In the context of neuroscience, the term “neuroplasticity” gets thrown around a lot. But what does it actually mean? In the literal sense, neuroplasticity refers to the physical changes, or neural rewiring, that takes place within your brain. But the thing is, our brains are constantly undergoing numerous physical changes, all the time. So you could really say that neuroplasticity is constantly present. It’s almost like describing the act of running by using the term “movement.” It doesn’t specifically define what’s actually going on.
The brain is continuously rewiring itself in response to stimulation. Neuroplasticity is an umbrella term that describes numerous different changes within the brain, and has been used to describe the following terms, in addition to numerous others:
This term refers to the creation of new neurons; a term largely used regarding brain development and structural changes within the physicality of the brain.
This refers to positive or negative developments in the strength of neural connections in between synapses; the connection points between brain cells. This can be considered another umbrella term, as all it means is a change has taken place within the brain’s synapses. This could either be a shift in the amount of neurotransmitter receptors, a differentiation in brain cell proteins, or an adjustment in long-term potentiation (an increase in synaptic strength as a result of stimulation).
This is the creation and destruction of synapse groups, referring to the building or deconstructing of the brain’s neural connections.
When neurons migrate from their original position to connect far spanning areas of the brain in order to increase interconnectivity, which could make up an entirely different article in itself.
So what am I supposed to think when I see this word?
“Neuroplasticity” became a popular term after scientists in the late 90s discovered that the adult brain is limited in its ability to rewire itself to acquire new skills, like learning a second language. It’s a word that nonspecifically describes a change that is happening within the brain. So the next time you’re reading an article and the word “neuroplasticity” pops up, think twice about what the author is really saying, and what they actually mean by using that term.