Last week we looked at different ways to stay young with brain games and learning opportunities. This week we take a look at neuroplasticity.
Last week we looked at different ways to stay young with brain games and learning opportunities. This week we take a look at neuroplasticity.
Keeping your brain active and the best it can be is a hot topic these days.

It's an especially interesting topic for me after having a "minor" traumatic brain injury (TBI), as identified by Mayo Clinic physicians, from a fall in September of 2012, followed by a stroke after surgery at the hospital.

Last week in this column we looked at playing "brain games" through online sites like Lumosity and Happy Neuron, with a few sample games from the latter available free on the AARP website.

Since I'm not a doctor (I only play one here, as the old TV commercial used to state), I'd like to share more information on the brain and its amazing abilities to learn and recover. I'm going to cite some material provided on a website sharing neuroscience information for kids because it's readily available and fairly easy to understand, http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/plast.html.

So, are you ready to take a journey and soak up more about your brain's amazing powers? Here we go. First, one word, and it's a mouthful: neuroplasticity. Trust me, I've heard a lot from my doctors about neuroplasticity throughout my ongoing recovery and rehabilitation process. Here's what my newly found website states:

"...Neuroplasticity describes how experiences reorganize neural pathways in the brain. Long-lasting functional changes in the brain occur when we learn new things or memorize new information. These changes in neural connections are what we call neuroplasticity."

So, in order for new knowledge to be retained in memory, changes in the brain representing the new knowledge must occur in reaction to the sensory stimulation.

"Gopnick et al. (1999) describe neurons as growing telephone wires that communicate with one another. Following birth, the brain of a newborn is flooded with information from the baby's sense organs. This sensory information must somehow make it back to the brain where it can be processed. To do so, nerve cells must make connections with one another, transmitting the impulses to the brain.

"Continuing the telephone wire analogy, like the basic telephone trunk lines strung between cities, the newborn's genes instruct the 'pathway' to the correct area of the brain from a particular nerve cell... The basic trunk lines have been established, but the specific connections from one house to another require additional signals.

"Over the first few years of life, the brain grows rapidly. As each neuron matures, it sends out multiple branches (axons, which send information out, and dendrites, which take in information), increasing the number of synaptic contacts and laying the specific connections from house to house, or in the case of the brain, from neuron to neuron.

"At birth, each neuron in the cerebral cortex has approximately 2,500 synapses. By the time an infant is 2 or 3 years old, the number is approximately 15,000 synapses per neuron (Gopnick, et al., 1999).

"This amount is about twice that of the average adult brain. As we age, old connections are deleted through a process called 'synaptic pruning,' which eliminates weaker synaptic contacts while stronger connections are kept and strengthened. Experience determines which connections will be strengthened and which will be pruned; connections that have been activated most frequently are preserved.

"Neurons must have a purpose to survive. Without a purpose, neurons die through a process called apoptosis in which neurons that do not receive or transmit information become damaged and die. Ineffective or weak connections are 'pruned' in much the same way a gardener would prune a tree or bush, giving the plant the desired shape. It is plasticity that enables the process of developing and pruning connections, allowing the brain to adapt itself to its environment.

"It was once believed that as we aged, the brain's networks became fixed. In the past two decades, however, an enormous amount of research has revealed the brain never stops changing and adjusting..."

After a discussion of short-term and long-term memory, we reach the area I'm really interested in: brain repair and neuroplasticity.

"During brain repair following injury, 'plastic' changes are geared towards maximizing function in spite of the damaged brain. In studies involving rats in which one area of the brain was damaged, brain cells surrounding the damaged area underwent changes in their function and shape that allowed them to take on the functions of the damaged cells. Although this phenomenon has not been widely studied in humans, data indicate that similar (though less effective) changes occur in human brains following injury."

I pin my hard work and hopes on neuroplasticity to help regain functions lost, such as someday taking an easy step without needing to think at all about my current bad balance.

Whatever the case, take care of your brain. Lest you think it's all work and big words, next week we'll look at also-needed "down time" for the brain.