Neuroplasticity is “the brain’s ability to change physiologically and functionally as a result of stimulation.”
-Barbara Arrowsmith-Young on Tedx Toronto Talk
To stimulate and grow his brain, Wonder Boy plays the piano. He jumps on the trampoline, runs, reads, writes, attends school, occupational and speech therapy. Every day he’s challenged to expand his abilities developmentally, linguistically, socially.
And? For three hours, six days a week? Wonder Boy recites, repeats and drills language:
“What do we do with food?” prompts a therapist.
“Eat it!” says Wonder Boy, giving the expected response.
Gone is the notion that the human brain is hardwired at birth. While neurogenesis conveys the growth of new cells, the science of neuroplasticity affirms that the brain is malleable, moldable, plastic - growable.
With sustained effort, at any age, you can change your brain.
Here’s how it works: information moves from one cranial region to another via circuits called neurons.
“Between each neuron is a synapse and at the center of the neuron is an axon. Reaching out from each neuron are dendrites at one end and an axon terminal at the other. An electrical impulse flies down the axon, causing a chemical called a neurotransmitter to be released from the axon terminal into the synapse; that same chemical is then received by the dendrites of adjacent neurons. These signals can be inhibitory [not requiring action] or excitatory [requiring action]. If the net sum of all the signals exceeds zero, the process continues with the signal being sent on to other neurons…
“Dendrites provide surface area on the nerve cell to receive signals coming from other neurons. More dendrite branching means more potential connections allowing more signals to be received. Plus, research now indicates that dendrites also release neurotransmitters…”
-The Woman Who Changed Her Brain, Barbara Arrowsmith-Young, pages 30-31
In an injured brain, such as occurs when a child under 3 years old is exposed to lead, neurons may not communicate effectively. Dendrites aren’t healthy, blood flow is diminished, neurons don’t exist in proximity to allow synapses to occur.
The solution is sustained application of targeted, external stimulation on the brain. With persistent effort, new neural pathways are forged. Change takes time, during which older, less effective routes fall into disuse and darken.
“Neurons that fire together, wire together.”
As diet and exercise tone the body and light the mind, a stimulating environment can change the chemical composition of neurons and expedite the process of brain change by mulching dendrites into being. Like roots in rich soil, exposure to a diversity of challenging experiences thickens dendrites, thus growing new pathways for information to traverse. This improves communication between neurons and heightens overall brain function.
Two years ago, Wonder Boy had no intelligible words. He did not understand language, respond to his name or make eye contact. Now, he pauses and looks at his therapist. “I want to eat crackers,” he says.
“Thank you for telling me,” his therapist says. “Let’s ask Nonnie.”
“Let’s ask Nonnie,” Wonder Boy repeats. And then? He does.