Are neurons plastic? Before coming to that question, what are neurons and what do you mean by plastic in this context anyway? As we all know, neurons are the fundamental signaling elements that together comprise our brains, aka the Neuron Doctrine. Any intelligent living being must “adapt” to its environment in order to survive. And this adaptability of an object is what it means to be plastic in nature.
Neuroplasticity refers to the brain's ability to continuously adapt both structurally and functionally in response to its environment’s demanding needs through experience.
Our brain is a highly complex information processing system and each and every component must adapt in order to keep up with the increasingly complex dynamics of our environment. Neuroplasticity is a big umbrella term that refers to these various types of brain plasticities at different levels from the synapse, neural, circuits to cortical remappings, and its psychological aspects as well. Although there is no overall inclusive theory encompassing different systems and frameworks of neuroplasticities, two major types of plasticities are generally discussed in this field namely Structural and Functional plasticities.
Structural plasticity refers to the reorganization of neural networks within the brain. New connections are constantly formed and pruned at various cortical, subcortical, and circuit levels and integrated into the working of the Central Nervous System. It majorly studies both the external and internal stimuli’ effects on the anatomical changes of the brain. Whereas Functional Plasticity refers to the functional changes adapted by the neurons. It includes the study of neural correlates of memories, how new memories are acquired by various parts of our brain, and how it adjusts the functionality of the brain from one area to another. This is a very interesting subfield where we try to understand how the brain tries to preserve its behavioral functionality even in the case of severe damage to one or more cortical sections.
So is plasticity really helpful? It seems like a life-saving ability granting us a sort of, philosophically speaking, “free will” to adapt as we need without which we might all have been zombies blabbering nonsense at each other. It also indirectly frees us from the shackles of genetics as everyone can effectively acquire any type of knowledge, skills, arts, and be who they want. But as I discussed in my last few blogs,
“Balance is the Key”
If the brain was too plastic in nature then whatever skills we learn will be replaced by new ones and lost the very next moment. Retention is very important as well without which we never will be able to hone the specific skills required for various arts, sports, engineering, etc. and be proud of the mastery we achieve over them through sheer persistence and hard work. In fact, we won’t be able to survive at all as the crucial functions of our body from breathing to temperature control to heart rate and all will go out of control into chaos due to over-adaptation.
Now how the brain maintains this balance of plasticity is the question to ponder upon ; )
P.S. The image at the very beginning of this blog post resembling neurons in the brain, actually aren’t neurons at all FYI. Try to guess what it might be and is it plastic?