Not long ago it was believed that neuroplasticity in the brain only occurred during youth and stopped at a certain point once the brain was fully developed. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to adapt and change structure, creating new neural pathways in response to extrinsic and intrinsic stimuli. As a result, brain function is altered and we are able to think of things in new ways.
Put simply, neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change in response to experiences that we have. It’s a double-edged sword though, because if the experience is bad it can create negative thinking patterns and allow trauma to impact the psyche long-term.
We now know that neuroplasticity doesn’t stop at a certain age, and it’s considered a lifelong developmental process. It may slow down or require more stimulation, but neuroplasticity is possible even late in life. Of course, there are also things that can make neuroplasticity worse regardless of how old we are.
Let’s explore both sides of the matter to get a better understanding of how neuroplasticity works in the brain as we age and how we can use it to our advantage to live a more fulfilling life.
What Enhances Neuroplasticity as We Age
Not only is neuroplasticity possible at any point, there are ways you can actively try to rewire the circuits of the brain in positive ways to improve its overall function and health. However, it isn’t an immediate process. It can take months for the brain to fully restructure after a traumatic experience or therapeutic intervention begins.
Below are a handful of things that science has proven can promote neuroplasticity in the short-term and long-term.
Doing New and Novel Things
Given that experience is the prompter for neuroplasticity, it makes sense that experiencing new or novel things would have a significant impact on brain function. It turns out that new experiences or doing something different than the norm can spark neuroplasticity.
Doing something new is especially beneficial when it’s a social activity that involves others since socializing is also great for brain health. You could try a new physical activity to enhance neuroplasticity on multiple levels.
Taking on Challenges
Another way to encourage neuroplasticity is by facing a challenge and working to overcome it. But challenges don’t have to be a negative thing. Learning a second language is often recommended to stave off cognitive decline, and one way it does that is by challenging you to think in a different way. It turns out cognitive flexibility is improved in those who learn a second language even when it’s learned at an older age.
Fun Fact: Taking on challenges grows a part of the brain called the anterior mid cingulate cortex (aMCC). If you live an easy life with few challenges to overcome the anterior mid cingulate cortex will instead shrink in size. It’s believed that the aMCC is where resolve and tenacity is generated so that we are in the right mental state to take on the demands of life.
Clinical studies involving cognitive training have proven that neuroplasticity is possible at any time in life, but that younger brains tend to respond more strongly. Think of cognitive training like exercise for the brain that strengthens neural networks.
Cognitive training, sometimes referred to as noninvasive brain stimulation techniques, involves a lot of what has already been mentioned - new or novel tasks that challenge a person to think or reason. When cognitive training is sufficiently difficult it may seem like you’re struggling more in the moment, but older individuals actually retain more in the long-term and brain function is optimized.
Researchers are still exploring the mechanisms of how psychedelics work in the brain to create such profound changes, but one thing has been definitively proven - psychedelic therapies promote neuroplasticity.
Ketamine therapy is connected to neuroplasticity in that it assists in synaptic/structural plasticity also known as neuronal regeneration. This type of neuroplasticity involves remodeling and strengthening of the synapses or neural connections in the brain. It also aids in the creation of new neurotransmitter receptors such as glutamate. It’s possible that some connections will be lost in a process called synaptic pruning, but that’s to help improve brain function overall.
The improvements begin in just hours and continue over time. The results are usually enhanced when integration is part of ketamine therapy.
What Hinders Neuroplasticity as We Age
Just as there are things that support neuroplasticity, there are also things that can hinder it or cause harmful neuroplastic effects. These are the things you want to avoid in order to keep the brain plastic in a healthy way.
Once again stress proves to be very harmful to our health. The neural effects are so strong stress can cause physical pain in the body. Uncontrollable stressors are especially bad. For 20 years researchers have known that stress that can’t be controlled has a negative impact on neuroplasticity. We also know that surplus plasmatic cortisol hinders neuroplasticity in the hippocampus, the region of the brain that plays a huge role in learning and memory.
At certain points in life as we age, we may run into uncontrollable stressors. Or a mental health disorder could develop that makes stress feel uncontrollable. Regardless of the situation or cause, it’s important to do what you can to feel more in control so that neuroplasticity isn’t hindered.
Poor Quality Sleep
Another hindrance that isn’t too surprising is poor sleep quality. The issue is sub-optimal blood flow to the brain. There are also other factors that could disrupt brain functions like neuroplasticity. Given that mood is closely connected to sleep, anyone who is experiencing mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety can benefit greatly from focusing on improving their sleep quality.
At the same time, a mental health disorder can be the cause of poor quality sleep. It’s one more reason why addressing mental health issues is important for brain function and general health as we age.
Low Level of Physical Activity
There’s a strong brain-body connection when it comes to neuroplasticity as we age. Many people tend to become less physically active as they get older, which has a negative effect on brain function.
On the flip side, an increase in physical activity has been shown to improve cognitive reserve as well as neuroplasticity in the motor cortex. Cognitive reserve refers to the brain’s ability to handle damage as we age and ward off cognitive decline. The higher your cognitive reserve is, the less chance you have of developing neurological problems later in life.
The environment that we are in has a profound impact on how our brain functions. Makes sense given that the brain is responding to what it experiences.
Your “environment” is actually comprised of many factors that include:
- Socializing/Presence of others
- Physical activity
- Sleep environment
- Cognitive stimulation
Environments that cause a lack of stimulation as well as traumatic situations can both have a negative impact on brain function. But the great thing about environmental factors is that we have control over them to some degree and can make lifestyle choices that support neuroplasticity.
If you’d like to know more about how at-home ketamine therapy works you can start the screening process online, check out our online guide that explains what happens during ketamine therapy.