Neuroplasticity and Cognitive Skills Training
Neuroplasticity is defined as the capacity of nerve cells in the brain to modify their activity in response to environmental stimulation. This is the process that occurs in response to cognitive skills training at Brain Power Learning Center.
There are three general types of plasticity. These include the following: 1) developmental plasticity or the process of the immature brain being shaped by early life experiences; 2) activity dependent plasticity which can be brought about by intensive practice of a skill (such as cognitive skills training) and 3) injury induced plasticity or the altering of the balance of activity in the brain due to trauma.
Research suggests that the brain is very plastic or malleable in response to oneís environment and life experiences. The central nervous system is continuously adjusting to our environmental experiences. Stimulating experiences (cognitive skills training techniques utilized at Brain Power) can lead to expanded cortical areas, greater neuronal organization, more branching of neuronal dendrites creating a larger number of neuronal connections, and increased rates of neuronal survival when an injury occurs.
Neuroplasticity in the Intact Brain: Developmental Plasticity
Developmental plasticity refers to the significant shaping of the immature brain by life experience. Though children have more neurons (nerve cells in the brain) and synapses (the connections between neurons) than adults, they lose a massive number of neurons and synapses during adolescence through a process referred to as pruning. This process is thought to be adaptive and normal because it allows the central nervous system to develop greater specificity to the environmentally specific needs of the person. Specifically, those neuronal networks which are not sufficiently used are eliminated and those frequently used expand and become more interconnected.
Plasticity early in life is greatest because many synapses and neurons have not yet been pruned. As the human child develops, neurons are pruned and the brain loses its capacity to adapt as effectively to change. For instance, children exposed to a second language as pre-adolescents are able to learn the language faster and demonstrate better pronunciation skills (i.e. no accent) than individuals who study the language later in life (i.e. late adolescence, adulthood). This principle applies to the acquisition of other skills as well (e.g. cognitive skills) and is the reason to pursue cognitive skills training during early childhood.
Neuroplasticity in the Intact Brain: Activity Dependent Plasticity
Sustained engagement in cognitively stimulating activities has been found to affect neural structures in humans. Functional MRI (fMRI) studies of London Cab drivers found that the right posterior parietal lobe (a region of the brain responsible for following geographic directions) was largely expanded relative to controls. The authors hypothesized that the relative size difference was due to the cabdriverís prolonged use of this area of the brain. Moreover, there was a statistically significant correlation between the volume of brain region and the years of experience and proficiency.
In another study, healthy human subjects underwent daily practice of a complex motor task with increasing performance demands for four weeks. Functional MRI scanning revealed increased cortical activation in the area responsible for this task. This type of intense training is the principle that cognitive skills training is based on and demonstrates that only a few weeks of intense training can produce significant changes.
In a recent well-controlled study, the investigators used cognitive interventions in a geriatric population which reportedly reversed cognitive aging by 7-14 years in the area of visual concentration, reasoning and memory. The authors concluded that neuroplasticity endures across the lifespan. Consequently, even the elderly can benefit from cognitive skills training. This further demonstrates that it is never too late to pursue cognitive skills training.
Neuroplasticity after a Brain Injury
The once held belief that recovery from a brain injury is limited to the first one or two years following injury has been met with considerable challenge. Neuroplasticity research suggests that people can recover for many years, but on a continuum whereby recovery is easier and faster immediately after an injury and becomes increasingly more difficult as time progresses. Multiple studies have shown that the majority of people continue to make significant physical, cognitive, and behavioral recovery, as many as 5 years or more post traumatic brain injury.
Does cognitive skills therapy facilitate the brainís plasticity? Evidence would suggest yes. The effectiveness of cognitive skills training is directly related to its ability to physiologically and/or structurally alter the brain. One study demonstrated that an average of 15.8 sessions of cognitive skills therapy accompanied by homework assignments in persons 2 years post injury significantly altered brain functioning as measured by neuropsychological testing and SPECT data (i.e. regional cerebral blood flow). Neural reorganization can be enhanced through specific training rather than general experience and in relative few sessions if the training is structured appropriately.
Whether young or old, whether the brain is intact or has been injured, research demonstrates that structural and functional changes can be promoted in the brain if one is provided intensive cognitive skills training such as provided by the Brain Power Learning Center. Research also demonstrates that these changes are permanent.
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