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Jay Kindschi was interviewed last summer by CBS 58’s Julie Parise for a story on “digital amnesia.”

 November is Alzheimer’s Awareness Month. Jay Kindschi reflects on the importance of stretching our minds to try to maintain cognitive awareness as we age.

By Jay Kindschi, D.C., MATC instructor of life sciences

Humanity has always been fascinated by the inner-workings of the brain.  Although many theories have been proposed in the last century, historically few can explain the brain’s incredible adaptability.

Today, modern neuroscience is revealing the intricate process by which the brain can rewire itself: neuroplasticity. The term describes a nerve cell’s ability to change its physical arrangement, forming or breaking connections with other nerve cells. When we learn something for the first time, new and fragile connections are formed between neurons within the brain. When signals flow through these circuits, pictures, memories or words form in our minds.  At the heart of every new thought, there is a unique neural circuit, bringing that thought to life.

Forming Connections

If we think about this new thing frequently enough, the circuits grow stronger and more numerous, thereby increasing the power and clarity of the thought. However, if we never have reason to use these circuits again, the neurons will release their connections and the thought will be lost.

Our emerging view of neuroplasticity shows that the brain is constantly adapting to new stimulation:  new faces, ideas, vocabulary, movements, flavors, music and physical spaces. It is the formation of new cellular connections that allows us to grasp new ideas, and the reflection on these ideas that literally wires them into our conscious mind. Occasionally, an experience is so powerful that it leads to a significant and long-lasting change in our neural circuitry. For better or worse, we come away with a whole new way of seeing the world.

Children’s Brains Are Plastic

The brain of a two-year-old is incredibly plastic, forming innumerable connections each day. At this age, a child immersed in a foreign language will learn to pronounce as flawlessly as a native speaker. However, a child introduced to the language just a few years later may struggle with the accent. Naturally, as an adult mastery of a foreign language is more difficult.

Although some regions of the brain may become less plastic over time, in many ways the brain remains structurally and functionally changeable throughout life.  Life-long learning seems to be the key to brain health and longevity. Older people who stay healthy, engaged, curious, physically and socially active are likely to maintain cognitive performance throughout life.

Brain Developments During Sleep

Neuroplasticity also is at work during sleep. The brain combs through piles of data from the previous day, deciding what is worth remembering and what is not.  Connections deemed unnecessary are pruned, but important ones are reinforced and stimulated.  It may be this nocturnal circuit testing which gives rise to our dreams.  It may be why even our strangest dreams often have one foot in reality.

Our experiences shape the connections we form, but it is our cultivation of these circuits (through reflection, rumination and rehearsal) that determines what will stay with us. Our daily choices, thoughts, mood, habits and social environment shape the neural connections upon which we depend. Our brains will change, we just decide how.

 

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