The brain is a supercomputer that helps us process thousands of pieces of information every day. Composed of over 100 billion neurons, it has the unique ability to form new pathways and make new connections throughout our lives, whether by learning a language or playing video games.
However, the power of neuroplasticity goes beyond just learning. It can be harnessed to improve cognitive function, boost emotional regulation, and even reduce pain.
The concept of neuroplasticity has existed for over a hundred years. Early research found that neurons could reorganize themselves after a traumatic event, and stress could change the entire structure of the brain.
Scientists have long believed that the creation of new neurons stopped after early childhood. However, recent studies have shown that the brain can generate new pathways, neurons, and connections throughout life. This remarkable phenomenon is known as neuroplasticity, which refers to the brain’s capacity to form new neural connections and change its structure in response to experiences and learning.
Neuroplasticity is classified into two types: structural and functional plasticity. Structural plasticity refers to the brain’s ability to physically alter its structure by forming new connections and pathways. Functional plasticity, on the other hand, is the brain’s ability to shift functions from damaged areas to undamaged ones.
For example, learning a new language is an example of structural plasticity, as the brain forms new structures relating to the language. On the other hand, functional plasticity could occur after a brain injury, where different parts of the brain step in to take over functions from the damaged parts.
As children learn and grow, their brains are constantly adapting and changing. At age three, a single neuron can have around 15,000 synapses, the connections between neurons that transmit information. However, adults only retain around half of these, as the brain eliminates unused connections and strengthens others. This process, known as synaptic pruning, often occurs during adolescence and helps us adapt to our environment.
While neuroplasticity can have positive effects, such as helping individuals learn and recover from brain injuries, it can also have negative consequences. Traumatic brain injuries, substance abuse, and traumatic experiences can all lead to detrimental changes in the brain’s structure and function, which can contribute to the development of chronic pain.
Chronic pain can sometimes be caused by neuroplastic pain. The brain may misinterpret signals from the body as if they are dangerous and produces pain or other physical symptoms that don’t have an obvious medical explanation.
This pain can be caused by an injury that has since healed. However, the brain may maintain the neural pathways associated with the previous pain. We may struggle with the fear of the pain returning or worsening, which can intensify the pain.
Neuroplastic pain can be challenging to identify due to its similarity to other forms of chronic pain. People may struggle to get a clear diagnosis despite consulting multiple doctors and medical professionals. Even if treatment undertaken, it may not work or could even worsen their symptoms.
Types of neuroplastic pain can include:
- Migraines and tension headaches
- Knee pain
- Back pain
- Repetitive strain injury
Neuroplasticity can be used in multiple therapeutic modalities to improve treatment outcomes. These include:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) – CBT is a widely used form of talk therapy that focuses on changing negative thoughts and behaviors. CBT aims to help individuals develop more positive and adaptive thought patterns by identifying and challenging negative thoughts and beliefs. This can lead to the formation of new neural pathways in the brain, which can improve mood and decrease symptoms of mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression. Research has shown that CBT can lead to changes in brain activity in areas associated with emotion regulation and cognitive control, providing evidence of the neural mechanisms underlying this therapy.
- Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) – MBSR is a meditation-based therapy that teaches individuals to focus on the present moment without judgment. This practice can lead to changes in the brain, including increased gray matter in areas associated with positive emotions and decreased activity in areas associated with negative emotions. MBSR also effectively reduces chronic pain symptoms and may be a promising adjunct to other forms of therapy.
- Neurofeedback – During a neurofeedback session, individuals receive real-time feedback on their brainwaves, which allows them to train their brains to produce more beneficial waves. This therapy has been used to treat various mental health conditions, including ADHD, anxiety, and depression. Neurofeedback can help individuals improve their attention, mood, and overall well-being by training the brain to create new neural pathways.
Although the brain’s capacity for change and growth is remarkable, neuroplasticity has some limitations. The extent to which neuroplasticity can occur varies across different brain regions, with some areas being more receptive to change than others.
Additionally, neuroplasticity alone may not be enough to foster change for severe mental health conditions or chronic pain. A combination of approaches, not just neuroplasticity-focused interventions, should be applied to provide whole-body healing and facilitate fundamental change.
While there are limitations to the brain’s ability to change through neuroplasticity, the potential mental health improvements are exciting. Using multiple therapeutic modalities that leverage neuroplasticity to improve treatment outcomes is promising. As we continue to study the mechanisms of neuroplasticity and explore its potential applications, we may gain deeper insights into the brain and find new and innovative ways to promote mental health and well-being.
 Fuchs, E., & Flügge, G. (2014). Adult neuroplasticity: More than 40 years of research. Neural Plasticity, 2014.
 The University of Maine. Bulletin #4356, Children and brain development: What we know about how children learn.