the Science of Living Well: Neuroplasticity

During the 20th century most neuroscientists thought of the brain as a static structure and impossible to alter, modify or change after early childhood. But fortunately for all of us still alive today, recent research has shown this belief to be erroneous.

The brain and its vast array of portable contents are as pliable as clay in the hands of a potter. Nature is the master potter, nurture is the environment into which it is thrust. Both play complex and elusive roles in brain development, outcome and function.

We now know that many functional aspects of the brain remain plastic even into adulthood. Changes in our external environment that alter our behavior and cognition can actually modify connections between existing neurons. This is great news for those of us formerly deceived by conventional education and outdated belief systems opposed to change.

Through a process known as neurogenesis new pathways and synapses in the hippocampus, olfactory bulb, cerebellum and other regions of the brain can be generated. Neuronal activation and cortical remapping evidence in response to experience and brain exercise is proof that the brain, like muscle itself in response to exercise, can and does change throughout our entire life.

Sarcopenia describes the apparently normal phenomenon of losing lean mass and functional tissue as we age. However, most of this loss, once assumed to be caused by aging itself, more accurately correlates in aging men and women with the willful act of physical inaction. If you don’t use voluntary muscle as designed and intended by nature, it will slowly fade away like a summer sun setting over the distant horizon.

The good news is that if we do exercise correctly and train our body as advised by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle 2300 years ago, we will never lose the functional potential of our health engine, namely skeletal muscle. The key is to contract it repeatedly under force through its natural full range of motion.

Muscle shrinks and dies like any neglected plant, but thrives like a well tended garden that is continuously manicured. Our genes permit continual function, adaptation and evolution throughout our lifespan provided the environment is ideal. This of course includes the grey matter between our ears.

Neuroplastic methods including various computer programs and mind activation games are currently utilized to treat traumatic brain injury, learning difficulties, artificial limb replacement challenges and chronic pain.

Research by neuroscientist Michael Merzenich demonstrates that certain brain exercises designed to stimulate neurogenesis are equal to or superior too many outdated psychotropic drugs currently used to treat schizophrenia and mental illness.

Psychotropic drugs for the most part and with rare exception, are the bane of human existence. No biomarker, blood test or gene exists for accurately determining mental illness in any individual as defined by conventional psychiatry. Aberrant or strange behavior is all they go by. How primitive and how sad compared to what is known in functional preventive molecular medicine.

Plasticity of the brain exists from cradle to the grave. Not only can we create thousands of new neural pathways that extend from each of our 100 billion brain neurons, but we can also create new neurons from scratch. Something out of nothing? Reminds me of theoretical physicist and cosmologist Lawrence Kraus and his latest publication A Universe From Nothing.

Different forms of physical exercise induce neuroplasticity in different regions of the brain. Cognitive function can be improved at any age. How we learn, think, perceive and remember are concepts no longer reserved only for children. So get at it, exercise your brain. Step barefooted across the stream of your mind but make sure your feet are planted on the methods of science and evidence based medicine.

Study online. Choose a topic or course that interests you. Challenge yourself. Learn how to sustain yourself and extend your life, both in terms of quantity and quality. Explore the world you inhabit. Explore the prism that inhabits you. Study the history and life of the great thinkers.

Just like the body and muscle itself, we must use the brain creatively or we will most certainly lose it! Our capacity to think, adapt and grow is truly remarkable. Most limits are set by us alone but if you haven’t set any, you will most likely not experience any.

When elephants are young they are tethered by a collar fastened around one of their hind legs. The collar is attached to a chain tied to a metal stake in the ground. When the baby elephant tries to break away, the collar cuts into the elephant’s skin causing severe pain. Eventually it learns not to tug on the chain. It becomes complacent and over time this learned behavior remains intact. A full grown elephant seldom attempts to break free even though it could easily snap the chain with one simple tug. Why is that?

Keep this analogy in mind regarding your own potential. The collar around your neck was put there by the society you were born into. As a child you had no means of understanding reality, freedom or liberty. You were forced to eat a certain way, believe in things impossible to falsify, and even circumcised or vaccinated against your will. Are you someone’s property? Do you belong to the state? Will you remain complacent for the rest of your life, or will you break free of the chains that bind you and pursue a life dedicated to health and wellness? The choice is yours…

Photo by Brodie Vissers from Burst

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the Science of Living Well: Telomeres
the Science of Living Well: Calorie Restriction
the Science of Living Well: Blue Zones

As always...Stay well and Live Free!