Austin Perlmutter, MD
Here’s what the brain science says about how to rewire your brain!
Your brain is constantly changing itself. With each passing moment, your billions of neurons change the number and strength of their trillions of connections. Beyond these fascinating changes, our brains also create new neurons over the course of our lifespans. And while there’s still lots to be learned about exactly how our brains change and what changes them, research has pointed to certain key strategies we can use to help promote healthy brain change.
Over the last decades, a powerful concept has become increasingly popular in the neuroscience literature. This concept is neuroplasticity: an umbrella term for the way our brains change over our lifespan in response to our life experiences. To be fair, despite recent interest, the idea itself isn’t all that new. In fact, William James described “plasticity” in reference to the brain in 1890. What is new is our knowledge of what neuroplasticity looks like in the brain, and more importantly, how we can influence it for our benefit.
At a basic level, neuroplasticity speaks to the science behind the idea that our brains are highly plastic, adaptable and change in response to new information. Some important examples of neuroplasticity at play include learning and memory. It’s also thought to underlie the brain’s ability to heal after injuries like strokes.
The science of neuroplasticity can get incredibly complicated very quickly, and there are multiple types of neuroplasticity and a number of conditions for which this science is relevant. For most people, one of the most relevant things to know about neuroplasticity is that issues with this process are linked to conditions like psychological trauma, depression and cognitive decline/dementia. So what can we do to help flip this switch and promote healthy neuroplasticity?
A number of scientific studies over the last decades have sought to determine how we can leverage lifestyle factors to help our brains to rewire themselves for the better through neuroplasticity. Among the results, there are 3 major considerations:
1. REGULARLY MOVING YOUR BODY
Of all the interventions linked to improvements in healthy neuroplasticity in people, movement is at the top of the list. Why is that? First, regular physical activity correlates with a lower risk for conditions linked to issues with neuroplasticity like mood issues and Alzheimer’s disease. Next, physical activity increases production of a molecule called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) that is key to healthy neuroplasticity. Finally, higher fitness correlates with brain imaging findings linked to improvements in healthy neuroplasticity.
How much movement do you need to get the benefits? Any amount of physical activity is good for the brain and body, and research shows potential neuroplasticity benefits linked to aerobic exercise (like jogging/biking), weight lifting, and even yoga. There’s not much consensus on exactly how much is needed, but starting shooting for 20 minutes of movement at least a few times a week is a great place to start!
2. STRETCHING YOUR MIND
One interesting observation in the neuroplasticity research is the connection between brain exercise and improvements in brain function. At a basic level, the idea is that keeping our brains engaged, learning, and exposed to rich new stimuli is thought to promote new connections and wiring in our brains, and that this may help protect us against risk for things like cognitive decline. Examples of how to put this into practice range from problem solving (e.g. crosswords, Wordle, sudoku) to practicing an instrument or a foreign language or trying new things (e.g., trying public speaking). The bottom line here is that learning and doing new and mentally difficult things may be a good way to help promote overall brain health, in part through neuroplasticity. And for an additional bonus, there’s now research suggesting that the combination of mental and physical exercises may have an especially beneficial effect.
3. MINIMIZING CHRONIC STRESS AND INFLAMMATION
If physical and mental exercises are good for healthy neuroplasticity, what is bad for it? Here, research has revealed that two major lifestyle variables may be at play: chronic stress and chronic inflammation. Each of these influences may suppress brain production of the key neuroplasticity molecule BDNF. Additionally, chronic stress has been linked to imaging findings in brains suggestive of issues related to neuroplasticity. These include shrinkage of the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus (two structures key to mood and cognition) and a relative expansion of the amygdala (a hub for emotional processing).
It’s important to note that despite these types of studies, we don’t want to fully remove inflammation and stress from our lives and our brains. On the other hand, basic lifestyle changes that may support healthier levels of each of those inputs may have a positive effect on neuroplasticity processes. For stress, finding ways to mitigate excess stress (exercise, nature exposure, mindfulness, working with a mental health practitioner) could prove helpful. Regarding inflammation, choosing a diet like the Mediterranean diet (low in processed foods and added sugars), getting good sleep, engaging in regular physical activity and avoiding unnecessary exposure to air pollution have all been linked to potential anti-inflammatory effects.