How does neuroplasticity come about?
While the individual working unit of the brain is the single neuron, even simple tasks require the recruitment of vast numbers of interconnected neurons functioning as a unit or network devoted to accomplishing even the simplest activity.
Dr. Joe Dispenza, in his book, Evolve Your Brain, eloquently described the neural network as, “…literally millions of neurons firing together in diverse compartments, modules, sections, and subregions throughout the entire brain. They team up to form communities of nerve cells that act in unison as a group, clustered together in relation to a particular concept, idea, memory, skill, or habit. Whole patterns of neurons throughout the brain become connected through the process of learning, to produce a unique level of mind.”
The neural network represents a specific unique pattern of connections of neurons that fire in a specified sequence that allows you to accomplish such tasks as snapping your fingers, or recalling the lyrics to Hey Jude. And neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to adapt and change, is predicated on the modification of existing neural networks and the creation of new ones.
We have come a long way in the past twenty-five years in our understanding of the brain, from a generally accepted perception of the brain as being a hardwired, fixed and immutable organ to one that celebrates its dynamism.
Learn more about the brain in Rewiring the Brain: Neuroplasticity
But how do individual neurons actually connect? What motivates the connection and keeps them connected?
The pioneering research in this area dates back to the work of Canadian psychologist, Dr. Donald Hebb who proposed a theory he felt would explain how neurons could develop a relationship with one another.
In his landmark book, The Organization of Behavior, published in 1949, Dr. Hebb hypothesized, “When an axon of cell A is near enough to excite cell B and repeatedly or persistently takes part in firing it, some growth process or metabolic change takes place in one or both cells such that A’s efficiency, as one of the cells firing B is increased.”
Or more simply paraphrased, “neurons that fire together, wire together,” commonly referred to as Hebb’s law. When neurons combined in a unit dedicated to a specific function, we now refer to as neural networks, Dr. Hebb applied the term, “cell-assemblies.” Clearly, Dr. Hebb was well ahead of his time in his understanding of brain physiology.
And we now have a handle on the “growth process” or “metabolic change” about which he speculated. And while the precise biochemical changes that take place when neurons connect to form these networks is quite complex, there is general agreement among researchers that BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), BDNF, creates the fertile ground for this union to take place, helping transform a mere embrace of two neurons into an eternal dance.
Thus, enhancing BDNF represents a key modifiable factor in the process of neural network formation. As such, BDNF is now looked upon as playing a pivotal role in neuroplasticity. Modifiable behaviors which upregulate BDNF transcription include physical exercise, the omega-3 fatty acid DHA, and caloric restrictions.
Discover Omega 3’s Protect the Brain
David Perlmutter, M.D., FACN is recognized internationally as a leader in the field of nutritional influences in neurological disorders. A board-certified neurologist, Dr. Perlmutter is the author of bestselling books including Power Up Your Brain: The Neuroscience of Enlightenment and The Better Brain Book .
Dr. Perlmutter has appeared on 20/20, Larry King Live, CNN, Fox News, Fox and Friends , the Today show, The Oprah Show, and The Early Show on CBS. He serves as medical director of the Perlmutter Health Center in Florida and is an adjunct instructor at the Institute for Functional Medicine.
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