The Only Constant is Brain Change: A blog series on neuroplasticity for the Dana Foundation
Hey do you know about the Dana Foundation? It’s a New York-based philanthropic organization dedicated to funding brain research, education, and outreach. They organize fun things like global Brain Awareness Week and online brain resources for kids. They also host a blog aimed at describing aspects of neuroscience to the general public, and today marks the first in a series of three monthly guest posts I’ll be doing for them!
The topic I chose for this series is neuroplasticity. Plasticity, the brain’s ability to adapt and change, is an area of huge research. Developmentally, there are questions about what inputs are required (and at what times) in order to properly prune and shape connections in the early brain. On the molecular scale, we want to know what proteins are involved in signaling and inducing changes in synapses. At the systems level, how the relative timing of spikes from different cells affects synaptic weights is being investigated. On the more practical side, translational workers want to harness the beneficial aspects of the brain’s response to injury while minimizing the negative ones. Clearly the topic of plasticity provides a depth and breadth of questions for neuroscientists–and thus plenty of material for a blog.
But beyond simply stressing the variety of ways in which the brain is plastic, I’d like to go a step further. I would say that plasticity is the brain. Changing connections and synaptic weights isn’t merely something the brain can do when necessary; it is the permanent state of affairs. And thankfully so. Plasticity on some level is required in order to do many of the things we consider crucial brain functions –memory, learning, sensory information processing, motor skill development, and even personality. The brain is always reorganizing itself, synapse by synapse, in order to best process its inputs and create appropriate outputs. This kind of adaptive behavior keeps us alive–say, by creating a memory of a food that once made us sick so that we know to avoid it in the future. And makes us good at what we do–changes in motor cortex, for example, are why practice makes perfect in many physical activities. There is no underestimating the power, importance, or complexity of neuroplasticity.
In order to cover all these majestic aspects of plasticity, I’ve divided the posts into the following topics (links will be added as they’re available):
-Developmental Plasticity and the Effect of Disorders. How the brain responds to a lack of input during development, and to a disorder that impairs plasticity itself.
-Plasticity in Response to Injury–a Blessing and a Curse. The brain’s attempt to fix itself after stroke, and some weird effects of losing a limb.
-Short-term Plasticity and Everyday Brain Changes. Changing enviornmental demands call for quick and helpful changes in the brain.