CENIE · 24 August 2022

Neuroplasticity and longevity

What is Neuroplasticity?

First of all, to understand "neuroplasticity", one must understand the concept of "plasticity". This is the ability of a certain material to change or deform in response to an external stimulus. Therefore, if we apply this to the brain in particular, it is the brain's ability to modify, change its activity, structure, connections or functions in response to external stimuli. This process occurs throughout the brain's life, although we will look at factors that may affect this later on. It could be said that neuroplasticity is the capacity of the human being to learn throughout our lives.

Types of neuroplasticity and related phenomena

 Structural neuroplasticity vs. functional neuroplasticity [1].

Following the aforementioned modifications comprising possible changes in the brain, this differentiation arises. We can understand structural neuroplasticity as the generation of new neurons, modification of structure, organisation and connections or changes in grey matter. Functional neuroplasticity, on the other hand, refers to alterations in the functional properties of neurons. 

Positive neuroplasticity vs. negative neuroplasticity [2].

Another way to differentiate types of neuroplasticity is according to whether the modifications involve the creation of new networks or expansion of existing networks, or conversely, whether the modification involves the elimination of those networks that are no longer used or useful. These definitions are positive and negative neuroplasticity respectively.

In addition to the different types of neuroplasticity, there are several factors that can affect or alter neuroplasticity [1], some examples of which are listed below:

- Brain damage

Neuroplasticity is very important in cases where brain injury exists or occurs. A function associated with a particular area of the brain (brain activity) can be transferred to a different location where the brain is not damaged. This requires specific therapies and rehabilitation, but is a very good example of the brain's ability to adapt or "learn".

- Ghost member:

This refers to cases in which a person has a limb amputated and, some time after the operation, the area, which no longer exists, continues to hurt. This occurs due to neuroplasticity. The brain has cortical maps of each area of the body. Therefore, when you have a limb amputated, during the process of learning (or unlearning in this case) that you no longer have a limb, the brain continues to have pain stimuli in that area. 

- Deaf / blindness:

In these cases, neuroplasticity also comes into play, as other functions are developed to "palliate" the one that in this case is missing or has problems. The abilities of other senses are improved.

- Aging:

Although neuroplasticity peaks in children and adolescents, it is a lifelong phenomenon. The following graph shows the evolution of plasticity over the years. In adulthood it decreases from the peak we reached in childhood, but it is a process that never stops occurring, we never stop learning.  

Image source “Dynamic Brains and the Changing Rules of Neuroplasticity: Implications for Learning and Recovery”

Factors affecting neuroplasticity

Physical and mental exercise [3] is fundamental for neuroplasticity, as this is directly affected by our physical and mental health. In order to achieve plasticity in our neurons, these have different mechanisms (growth of dendrites and axons, activation of inhibited connections, regulation of neurotransmitters, regeneration...). Some of these mechanisms are stimulated by physical exercise.

Continuous aerobic physical exercise activates neurogenesis, the creation of neurons in the hippocampus, a fundamental area for memory and learning.

In addition, another option to keep the brain active and stimulate brain activity is the use of technology. The positive side of this is the continuous learning due to the use of assistive technologies, such as those mentioned in the following post "Close, friendly and simple: that's how natural language processing technology is. We tell you how it works". In addition to this, they can bring other advantages, such as maintaining independence, companionship, security, or telemedicine applications.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuroplasticity#Structural_neuroplasticity

[2] https://neurok.es/neuroplasticidad-y-aprendizaje/

[3] https://www.bobath-es.com/el-ejercicio-fisico-estimula-la-neuroplasticidad/

Under the framework of: Programa Operativo Cooperación Transfronteriza España-Portugal
Sponsors: Fundación General de la Universidad de Salamanca Fundación del Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas Direção Geral da Saúde - Portugal Universidad del Algarve - Portugal