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Brain Plasticity

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Biology 202
2003 First Web Paper
On Serendip

Brain Plasticity

Kat McCormick

Throughout the line of questioning we have been following in our efforts to get "progressively less wrong" in our class wide model of the brain, a constant debate has sparked on the issue of whether brain equals behavior. If the agree that brain truly equals behavior, then we can surmise that the vastly differing human behavior must also translate to differing nuances in the brain. It is a widely conceded point that experience also effects behavior, and therefore experience must also effect the brain. On this point, I have been intrigued: are these differences in the brain mysterious; things as well theorized on by a philosopher as researched by a biologist? Or can an experience actually change the physical structure of the brain? In my web research, I found a partial answer in the concept of plasticity.

According to source (1), "Plasticity refers to how circuits in the brain change--organize and reorganize--in response to experience, or sensory stimulation." There appear be four types of stimuli to which a brain responds with change: developmental, such as in the newly formed and ever evolving brain of a child; activity dependent, such as in cases of lost senses; learning and memory, in which the brain changes in response to a particular experience; and finally injury induced, resulting from damage in the brain, as occurs in a stroke or in the well-know case of Phineas Gage. Although the particular change in the brain is dependent on the type of stimulus, brain plasticity can be widely described as an adjustment in the strength of synaptic connections between brain cells. (1)

The developmental function of brain plasticity is important not only in the world of early childhood, but also has implications for the function of an aging brain. As we age, the synaptic plasticity deceases due to the increased expression of neurotoxins in astrocytes which are responsible for cell-cell communication (2). Similarly, in youth, increased synaptic plasticity accounts for the inordinate amount of growth and learning that must occur in this stage of development.

Much research has been done on injury-induced plasticity, and continues to be done with the hopes of minimizing the effects of an injury on the brain. One case where is in brain injury due to stroke , wherein particular functions of the brain such as motor control, memory, or language may be affected. According to source (3) "a reorganization of brain functions may occur through 'uninjured' brain areas, allowing then-altered functions to be performed differently". If this function of brain plasticity can be exacerbated and emphasized, it is perhaps possible with further research and experimentation to minimize the effects of brain injury such that many or all symptoms are eliminated.

In the area of activity dependent plasticity, a study has been done comparing patients who had gone through a period of deafness and recently received cochlear implants to a control group made up of individuals with normal hearing (4). A positron emission tomography, or PET scan was done on both groups to compare which parts of the cerebral network were engaged in both groups. The results were such that the two groups, when confronted with the same stimuli, would in some cases use entirely different parts of their brains to receive and interpret the same sounds. According to an interpretatio of the study "These data provide evidence for altered functional specificity of the superior temporal cortex [and] flexible recruitment of brain regions located within and outside the classical language areas." (4) This study indicates to me the adaptivity of the brain to outside stimuli in such a light that it become irrefutable.

In reflecting on this newfound knowledge, it becomes clear that experience does indeed account for differences within the brain, modulating synapses such that a certain response is favored as a result of a certain stimuli. Coming from a family of psychologists, I imagine applying this phenomenon to a situation often encountered by my parents: a person with a phobia. Typically, psychologists account phobias to a long ago encounter, sometimes remembered and sometimes long forgotten, which caused the person to always have the protective response of fear when faced with a certain stimulus. Although an explanation such as this is referred to by the general public as psychobabble, the explanation of brain plasticity may lend credence to this psychological theory. Say a child has a fear inspiring encounter with a spider. This single experience has the power to modify the strength of the synapses within his brain such that every time the arachnophobiac is faced with spiders, his fear response is much more potent than the average persons, In this way, I can see the plasticity of learning and memory relating to long held theories about differing human behavior.

The concept of synaptic plasticity is not merely limited to humans, however. In one study done by Sharen McKay, et al., of Yale University, the well known vertebrate enactors associated with synaptic plasticity (neurotrophins) were artificially placed in an invertebrate setting and yet again influenced neuronal growth and plasticity(5). Although invertebrates do not produced neurotrophins, substances with similar effects have been isolated in several invertebrate species. These results suggest that synaptic plasticity is a function that is widely found in many species of life, not merely in a developmental role, but also in the adaptation and modification of adult brains. This article again inspired my theorizing: does the suggestion that "adult plasticity [is] highly conserved across diverse phyla" (5) indicate that the ability of the brain to adapt to learning, memory, and specific experience is an evolutionary advantage?

. In researching and learning about the types of brain plasticity, I found more evidence for the idea that brain equals behavior, and that the experiences which are input into the brain do directly cause changes in synaptic activity and strength. Although I have found the ideas inherent in brain elasticity intriguing, I'm also afraid that they have raised more questions for me than they have answered. I find myself wondering about the evolutionary advantages of plasticity, the amount of time it takes to effect a physical change in the brain, and why, even in the face of plasticity, do certain functions of the brain never seem to adapt to the demands of the modern day world?


1) Brain Plasticity, on the John F. Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development web site.
2) Glia-neuron intercommunications and synaptic plasticity, on the PubMed web site.
3) A Comprehensive Functional Approach to Brain Injury Rehabilitation, on the Brain Injury Source web site.
4)Functional plasticity of language-related brain areas after cochlear implantation, on the PubMed web site
5) Regulation of Synaptic Function by Neurotrophic Factors in Vertebrates and Invertebrates: Implications for Development and Learning, on the Learning & Memory web site.



Comments made prior to 2007
I just (today)heard a tv show on PBS about brain plasticity. As an obese middle aged woman, who has been struggling to lose weight for several years now, I am intrigued. Can I "re_train" my brain to crave and desire and seek out that food that will help me achieve my weight loss goals, and to despise and find objectionable those foods which defeat my desires? Where can I find more information? Are there specific steps I can take to "re-train" my brain? Where can I get more information? Or am I thinking to simplistic? ... Betsy, 9 December 2007


Sonny  Naidoo's picture

Brain injury

My son was involved in a motor vehicle accident 10 months ago . His brain was badly bruised and the scull had fractures.
He has been in a coma for 10 months and has lots of movement in his body and limbs . Does he have a chance to make a full
recovery .

video's picture

I also recently saw the television show

Anyway, I am 58 with ocd from birth and particular issues from three. Did not get bad until fourth grade. At l6, my life was basically over as I had a new ocd pop up which causes guilt. Anyway, I have one thing I believe all people with ocd should know to keep from having something set you off and you develop another problem like i did or have another situation occur which could have set me back.

Judy's picture

brain plasticity/autism, asperger's syndrome

I also recently saw the television show. My daughter has been diagnosed with asperger's syndrome. I was wondering if there was any research involving brain plasticity and this condition. I can't help but wonder since asperger's patients have behaviors, and thinking processes that appear to be different than the average person. Just some thoughts, if anyone out there has any information in regard to this, I'd love to hear it.

Anonymous's picture

brain plasticity/autism, asperger's syndrome

Judy - yes! there is research into Aspergers and brain plasticity.
google John Elder Robison plasticity
also try googling supercharged brains
then look up Lindsay Oberman or Kamila Markram.

Anonymous's picture

HELP:plasticity and pruning first year nursing student and we doing an essay on pruning and plasticity and what happens in childhood and adulthood and why? can u please help???

amos's picture

help with finding OCD contact

I recently watched a PBS special on Brain Plasticity. They referenced a doctor who specialized in OCD treatment. I think the special said he was retired but that he was serving somehow associated with UCLA. My son is suffering with severe OCD (age 29). This doctor talked about rerouting the thoughts through different patterns without the use of medicine. So far medicine has only treated the symptoms of OCD and if anything, my son has worsened since his hospitilization. I am desperate to find any information on this doctor or names of the best doctors in this field. We are willing to send him anywhere to get help with his uncontrolable thoughts. Please share any information you may have that would help us find the right medical professionals. Thanks.

coleen's picture

ocd swartz 0cd sec0nd response to amos

"Brain Lock: Free Yourself From Obsessive compulsive disorder" is a book written by the doctor you asked about Jeffrey Schwartz

I may have misspelled his last name in my first reply to you

coleen's picture

ocd....jeffry swartz....brain fitness......reply to amos's post

The program was aired on PBS - WNED (Buffalo, New York) Saturday evening, March 8th, 2008. It is available in DVD format.

Jeffry M. Swartz I believe was the name of the doctor. I know you can buy the whole brain fitness program and I do not know if that is available from PBS-WNED that I quoted from another post on here or if is just a dvd of the show.

Anyway, I am 58 with ocd from birth and particular issues from three. Did not get bad until fourth grade. At l6, my life was basically over as I had a new ocd pop up which causes guilt. Anyway, I have one thing I believe all people with ocd should know to keep from having something set you off and you develop another problem like i did or have another situation occur which could have set me back.

The other thing is, I believe Swartz' program may be related to the brain fitness and it may work similarly or the same. I am going to do some research and will post again. I hope this email gets to you and I really hope you have already found the help your son needs. If I post again, I also hope it gets to you.

LIV's picture



Looking for an answer to something that puzzles me. I am a student in a Psych class. And I just saw a video in that class. Perhaps it is the one you are talking about in this blog.

It was about a little girl who had half (hemisphere) of her brain removed bc she was having severe convulsions. The point of the video was plasticity of the brain. So, for some crazy reason I thought of lobotomies - Planet of the Apes was on TV. So, I am trying to understand why plasticity worked for the little girl who essentially had half her brain removed and why in the case of lobotomies, most patients afterward appear to be catatonic and plasticity does not occur.

There may not be an answer to this bc the brain is sooo complex. But then again, I am just a student. Anyone know?

Eric Rubery's picture

brain fitness

The program was aired on PBS - WNED (Buffalo, New York) Saturday evening, March 8th, 2008. It is available in DVD format.

pd's picture

Brain Plasticity

I've been trying to locate the video or DVD of the show on brain plasticity that apparently was the one Betsy also saw. Looking at the 4 PBS web sites in my area I was unable to find even the name of the show. I thought it was "Brain Plasticity" or "Plasticity of the Brain" but maybe not...I couldn't find anything about it. My next step was going to be to refer the DVD to a friend of mind who works with brain-damaged children and adults. If anyone knows the name of this show, how I can see it again and/or how I can order the DVD, please let me know.

Because this is supposed to be a reply to Besty's question (is it?) I want to say a few words about re-training her brain, as far as what I gleaned from the program. She may recall that to form a new habit, motivation - in a positive form of liking something, not in the spirit of discipline - was a key factor. So was repetition. I'd suggest to Betsy trying to repeat some positive action she has set up to be as appealing and as much fun as possible. A trip to the sushi bar with vegetables on the side & plenty of quality saki, get drunk & have a good time with your health food? My sister is much thinner than I, and she has a dog she loves to walk in the park and hike by the beach. The new pathway of a behavior is forged by repetition (and maybe intensity of feeling?) but the positive feelings about it might be the glue that gets you to start digging the path. And aside from enjoying healthy foods, maybe there are other activities that should be enjoyed...something active or simply something to do instead of eating!

la's picture

the name is "Brain Fitness

the name is "Brain Fitness Program"

Anonymous's picture

The name of the show is

The name of the show is "Brain Fitness Program"