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What is brain plasticity, and can it help relieve psychiatric or degenerative brain disorders?

  • Published23 Apr 2012
  • Reviewed23 Apr 2012
  • Author Ron Frostig
  • Source BrainFacts/SfN

Brain plasticity (from the Greek word ‘plastos’ meaning molded) refers to the extraordinary ability of the brain to modify its own structure and function following changes within the body or in the external environment. The large outer layer of the brain, known as the cortex is especially able to make such modifications.

Brain plasticity underlies normal brain function such as our ability to learn and modify our behavior. It is strongest during childhood — explaining the fast learning abilities of kids — but remains a fundamental and significant lifelong property of the brain. Adult brain plasticity has been clearly implicated as a means for recovery from sensory-motor deprivation, peripheral injury, and brain injury. It has also been implicated in alleviating chronic pain and the development of the ability to use prosthetic devices such as robotic arms for paraplegics, or artificial hearing and seeing devices for the deaf and blind.

In recent years, brain plasticity has been implicated in the relief of various psychiatric and neurodegenerative disorders both in humans and in animal models. These disorders include obsession, depression, compulsion, psychosocial stress, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease. Furthermore, recent research suggests that the pathology of some of these devastating disorders is associated with the loss of plasticity. Collectively, there is a growing recognition that brain plasticity plays a fundamental role in either the deterioration to, or the alleviation of, psychiatric and degenerative brain disorders. 

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