“But I thought once a neuron was dead, that’s that!” Well, you’re right. But an amazing compensatory process can take over and perform miracles.
Lots of email coming in lately with questions regarding the biology of the mood and anxiety disorders. In response, I’m presenting an edit of a piece I wrote on neuroplasticity some time ago.
I believe you’ll find it encouraging.
What is Neuroplasticity?
Neuroplasticity is a miraculous process by which the brain reorganizes its neural (of neurons) connections in response to new circumstances and environments.
Though it plays a major role in infant, toddler, and pre-pubescent brain development; the adult brain can be amazingly plastic.
For example, neuroplasticity comes into play within the context of disease and injury. It explains, say, how a stroke victim regains a particular function even though neurons in the directing area of the brain have been destroyed.
I Can Make It Happen?
We all have the ability to intentionally set neuroplasticity into motion. And that’s pretty incredible. The good and hopeful news came to the fore thanks to the work of a very wise and impressive man, Jeffrey M. Schwartz, M.D. Do an Internet search on Dr. Schwartz – it’ll be well worth your time.
Schwartz, and his pals at UCLA, discovered that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can positively impact the brain machinations involved in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) in a manner similar to the often prescribed antidepressants.
Well, the discovery story goes like this. Dr. Schwartz revisited an interest in the Buddhist concept of mindfulness; a clear-minded, in-the-present-moment, self-observational technique that emphasizes viewing oneself without criticism or judgment.
Schwartz discovered that when OCD patients practiced mindfulness meditation (as a CBT technique), upon experiencing distressing symptoms, a significant number of them reported measurable improvement and relief.
Schwartz wanted to understand why. So he and his team examined PET scans administered before and after a course of CBT. Guess what? They found activity in one of the brain’s OCD-significant areas, the orbitofrontal cortex, decreased significantly. Furthermore, the observed decrease was about the same as what would be noted after antidepressant therapy.
Schwartz needed no further evidence that intention – will – can definitely alter the brain’s functioning through the wonders of neuroplasticity. And this holds the potential to bring a whole lot of relief to a whole lot of people enduring the mood and anxiety disorders.
Rewiring the Brain?
Neuroplasticity is all about neurons having the ability to establish new connections throughout our brains, facilitating all sorts of new functioning. So, it’s about the rewiring of the brain.
But, it’s also a matter of how specific neural circuits got wired together in the first place, resulting in patterns of thought, emotion, and behavior.
It’s apparent that neurons consistently interacting together form long-lasting functional relationships, just as neurons that no longer interact lose their connections.
According to Canadian neuropsychologist Dr. Donald O. Hebb’s theory – “Cells that wire together, fire together.”
And these machinations are foundational in our hope for incredibly positive and powerful change throughout the lifespan, as our brains physically change – adapt – based upon the dynamics of will and neuroplasticity.
This is a fascinating reality, the implications and applications of which are incredibly far-reaching.
If you’d like to learn more about neuroplasticity, check-out the work of Jeffrey M. Schwartz, M.D., Michael Merzenich, Ph.D., V.S. Ramachandran, M.D., Ph.D., and so many more.