Researchers have determined thatthoughts actually change the physicalstate of our brains at a microscopic level.When we “imagine” doing an action, ourbrains operate in the same way as theydo when we actually perform the action.(Athletes regularly use visualization toachieve their desired results.)
Dr. Pat Levitt, at the University ofSouthern California’s Keck School ofMedicine, has been working with theAlberta Family Wellness Initiative (AFWI)and NeuroDevNet, a cross-countrybiomedical research initiative.
In the past 10 years, says Levitt,researchers have confirmed that brainarchitecture is influenced by a combinationof our genes and our life experiences.
“In terms of timing, ‘early’ matters,”Levitt says. “When things go wrongwith brain development early in life,the possible physical and mental healthcomplications can exert an enormousimpact on adult health.” Like thefoundations of a house, later rebuildingof the brain depends on the soundness ofthe original structure.
He adds, “The effort required to
intervene in sensitive periods (such as
early childhood) can be minimal. These
are prime times to receive experiences
that help the brain develop properly, and
if problems arise, it’s easiest to intervene
Language development, for example, is
powerfully influenced when parents and
other caregivers expose an infant
to complex vocabulary in the first
12 to 18 months of life. This personal
interaction shapes the child’s
environment and changes the brain,
leading to the dramatic advance in
language development that we usually
see in the first couple of years of life. If a
child older than age two needs help with
language development, the process is
more complicated. Intervention is still
possible, but it requires more energy,
often including direct, individually
For some children, their homes arefilled with language and conversations.But for children whose parents areworking three jobs for example, orwho may be less verbal or depressed,language may be in short supply.
ddiction, a disease that
originates in our reward
and motivational systems,
changes the brain’s reward
pathways. The metaphor
of brain faultlines is used
to describe new knowledge about
how addictions form (see Glossary
on page 14). If faultlines are set off,
addictive substances or behaviours come
to be seen as a part of the brain’s normal
operation. Our understanding
of addiction’s relationship to brain
plasticity is still in the early stages,
although researchers are learning that
treatment may be able (at least in part) to
counteract the brain’s adaptation to an
addiction, through the development of
new pathways and reward systems.
Our increased understanding ofthe brain is shedding light on why,as a society, it’s important to preventchildren’s exposure to damagingconditions that can erode their early
abrain architecture. These conditions can range from disruptions in family stability to adverse childhood experiences. Our increased understanding of the brain also allows us to more effectively treat a wide range of other ailments such as stroke, brain cancer, radiation damage, autism, cerebral palsy, tinnitus, speechimpediments, learning disabilities,post-traumatic stress, spinal cord injury,phantom limb pain, Parkinson’s disease,multiple sclerosis and fetal alcoholspectrum disorder.
In stroke treatment, for example,the brain has been able to re-learn taskswhen a patient repeatedly performsexercises of increasing difficulty. Suchtreatment has been shown to be effectivefor most stroke survivors, and can evenbe valuable years after a stroke has takenplace.
Many conditions that worsen overtime, such as obsessive-compulsivedisorder, gradually alter the structureof the brain. Demonstrating anotherof Doidge’s principles —“Neurons thatfire apart, wire apart”— patients canapply a two-step process of relabellingand refocusing. This builds new circuitsthat replace the established circuits, andweakens the link between the compulsionand the belief that carrying it out willreduce anxiety.
How can understanding brain plasticityenhance our lives? It now seems clearthat people of any age can learn newthings and form new habits, and thatthe concept of “use it or lose it” holdsa lot of truth. It’s also increasinglyevident that we are able to influence ourmental and physical health by takingadvantage of our brains’ plasticity. Ourincreasing understanding of the brainalso has societal implications: the cycleof poverty could be broken by creatingenvironments and supports that reducethe damaging effects of early exposuresto adversity.
Doidge uses the term “neuroplasticrevolution.” In essence, brain plasticityholds out the hope that, in manyinstances, our brains can be rewired.As we expand our understanding ofthis remarkable capacity, we comecloser to understanding more aboutour potential as human beings.