The Amazing Brain - part 2
Posted: Tue, 20 Apr 2021 16:47
The Amazing Brain! Part Two
This four-part mini-series is all about our brain: It is the most remarkable organ in our bodies, it can reorganize and change itself (neuroplasticity) and there are links to what and how we do things in Conductive Education.
This second part is "Neuroplasticity".
We mentioned briefly about neurons or nerve cells in Part One. These small but mighty cells are the fundamental units of the brain and nervous system, the cells responsible for receiving sensory input from the external world, for sending motor commands to our muscles, and for transforming and relaying the electrical signals at every step in between. There are a huge number of specialised neurons in the brain.
A useful analogy is to think of a neuron as a tree. A neuron has three main parts: dendrites, an axon, and a cell body or soma (see image above), which can be represented as the branches, roots and trunk of a tree, respectively. A dendrite (tree branch) is where a neuron receives input from other cells. Dendrites branch as they move towards their tips, just like tree branches do, and they even have leaf-like structures on them called spines. The axon (tree roots) is the output structure of the neuron; when a neuron wants to talk to another neuron, it sends an electrical message called an action potential throughout the entire axon. The soma (tree trunk) is where the nucleus lies, where the neuron's DNA is housed, and where proteins are made to be transported throughout the axon and dendrites.
Each of these neurons is connected to hundreds or thousands of others by synapses. These connections are not fixed. Neurons and the connections between them are continually changing with experience, which allow us to learn new skills, retain memories, and recover from brain injury.
Neuroplasticity is one of the brain's most important properties. Put simply, neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to change – to rewire, relearn and strengthen important connections. Plasticity in the brain allows us to learn and adapt to our environment by reorganizing and changing itself throughout a person's lifetime, in response to new information and experience. Plasticity can occur in many ways: synapses – the junctions between neurons – can change strength (a bit like changing the volume of a conversation), new synapses can appear or disappear, and in some parts of the brain, brand new neurons can be born.
In addition to genetic factors, the environment in which a person lives, as well as the actions of each person, play a significant role in plasticity.
Neuroplasticity occurs in the brain…
- At the beginning of life: when the immature brain organizes itself.
- In case of a brain injury: When the brain is injured or grows abnormally, neurons are damaged, altered, or lost causing disability. As with other parts of the brain, when neurons of the primary motor cortex are damaged, they will never regrow or repair. The good news is the brain can heal itself and regain some lost function through neuroplasticity. The brain will attempt to create new pathways around an injury. This means undamaged parts can change their connections, strengthen an existing healthy connection and remap to other areas of the body to take over function, compensating for damaged parts of the motor cortex.
- Through adulthood: whenever something new is learned and memorized.
By harnessing neuroplasticity through practise and repetition, the brain will create and reinforce new neural pathways to learn new skills, habits, and ways of thinking. Different methods and techniques can be used to access particular parts of the brain that require strengthening.
Woodruff, A. (no date). What is a Neuron? Queensland Brain Institute. Available at https://qbi.uq.edu.au. (Accessed: 15/03/2021).
Novak, I. (2019). Why Neuroplasticity is the Secret Ingredient for Kids with Special Needs. Cerebral Palsy Alliance. Available at www.cerebralpalsy.org.au. (Accessed: 15/03/2021).