I remember many years ago in medical school one of my lecturers telling us that the brain has a finite number of neurons and that every time, for instance, one drinks, one loses a few thousand brain cells. Though good came out of that (in my life I have never drank enough at one time to become intoxicated), it left me with the fear for years that my brain is a finite resource that will dwindle away over time and that senility was a certainty.
Recently, the opposite seems to have been proven for the first time (at least in mice; human trials are planned once some stumbling blocks are worked out).
Let me just explain first, in case somebody does not know, about brain waves. Our brains’ neurons tend to fire together at certain frequencies. We call these brain waves and these are what we see when we do electroencephalograms [EEGs] on people. When we are deeply asleep our brains’ cells fire between one to four times a second, and we call the slow waves we see on the EEG delta waves. Beta waves occur when we are awake, and they fire off at the frequency of twelve to 30 times a second. Gamma wave activity happens in the brain when we are faced with a mental challenge or having to puzzle something out. The brain cells then fire at a frequency of between 30 to 90 hertz [Hz].
Researchers learnt how to load mice brain cells with light-sensitive proteins. This enabled these researchers to activate the mice brain cells by flashing lights at the mice’s eyes at the frequency of 40 Hz. They discovered that it increased gamma wave activity in the mice’s brains. In turn, the increase in gamma wave activity activated specialized brain cells called microglia, and when they became activated they started cleaning up junk lying around in the brain like debris from dead cells and the beta-amyloid that form the plaques so deadly to the brain suffering from Alzheimer’s dementia.
Finally, we have the first breakthrough (in animal models) that can spell the end of Alzheimer. And that all is possible because of the neuroplastic way the brain has that enables its cells to fire together at the same frequency.
Yes, we have a wonderful tool in our brain. Neuroplasticity is there with us from birth. We do not think about it then, as babies. Babies’ brains are really just blank slates insofar as thought and planning go. Without thinking about it, or planning it, neuroplasticity cause some infants’ brains to become Mozarts, Roger Federers and Einsteins. The rest of us use it to become adults who at least have the capacity to work, play and love. (This is an amazing, awesome feat if you think about it). Neuroplasticity remains with us through our lives and it is what helps us as we age to stay alert, curious and sharp. It is what helps our brain to remember the efforts that worked, and discard the efforts that did not. It is what helps it remember what worked best the last time and make the next effort even slightly better. It is what can make us progressively improve, even as we age.
Unfortunately, with most of us, that does not happen. We reverse this amazing and awesome ability as our bodies start to sag and we start to stoop, and as our hair start to whiten.
The problem is that neuroplasticity is a tool that the brain can use to learn bad things just as well as good.
SO, IN CONCLUSION OF THIS SERIES ON NEUROPLASTICITY AND IN HOMAGE TO NEW YEARS’ RESOLUTIONS:
If we stop exploring how to do new things, if we stop being curious and working on figuring things out, if we stop learning that favourite new poem by heart, neuroplasticity will help us get better and then get excellent at stopping and going backwards.
We will lie down instead of sit up, sit instead of stand, and stand instead of dancing the night away.
We will binge watch a new Netflix series instead of trying our hand at that first chapter of that screenplay we always wanted to write.
We will text and send emojis instead of talking to our beloved one on the phone or (even better yet), visit them in person.
We will immerse ourselves in virtual worlds and first person shooter games instead of putting our arms around each other, gaze into the fireplace with its flames and warmth, sip a glass of wine (yes, up to four glasses of red wine a week indeed is a very healthy thing—I learn new things too!) and philosophize about more things in heaven and earth than we can dream of.
For this next year, and for the years to follow, let’s not do that. Let us use neuroplasticity to help the most complex thing in the known universe guide our bodies to be young, and happy, and adventurous. Life should be about bangs and not about whimpers. We have what it takes to make it so.