination are controlled first by the brain. The brain receives sensory inputs (from nerves in my ankles and leg muscles and from my eyes) which then relay through neurons to motor areas of my brain to signal muscles to turn on or off so I can keep my balance. At first this relay system is a little slow and I fall frequently but over time it becomes more efficient and my balance adjustments become faster so I am less likely to fall. The neurons in my brain start to find the most efficient communication path. Synapses that are being used a lot when I skateboard become stronger and those that are not used as much get weaker. Over time, my movement on the skateboard becomes more automatic and I find I can think about other things like a dog walking nearby rather than concentrating entirely on riding the skateboard. This is because neurons grow new dendrites to connect to other areas of my brain that control more automatic movement. My brain has developed a new motor program for skateboarding! This allows my brain now to have room to learn another new thing, like playing the cello…..