top of page

Brain Health and Neuroplasticity

By: William H. Reading, MD and Teresa Cox Reading, RN

The age-old proverb, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is somewhat true if the person is unwilling to learn or just used to doing things a certain way and is not engaged in changing. And yes, our minds lose some plasticity as we get older, but just like all other types of health, brain health is important. If we are to change the mindfulness and the willingness to keep up and stimulate our brain, then our environment and cognition are very important. Brain health involves so much. The key is to mindfully want to keep those neurons firing and to aid in its recovery and connectivity during the span of our lives.
In this article, we will have a quick lesson on what is involved in brain health and the meaning of the term neuroplasticity. Everything we do, play, exercise, think, or even eat has an impact on brain health and neuroplasticity. Trauma, disease, and altered function can also play a part on the continuum of brain health.

The Brain
The brain is an amazing thing and an organ like no other. There are about 100 billion neurons in the human brain. It is also part of our central nervous system. Our brain uses around 20 percent of the blood and oxygen in our body. It weighs about three pounds and is mainly made up of water. (Watch for dehydration as that has an effect on the brain.) Information passes between neurons in the brain at about 250 miles per hour. That is the fastest speed. This information is running between the neurons, with all of our senses in mind, in seeing, cognitive applications, and the things that we are doing. These pathways are busy! The brain can’t directly feel pain, but it does process it through the brain signals sent to it. Our brain does get smaller as we get older, and we can lose some cognition skills in our late twenties, but there are ways to enhance brain function, which do help. Neuroplasticity makes it possible for us to learn.

What Is Neuroplasticity?
Neuroplasticity is not a word you hear every day. But neuropsychiatrists (such as Dr. Reading) and neuroscientists, are making it more of a household word to get people to understand why we do what we do, how to identify triggers, how it affects our habits and learning, and how to rejuvenate ourselves. It’s important to not just keep our body healthy, but our mind as well. According to Dr. Reading, neuroplasticity or brain plasticity, can be defined as, “The ability of the central nervous system to change its own activity in response to certain stimuli by reorganizing its own structure, functions, or connections.” The brain creates new neural pathways in relation to external and internal stimuli, from the environment around us, what we are doing, and how we are feeling. Neurons are what cause our brain to change.

How Does Neuroplasticity Occur?
Neuroplasticity commonly occurs with the repetition of a certain skill (like playing chess or even playing a musical instrument), in that, the more the nerve cell grows, the more dendrites (the receiving end of the nerve cells) surround the axon (the sending end of the nerve cells), and the stronger the connection grows. This is why good technique in practice improves performance. The brain cells propagate a signal by setting up a minuscule electrical current in the circuits depending on how sense organs or internal brain components initiate the signal. This current is formed by the exchange of potassium and sodium ions (charged particles) on a microscopic level. These  circuits are very complex, and we are only beginning to understand them. Or, to break it down, neurons communicate with one another and transfer information from one cell to another. And the more that new pathway is used, the more the old pathway starts to deteriorate and give way to the new.

Why Is Neuroplasticity Beneficial?
Neuroplasticity is beneficial for many reasons, not just for learning but for relearning. When there is damage to a small part of the brain, like in traumatic injury or a stroke, the surrounding nerve cells can compensate for the loss. Rehabilitation involves a relearning process in the brain. Following a stroke, passing a slight DC current through the area can speed the regrowth of the circuit resulting in a return to functioning. If too much of a portion of the brain dies, the return of function can be severely limited.

“In psychiatry, we learn that there develops a small defect in the left frontal cortex, which causes major depressive disorder,” states Dr. Reading. “It is possible to stimulate this underactive region to start it to function. We accomplish this through magnetic stimulation. The process is called TMS, or transcranial magnetic stimulation. Its a very inventive process with a not-very-inventive name. Often, we reserve this type of treatment for depression that does not remit with medication, so-called treatment resistant depression (TRD).”

Functional and Structural Plasticity
The brain can change and adapt, rewire, and repair itself through growth and reorganization. This can happen in two ways throughout our whole lifespan. One is functional plasticity, which refers to the activity of our neurons and how they connect with responses to life’s events, such as trauma and our experiences. For example, this can occur after an injury to help us compensate and relearn. Think function. The other is structural plasticity, which comes from learning new experiences and information, like learning a new instrument or song, visiting a new place, or just learning something new that is practiced. Repetition and practice strengthen new pathways and reinforce habits. Old ways and other pathways are less used and weaken over time. This can actually change the structure of the brain, hence the name.

We Can Improve Brain Health and Neuroplasticity in the Following Ways: 

Eat brain healthy foods such as fatty fish, blueberries, and broccoli

Get enough rest

Get enough sleep

Decompress after work

Learn a new word every day

Play chess or similar games

Do mnemonic drills—techniques for remembering information, like using rhymes

Learn a new language

Learn a new skill

Improve oxygen to the brain with physical exercise such as aerobics, walking, swimming, and so on

Improve healthy coping skills

Take supplements

Do crossword puzzles and other word and mind games

Improve manual dexterity, as well as mental dexterity, through creative pastimes such as crafting, drawing or painting

Handle blood pressure or blood sugar issues

Pay attention to your emotions and be mindful of your feelings

Avoid head trauma with protection gear

Don’t isolate friends; interact with them instead

Get regular checkups

Brain health interacts with neuroplasticity in brain functioning with cognition and our social-emotional and behavioral health. We need a healthy brain and body to optimize our full potential over the course of a lifetime. Being mindful and progressive helps us to understand and implement a more interactive lifestyle and creates a positive impact with others. A holistic approach helps us integrate the most important aspect of ourselves in relating to the world around us.

Caregiver Burnout 02012023 1251A-5 copy.jpg

William H. Reading, MD runs The Offices of William H. Reading, MD, Recovery, Psychiatric, and TMS services (which just recently partnered with Geode Health), a neuropsychiatric practice in Stafford, Texas. Teresa Cox Reading, RN has retired as the practice administrator for The Offices of William H. Reading, MD. Dr. Reading has an undergraduate degree from UT Austin and a Doctor of Medicine from the Medical School at UTSA. As well as being a practicing physician, he has been an educator and an assistant professor for over five years and is the author of numerous articles for professional publications. Teresa received her nursing degree from Excelsior College. Teresa and Dr. Reading have four sons and have been involved with the Fort Bend community for over twenty years. 

bottom of page