The Plastic Brain

brainThe Plastic Brain – Amazing Discoveries About the Brain and How it Can Change and Adapt

Our brains are amazing!  We’ve known this for many years.  However, recent research by neuroscientists leading this field suggests that our plastic brain continues to change and adapt throughout our lifetime.

Brain structure and function is incredibly dynamic.  In early years, there are obvious changes, thought to be caused by both genetic predisposition and environmental factors.  Now, studies show that the plastic brain is continually redesigning itself as our circumstances and needs change.  Let’s look at three of the most recent examples of such discoveries.

Social Anxiety Disorders – The Plastic Brain Fixed by Therapy

These days it seems that more and more of us suffer from uncomfortable anxiety when presented with social situations.  This is especially the case when we are placed under pressure, perhaps doing a presentation at work, meeting new people or  speaking publicly.

Social anxiety can cause the sufferer intense distress.  Sometimes this distress can become debilitating.  Excessive sweating, shallow breathing or hyperventilating and a racing heartbeat are all symptoms of anxiety, as are feelings of nervousness or paranoia.

It’s thought that around one in ten people are affected by social anxiety to some degree at some point in their lives, and these figures seem to be increasing.  Social anxiety disorder is diagnosed if the sufferer’s fears and anxieties begin to significantly impair their everyday life and cause considerable suffering.

Through improvements in diagnostic imaging techniques, it’s been found that the regulation of anxiety by frontal and lateral brain areas is impaired in sufferers.  Treatments which restore the balance between cortical and subcortical brain areas, regulating the emotions, reduce the levels of anxiety experienced.  Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the central therapy for social anxiety disorder.

Studies conducted at the Centre for Depression, Anxiety Disorders and Psychotherapy at The University Hospital of Psychiatry in Zurich, used a ten-week course of CBT.  Patients’ brains were examined using MRI both before and after therapy.

Head physician, Annette Bruhl says, “We were able to show that structural changes occur in brain areas linked to self control and emotion regulation.  Psychotherapy normalizes brain changes associated with social anxiety disorder.”

The research group demonstrated that the CBT caused these changes to take place.  They also found that the areas of the brain associated with processing the emotions were more physically interconnected after successful treatment.

Once the structure of the sufferer’s brain changed, the symptoms diminished.

Astronauts’ Brains Found to Change Shape During Space Missions

A new study using MRI scans has revealed that an astronaut’s brain actually changes shape whilst they are in space.

These changes specifically affect grey matter of the brain in regions known to control movements of the legs.  They reflect how the plastic brain adapts to moving in microgravity conditions.

The study, by the University of Michigan, found that grey matter increases and decreases occurred during time in space.  The extent of the changes is dependent on the length of time spent in space in microgravity conditions.  12 astronauts who had been shuttle crew members for two weeks and 14 who spent six months onboard the International Space Station were involved in the tests.  All were found to be affected similarly by the observed changes.

Rachael Seidler, University of Michegan’s professor of Kinesiology and Psychology says, “We found large regions of grey matter volume decreased, which could be related to redistribution of cerebrospinal fluid in space.  Gravity is not available to pull fluids down in the body, resulting in so-called puffy face in space.  This may result in a shift of the brain position or compression.”

The changes in the brain structure that researchers discovered were similar to those in someone practising and learning a new skill – such as a musical instrument or language.

These discoveries could indicate that new connections between neurons are being created to deal with new sets of information.

The implications of this new knowledge could lead to breakthroughs in the treatment and management of conditions that require or cause long periods of inactivity, decreased mobility and bed rest.  Conditions such as normal pressure hydrocephalus, in which cerebrospinal fluid accumulates in the ventricles of the brain, could also benefit from these discoveries.

How Music Affects Our Plastic Brain

It’s long been known that listening to music causes emotional changes to occur.  If you are feeling down, an uplifting track can improve your mood.  Similarly, some downbeat music can make the listener feel morose and self-reflective in a negative way.

Music has been used for thousands of years as a way of changing and affecting our emotions.  From primitive times, we’ve instinctively understood that even listening to something as simple as the repetitive rhythm of a beaten drum can cause changes in conscious perception.  Now, advances in neuroscience, particularly imaging techniques, have enabled these changes to be observed and quantified.

Studies in the 1990s demonstrated that babies benefit from listening to music, especially classical music, in early life and even in the womb.  This is known as the Mozart Effect.  Further scientific observations show benefits from learning to play an instrument, similar to those experienced when learning a new language.  Imaging techniques allow us to see the physical impact of these changes on the plastic brain.

Musicians are now known to have different brains to those who are not as involved in listening to, learning and playing music.  Their brains are noticeably more symmetrical; the areas of their brains that control motor movement, auditory processing and spatial co-ordination are larger and more developed.  They also typically have a larger corpus callosum.  The corpus callosum is the bundle of nerves that connects the two hemispheres of the brain together.

It has been proved that listening to music reduces the levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, in the body, increases the ‘feel good’ hormone, dopamine, and stimulates production of oxytocin.  Oxytocin helps us to trust other people and to bond with each other.

An active involvement in music is now known to protect against degenerative memory loss, and help with conditions such as autism, dementia, Alzheimer’s, chronic pain, emotional trauma and various mental disorders including anxiety and depression.

Whatever your age, music can bring benefits to your life by causing physiological changes to your plastic brain and the chemicals that control your moods and perception of life.

The brain used to be considered as an organ that matures in early adulthood and remains static in structure until degeneration caused by advanced ageing.  However, exciting neuroscience developments are now showing us that this is far from the case.  Our plastic brain actually changes, adapts and develops throughout our lives depending on our experiences.  What we do changes how our brain is built, works and acts.  This knowledge is leading the way in identifying methods of improving our quality of life in times to come.

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