Rewire your brain: neuroplasticity FTW!

Magnetic resonance imaging capture of a human brain
ABC Radio National’s Health Report recently did a fascinating program on neuroplasticity: Brain plasticity / Measuring brain plasticity (for those who don’t want to listen to the audio there is also a link there to the transcript of the program). I highly recommend this program which outlines some exciting new implications of research into the workings of the human brain.

Our brains are not like computers, which have a fixed hardware onto which you load software and that stores information by re-arranging some ones and zeros electrically. For one thing, the transfer of information in our brains uses a highly complicated combination of electrical and chemical signalling. More significantly, though, as we form new memories and learn new skills our brains actually change structurally. Neuroplasticity is the ability your brain has to change structure – to “rewire itself” in response to experience. This is a slow process in adults – taking place over weeks, months and years in many cases – but essential to how we learn. In babies it is a far more rapid process – as the Radio National program explains.

In depression the story is often told that the disorder arises from a “chemical imbalance in the brain”. The most commonly-told story is that depression is a result of insufficient serotonin.

However, the scientific evidence shows this is not true. The “chemical imbalance” idea arose from the serendipitous discovery that substances that increase serotonin seem to help improve symptoms of depression. But research that has tried to confirm the simple “less serotonin = more depression” hypothesis has repeatedly discredited the theory. New discoveries are pointing instead to a role played by brain structure. Authors of a 2003 paper in Biological Psychiatry, Enhancing neuronal plasticity and cellular resilience to develop novel, improved therapeutics for Difficult-to-Treat depression, write:

…although most antidepressants exert their initial effects by increasing the intrasynaptic levels of serotonin and/or norepinephrine, their clinical antidepressant effects are only observed after chronic (days to weeks) administration, suggesting that a cascade of downstream effects are ultimately responsible for their therapeutic effects.

Later in their paper they also note:

…recent evidence demonstrating that impairments of neuroplasticity and cellular resilience may underlie the pathophysiology of mood disorders, and that antidepressants and mood stabilizers exert major effects on signaling pathways that regulate neuroplasticity and cell survival, have generated considerable excitement among the clinical neuroscience community and are reshaping views about the neurobiological underpinnings of these disorders.

These new directions in the theory of depression (which extend to other psychological conditions, as well) make more sense clinically than the old “chemical imbalance” ideas. If disorders are caused by chemical imbalance, what caused the chemical imbalance? Why do those with depression so consistently describe combinations of life circumstances that triggered their initial symptoms of depression if the cause of their depression is purely chemical? Neuroplasticity, on the other hand, both helps us to understand how psychological problems develop and how they can be treated.

If you have known someone with moderate to severe clinical depression you will likely be familiar with the seemingly “stuck thinking” that occurs in a person with depression. It does feel like a depressed person’s brain is functioning differently: it is like the depressed brain is unable to process positive experiences and can only take in information that is negative – further feeding into the person’s low mood and feelings of dejection and guilt.

Among the many implications of neuroplasticity for treatment is the role of repeated exposure over time. For example, one of the studies reported in the Radio National program describes 40 hours of exposure to video games over 20 days producing benefits to eyesight in adults. Structural changes in our brain take time. If undertaking any therapy that involves retraining patterns of thinking (an important component of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, for example) it is important to allow enough time for conscious, deliberate adjustments to thinking to become part of our automatic cognitive processes.

Among many the interesting points covered in the Radio National Health Repport program, I was particularly interested in mention of the relationship between neuroplasticity and exercise:

So one of the most effective types of intervention that one can do to improve your brain power is actually to exercise your body. And there’s very good evidence that particularly as we get older and our brain powers decline, one of the best ways to guard against that is to keep the body active and in particular to engage in cardiovascular activity which works the body.

Once again, the importance of exercise in mental health is reinforced.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

About Paul McQueen

Dr Paul McQueen is a Clinical Psychologist, holding a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from the University of Melbourne. He has experience working in both adult and child mental health services in Queensland and Victoria. Dr McQueen is comitted to providing high quality, evidence-based interventions for a range of mental health conditions. He specialises in the treatment of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder and Depression.

5 Comments

  1. I’ve been reading a book called “Nation of Wimps” by Hara Estrof Marano, editor of Psychology Today. She has a lot to say about the brain and also about depression in relation to the brain (“Living a life with a lot of challenges and new experiences is absolutely fundamental to brain health” says Berns.)amongst other things.

    Also read Y the X? : unravelling intellectual disability and autism / Gillian Turner which suggested some varying pathways in the female and male brains…

    And then there was “The Brain that changes itself” about plasticity of the brain.

    I think we have much to learn!

    • Hi Martha, thanks for your comment. I might have to look up a few of those books. I haven’t read Nation of Wimps but have heard about it. My feeling is that the growing tendencies towards overprotective and anxious parenting are at least partly due to increasingly vocalised social expectations (like I wrote about in The Unrelenting Society) of parents. Look at the recent uproar over radio presenter Chrissie Swan smoking while pregnant for an example of the pressure on parents from armchair critics (it’s the online comments that tell the full story of this phenomenon). It is the most extreme ends of the spectrum of attitudes that tend to get the most publicity, and then have a way of being absorbed into our thinking. I believe there are a lot of parents who are quite anxious about whether they are “getting it right”.

  2. Thank you for this interesting article. I have also read “The Brain that Changes Itself” and found it absolutely fascinating. I feel stimulated to read more about this very important subject – oh, and encouraged that my walking is really helpful in more ways than one :).

    • Thanks for the comment, Sofie. I haven’t read “The Brain that Changes Itself” but I did see the documentary of the same name on SBS. I particularly appreciate how this understanding of the brain is being practically applied to treatments for OCD, stroke and so-on.

  3. Pingback: Exercise - 10 free, healthy activities in Toowoomba | Thriving

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