Neuroplasticity: What It Is, Why It Matters & How To Exercise Your Brain
There's the adage, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks." Often, it's used to suggest that aging limits the brain from learning new things (think words or skills), but something tells me whoever created the saying didn't have neuroplasticity in mind (pun intended).
Thanks to neuroplasticity, it is possible for the brain to change and learn. And contrary to popular belief, neuroplasticity isn't something that infants have a monopoly on or that you suddenly lose one day. Instead, it's normal brain function and a fascinating cognitive ability, waiting to be shaped by your life experiences.
Now, it's true that aging causes cognitive changes over time. But neuroplasticity allows you to become more resilient to these changes, ultimately helping you maintain high cognitive function as you age.
Curious? Read on to learn about neuroplasticity, plus how to exercise it through lifestyle changes and key brain nutrition strategies, including supplements.
What is neuroplasticity in psychology?
Neuroplasticity, also called brain plasticity or neural plasticity, is the brain's ability to adapt. More specifically, it's "a general term that means the brain continues to change its structure and function throughout your life, depending on external and internal stimulation and experiences," integrative neurologist Romie Mushtaq, M.D., tells mbg.
To fully understand the definition of neuroplasticity, it might help to break down the actual term. Consider this: The word neuro means "brain, nerve, or nervous system." Meanwhile, the word plasticity means "the ability to bend or be pressed into any shape."
Of course, when talking about neurology, "plasticity" is used in a metaphorical way (i.e., your brain isn't actually being molded into a specific shape!), but the concept is there. Essentially, plasticity refers to how well your brain, nerves, and nerve cells—the structures that control how you think, feel, and move—can change in the name of overall brain function.
As you can imagine, neuroplasticity is important AF. In fact, it's "thought to be one of the primary mechanisms through which humans adapt," according to a 2018 research review article1.
One very specific example of neuroplasticity is how folks with hearing challenges develop enhanced visual abilities2, including peripheral vision and motion detection. This is due to the brain's capability to reshape neural connections3 and maximize its overall function to balance certain senses.
More broadly, "learning a new skill or string of words, recalling a new friend's name, working out directions to arrive at your destination, and creative arts (creating music, dance, visual art, writing, etc.) are everyday examples of neuroplasticity and evidence of how wonderfully dynamic our brains are," shares Ashley Jordan Ferira, Ph.D., RDN, mbg's vice president of scientific affairs.
Neuroplasticity in babies.
Ever notice how babies tend to learn faster than adults? That's all because of—you guessed it—neuroplasticity.
The brain grows extremely fast from the months before birth to early childhood. Case in point: According to a 2019 scientific review4 from the journal Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism, between 2 and 4 weeks old, the brain is about 36% of the volume of an adult brain. By 1 year old, it's grown to about 72% of an adult brain; by 2 years old, it's 83%.
During these early years, neuronal networks (i.e., the connections between nerve cells, aka neurons) are rapidly developing. Thus, brain plasticity is at an all-time high, making it easier for little ones to learn things like new languages.
What's more, during certain times of life, the brain and its neural activity are more sensitive to the impact of external interactions and experiences. These time frames are known as "sensitive periods5," and throughout life, there are multiple sensitive periods for different skills.
According to the University of Missouri, birth through age 3 is a sensitive period for overall learning and development, which explains why babies pick things up so quickly during the first few years of life.
"This ripe period for laying down neural pathways is why little ones are often referred to as 'sponges' when it comes to soaking up all the new information around them," Ferira shares, adding, "but we should definitely not silo learning abilities to the pediatric years, at least, not if you want to be a lifelong learner and sharpen your mind throughout your life."
So, do adult brains have plasticity?
Though neuroplasticity peaks in early life, it doesn't mean adults don't have it. Instead, neuroplasticity in adults is simply different, Mushtaq tells mbg.
"It's a general misconception that the human brain stops developing after the age of 5 or 7," Mushtaq explains. And while it's accurate that the number of new brain connections between neurons slows down in adulthood, neuroplasticity is still present, she confirms.
A 2014 review article in Neural Plasticity echoes similar sentiments, stating decades of research have found adult neurogenesis, or the creation of new nerve cells in adult brains, does exist. This is stellar news for overall neuroplasticity, because those new nerve cells—and the synapse connections between them—are precisely what helps the adult brain adapt to myriad situations.
As alluded to before, we actually rely on neuroplasticity in everyday life, even if we don't realize it. Think about the things you do on "autopilot," like driving to the supermarket. Once upon a time, your brain didn't know the directions to this specific store, but thanks to neurogenesis and brain malleability, you can now head to the store without consciously thinking about every step.
Benefits of neuroplasticity.
Now, the benefits of neuroplasticity extend far beyond things like directions. In the realm of cognitive health, neuroplasticity is key for optimizing brain function and keeping it sharp throughout your life span. This includes essential skills like memory recall, problem-solving, and mental flexibility.
But the perks don't stop there. Mushtaq explains your mental and physical health is also tied to the structure and function of your brain. In the mental department, this includes aspects like mood and emotional regulation. Physically, things like movement and coordination rely on a healthy brain.
All that being said, neuroplasticity is essential for "our day-to-day well-being, ability to focus, and happiness," says Mushtaq. "The myriad benefits of an agile brain that is flexible to novel and even challenging inputs simply cannot be understated. We can intentionally nourish cognitive flexibility, and in turn, this flex feeds directly into healthy brain years, our brain span," adds Ferira.
How to improve neuroplasticity.
First things first: It's never too late (or early) to optimize neuroplasticity. In other words, adopting strategies that nurture brain health is always worthwhile, no matter how old you are.
According to Mushtaq, this is a two-part process: preserving our brains and fostering new nerve cell connections. And while there's no one-size-fits-all approach, adopting the following strategies can help nurture and rewire your brain (in a good, flexing way) and promote cognitive longevity.
Take a brain-supporting supplement.
Much like skin care and hair health, it's possible to nourish your brain with thoughtfully researched nootropics in targeted brain health supplements.* mbg's brain guard+ is a prime example of curated, high-quality neuroprotective ingredients with science-backed doses and cognitive performance benefits:
- Kanna: The botanical extract kanna (Sceletium tortuosum) as Zembrin® is clinically shown to promote cognitive flexibility. In its most basic sense, this critical executive brain function involves the mental ability to switch between tasks. In one clinical trial6, six weeks of Zembrin® supplementation improved cognitive flexibility in adults aged 46 to 65 years old.*
- Resveratrol: Resveratrol is a longevity polyphenol with neuroprotective properties. It also boasts antioxidant and anti-inflammatory actions, meaning it combats oxidative stress and supports mitochondrial health. Resveratrol is clinically shown to yield benefits for verbal memory and word recall; in one research trial7, six and a half months of daily resveratrol supplementation improved word recall in healthy older adults.*
- Citicoline: This brain-nutrient/bioactive hybrid is found in every single cell of the body. This neuronutrient supports a steady supply of ATP energy to the brain, making it vital for optimal brain function. In one clinical study8, 12 weeks of a daily 500-milligram dose of citicoline supplementation as Cognizin® was associated with improved episodic and overall memory in healthy older individuals.*
Increase physical activity.
Aside from building healthy bones and muscles, staying active will pave the way for optimal neuroplasticity. For starters, as noted in a 2018 scientific article9 published in Frontiers in Psychology, physical exercise supports heart health and blood flow to the brain, ensuring it has enough oxygen to function.
Keeping active also boosts levels of peripheral BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor10), a unique compound involved in learning and memory plasticity. Additionally, exercise supports efficient metabolism and utilization of lipids and glucose, aka "food" for the brain.
Challenge your brain with games and puzzles.
Another excellent way to sharpen your mind is to play games and puzzles. In other words, challenge yourself! According to a 2013 scientific review11 from Clinics in Geriatric Medicine, such activities are associated with high cognitive functions in healthy older adults.
Specifically, brain games are considered to be mentally engaging, meaning they stimulate the neuronal connections in your brain. The best part? A wide variety of activities can train your brain, from classic jigsaw puzzles to the video game Super Mario12 (yes, really!).
There are many reasons to get your beauty sleep—and they don't stop at, well, beauty. Getting enough shut-eye is also essential for brain plasticity, according to Mushtaq. "Sleep plays an important role in the growth of dendrites in the brain," she says.
"Dendrites are the growths at the end of neurons that help transmit information from one neuron to the next," Mushtaq explains. By getting enough sleep (here's how to find your ideal sleep time, by the way), you'll be able to strengthen the connections between dendrites, which promotes brain plasticity.
Learn a new language.
A 2019 13Frontiers in Neuroscience13 article13 states that learning a new language can reshape brain plasticity. That's because the task requires multiple cognitive abilities—including task switching, rule learning, sound recognition, and multiple types of memory, just to name a few.
In other words, it's one of the best things you can do for top-notch neuroplasticity. It doesn't hurt that many language-learning platforms, like Duolingo, present lessons in the form of games, offering a doubly beneficial set of challenges for brain health.
Expand your vocabulary.
If learning a new language isn't your cup of tea, try expanding your vocab within the language you already know. One study from the Journal of Neuroscience found that exposure to new words sparks neural activity in the brain in mere minutes, suggesting that the brain can change and thrive in response to improving vocabulary.
Neuroplasticity is your brain's ability to adapt and flex via new neuronal connections. It's a normal function of the brain that's not just for babies and can be actively supported over time. Strategies like exercising, getting enough sleep, playing games, and learning new languages and words can all help.
As for nourishing your noggin and promoting neuroplasticity in a targeted way daily? You'll want to focus on neuronutrients and bioactives with science backing for cognitive flexibility and performance, like kanna, resveratrol, and citicoline.* You can find this trio of powerhouse active ingredients in mbg's brain guard+, a scientifically advanced nootropic formula designed to provide comprehensive brain nutrition.*
Kirsten Nunez is a health and lifestyle journalist based in Beacon, New York. She has a Master of Science in Nutrition from Texas Woman's University and Bachelor of Science in Dietetics from SUNY Oneonta. Kirsten specializes in nutrition, fitness, food, and DIY; her work has been featured in a variety of publications, including eHow, SparkPeople, and international editions of Cosmopolitan. She also creates recipes for food product packaging.