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Beyond the Myths: The Ever-Adapting Brain and the Art of Cognitive Resilience

Author: Katherine Chen

Editors: Chiara Chen and Emily Yu

Artist: Chiara Chen

There is a common myth that the brain develops primarily during childhood and ceases when we reach adulthood. This belief is flawed on several fronts, as our brains are continually reworking to accommodate ongoing learning. Consider the interconnected concepts of learning and memory. When you learn something new, the brain undergoes physical alterations when encoding memories, forming the basis for the continuous changes throughout our lifetimes. This phenomenon where the brain creates and modifies neural pathways in response to various stimuli, is called neuroplasticity. 

Not long ago, researchers discovered from examining the aftermath of brain damage that our brains constantly change throughout our lives. Most of the research conducted on neuroplasticity focuses on how the brain recovers following an injury. For example, we have a specific area in our brain that controls motor movements and sensory touch information called the homunculus, with neurons in that area controlling specific muscles in our body. If this motor area were to be damaged, fatal consequences would occur, such as a stroke, blockage of blood circulation, or weakness with the movements that the damaged part of the brain is responsible for. Damaged neurons do not heal or regenerate, yet we know that with physiotherapy and rehabilitation, people can regain control of their movements. Through rehabilitation and repeated training, undamaged areas of the brain can form new connections to compensate for the damaged regions. This is essentially what neuroplasticity is: making and strengthening new pathways so that the brain can relearn movement. 

But how does the brain change? The short answer is neurons. Neurons are responsible for transmitting information through the brain and body. Through synapses, which are tiny gaps where the chemical molecules neurotransmitters are released, connections are strengthened. As we adapt to evolving experiences, some connections between neurons strengthen, while others are eliminated through a process known as synaptic pruning. In this way, the brain can adapt to our ever-changing environment. 

While neuroplasticity offers promise for brain improvement, there are also cases where the brain is negatively altered. Harmful practices such as substance abuse hinder the ability of nerve cells to adjust and build connections. Similarly, negative stimuli like stress and anxiety can lead to chronic inflammation, disrupting neuroplasticity. Additionally, factors beyond our control, such as diseases or trauma, can negatively impact brain plasticity as well. 

Nevertheless, there are many ways to improve neuroplasticity. One way to improve neuroplasticity is by constantly challenging ourselves with tasks and making connections between associated concepts, rather than learning disconnected facts. When you are exposed to difficulties, it changes your brain’s capacity. Good quality sleep promotes dendritic growth in the brain, letting more information be transmitted from one neuron to the next and encouraging stronger connections for neuroplasticity. Exercising regularly can help prevent neuron loss in important areas of the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memories and learning. Recognizing these influences is crucial for developing positive habits that enhance neuroplasticity, supporting continual learning, improved brain function, and recovery from injuries or damage. Embracing neuroplasticity offers an opportunity to shape the brain positively and cultivate habits that contribute to lifelong cognitive well-being. 



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