Neuroplasticity or brain plasticity is defined as the ability of the nervous system to change its activity in response to intrinsic or extrinsic stimuli by reorganizing its structure, functions, or connections. A fundamental property of neurons is their ability to modify the strength and efficacy of synaptic transmission through a diverse number of activity-dependent mechanisms, typically referred to as synaptic plasticity.
Information in the brain is transmitted from neuron to neuron through specialized connections called synapses. A synapse between two neurons is made up of presynaptic and postsynaptic terminals, which are separated by a synaptic cleft. The presynaptic terminal is filled with small vesicles containing chemical neurotransmitters, and the postsynaptic terminal consists of receptors specific for these neurochemicals.
Neurons carry information in the form of an electrical impulse called an action potential that is initiated at the cell body and travels down the axon. At the synapse, an action potential causes the voltage-dependent release of neurotransmitter-filled vesicles, thereby converting an electrical impulse into a chemical signal.
Neurotransmitters diffuse across the synaptic cleft, where they bind to receptors and generate an electrical signal in the postsynaptic neuron. The postsynaptic cell will then, in turn, fire an action potential if the sum of all its synapses reaches an electrical threshold for firing. Since a neuron can receive synapses from many different presynaptic cells, each cell is able to integrate information from varied sources before passing along the information in the form of an electrical code.
The ability of neurons to modify the strength of existing synapses, as well as form new synaptic connections, is called neuroplasticity.
Defined in this way, neuroplasticity includes changes in strength of mature synaptic connections, as well as the formation and elimination of synapses in adult and developing brains.
Neuroplasticity refers to the lifelong capacity of the brain to change and rewire itself in response to the stimulation of learning and experience.
Examples of neuroplasticity include circuit and network changes that result from learning a new ability, environmental influences, practice, and psychological stress.
Neuroplasticity was once thought by neuroscientists to manifest only during childhood, but research in the latter half of the 20th century showed that many aspects of the brain can be altered (or are “plastic”) even through adulthood. However, the developing brain exhibits a higher degree of plasticity than the adult brain.
Michael Merzenich is a neuroscientist who has been one of the pioneers of neuroplasticity for over three decades. He has made some of “the most ambitious claims for the field – that brain exercises may be as useful as drugs to treat diseases as severe as schizophrenia – that plasticity exists from cradle to the grave, and that radical improvements in cognitive functioning – how we learn, think, perceive, and remember are possible even in the elderly.
Aerobic exercise promotes adult neurogenesis by increasing the production of neurotrophic factors (compounds that promote growth or survival of neurons), such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), and vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF). Exercise-induced neurogenesis in the hippocampus is associated with measurable improvements in spatial memory.