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Yoga And Neuroplasticity

YOGA AND NEUROPLASTICITY

Yoga And Neuroplasticity

An 70-year-old lady asks herself, 

“Did I touch that doorknob?”

“Is that person ahead of me in the store wearing his mask properly?”

“Is the sanitizer bottle in my handbag?”

“Son, did you wash your hands properly after coming from outside?”

All these questions were not relevant to her in 2019, but now they are. Covid-19 makes her rethink her solidly established mindset and behaviour pattern. She gets panicky as she gets into the apartment elevator, seeing others not wearing masks properly.

The pandemic has changed life for everyone on this planet, individually and collectively. 

A San Francisco physician reported that her patient is a 56-year-old university professor and a professional cyclist for years, who at 5-foot 1 inch, weighs 120 pounds, is well proportioned. Recently she has problems with her memory, word-finding, judgment, and difficulty following directions when she puts her clothes for a wash in the washing machine. She forgot that she was leading an alumni group for her university, and she went surfing instead. She had been mixing things up. She put her cycling drink in the refrigerator where it does not go and put ice cream in the food refrigerator instead of the freezer. So, the list goes on and on. It was frequently happening, however, to make her question whether this was “normal forgetting.” 

Barbara J. Sahakian, Professor of Neuropsychology, University of Cambridge, with two other experts, has written a paper, Coronavirus: the pandemic is changing our brains –here are the remedies. In this they have stated that whether you have contracted COVID-19 or not, your brain is likely to have changed over the past few months. The virus itself can cause several neurological problems, along with anxiety and depression. The isolation and worry caused by the pandemic can similarly alter our brain chemistry and cause mood disorders.

Change in the behavioral patterns have become a universal phenomenon due to quarantine, and subsequent restrictions in travel and economy as a whole. I stumbled upon some podcasts on Neuroplasticity by Dr. Gabor Mate and Dr. Andrew D. Huberman. 

Dr. Mate is a Hungarian-born Canadian physician. He has a background in family practice and a special interest in childhood development and trauma, and their potential impact on physical and mental health, including autoimmune disease, cancer, ADHD, addictions, and many other conditions. Dr. Huberman is a neuroscientist and a professor in the Department of Neurobiology at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Both the doctors eloquently advocate the importance of deep breathing in Neuroplasticity, which was dealt with thousands of years ago in the Ayurveda system of Medicine, in ancient India. Interestingly both the physicians had gone through trauma in their childhood. Dr. Mate was only two months old when Hitler invaded Hungary, and he is a Jew.

What is Neuroplasticity? 

What is Neuroplasticity?

Neuroplasticity is a term first used by Jerzy Konorski, a Polish scientist, in 1948. This subject was not widely researched until the early 1960s. He observed changes in the structure of neurons – which are cells that make up our brains. In the early 1900s, researchers found that stress can kill brain cells, although these conclusions are not yet sure.

For many decades it was thought that the brain was a “non-renewable” organ and dies gradually as we age; whether we attempt to keep them around or not! Later, researchers found the term neurogenesis for the regeneration of brain cells – ways for neurons to adapt and reconnect, and perhaps even ways to re-grow or replenish.

Although “neurogenesis” and “Neuroplasticity are interrelated, they are different concepts. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to form new connections and pathways and change how its circuits are wired. Neurogenesis is even more impressive – it is the ability of the brain to grow new neurons.

Neuroplasticity is the ability to undergo biological changes ranging from the cellular level to large scale changes involving cortical remapping. Such changes often happen as a result of psychological experiences. During such changes, the brain engages in synaptic pruning, deleting the neuronal connections that are no longer necessary or useful, and strengthening the useful ones. 

These changes can happen either fast or slow; and they can be positive or negative. 

Our brains are truly amazing. They are built to certain specifications and receive software updates periodically. In addition, they can also receive hardware updates. Different pathways form and fall dormant; are created and are discarded, according to our experiences. When we learn something new, we make new connections between our neurons. We rewire our brains to adapt to new circumstances. This happens on a daily basis. It is also something that we can encourage and stimulate. 

Neuroplasticity can help the brain from trauma, especially people recovering from head injury resulting in severe cognitive dysfunction with considerable anger and rage issues. Other areas where Neuroplasticity can be applied – youth with ADD, ADHD, OCD, etc. With brain training, they can achieve better results in school and progress to a more productive life focusing and attending to life’s challenges. The most important field in which brain training is applied is in people with addiction, not only with drug and alcohol but also with anxiety, depression, consumerism, sex, and other faulty behavioural patterns.

Types of Neuroplasticity:

  1. Structural Neuroplasticity: In this strength of connections between neurons (or synapses) changes.
  2. Functional Neuroplasticity: This describes the permanent changes in synapses due to learning and development.

Both types have exciting potentials, but the first one is more attended to at the moment.  

We know that some functions can be rerouted, relearned, and re-established in the brain, but changes to the brain’s actual structure are where many exciting possibilities lie.

Neuroplasticity in children

Neuroplasticity in children

There are four main types of Neuroplasticity observed in children. Children’s brains are constantly growing, developing, and changing. Each new experience prompts a change in brain structure, function, or both.

1. Adaptive: This occurs when the children practice a particular skill and allow the brain to adapt to functional or structural changes in it (e.g. Injuries).

2. Impaired: changes occur due to genetic or acquired disorders.

3. Excessive: the reorganization of new maladaptive pathways that can cause disability or disorders.

4. Plasticity makes the brain vulnerable to injury: harmful neuronal pathways are formed that makes the injury more impactful.

These processes are stronger and more pronounced in young children far more effectively than most adults.

Neuroplasticity in adults

The effect of Neuroplasticity in adults is observed to comparatively less than children, at lower strengths. However, the adult brain is still capable of extraordinary change.

It can restore old & lost connections that have not been used in some time, and enhance overall cognitive skills. More sustained effort is required, and a healthy lifestyle can promote positive changes and growth in their brains.

New Developments in Neuroplasticity

Brain hologram drawing on cityscape background multi exposure. Ai in modern city concept.

1. Enriched environments (saturated with novelty, focused attention, and challenges) are critical for promoting Neuroplasticity and can provide growth and positive adaptation long after a ‘critical learning period.’

2. Newborn neurons (at eight weeks old) and older neurons are generally at the same maturation level.

3. As few as ten ‘1-hour sessions’ of cognitive training over 5-6 weeks have the potential to reverse the same amount of age-related decline that was observed during the same period.

4. Physical activity and good physical fitness can prevent or slow down the normal age-related neuronal death and change to the hippocampus and even increase the hippocampus volume.

5. Intermittent fasting can promote adaptive responses in synapses.

6. Chronic insomnia is associated with atrophy (neuronal death and damage) in the hippocampus, while adequate sleep may enhance neurogenesis.

Benefits of Neuroplasticity on the brain

1. Recovery from brain events like strokes.

2. Recovery from traumatic brain injuries.

3. Ability to rewire functions in the brain. (e.g., If any area that controls one sense is damaged, other regions may pick up the slack.)

4. Losing function in one area may enhance function in other areas. (if one sense is lost, others are heightened.)

5. Enhanced memory abilities.

6. Wide range of enhanced cognitive abilities.

7. More effective learning.

How to rewire your brain with Neuroplasticity?

How to rewire your brain with Neuroplasticity?

A few of the methods that enhance or boost Neuroplasticity will include:

* Intermittent fasting.

* Traveling exposes your brain to novel stimuli and new environments opening up new pathways and brain activities.

* Using mnemonic devices. Memory training can enhance connectivity in the prefrontal parietal network and prevent age-related memory loss.

* Learning a musical instrument may increase connectivity between brain regions and help form new neural networks.

* Non-dominant hand exercises can form new neural pathways and strengthen connectivity in the brain.

* Expanding your vocabulary activates the visual and auditory processes and memory processing.

* Creating artwork enhances the brain’s connectivity, which can boost introspection, memory, empathy, attention, and focus. 

* Dancing reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s and increases neural of connectivity.

* Sleeping encourages learning retention through the dendrite spines’ growth that act as a connection between neurons and help transfer information across cells.

Neuroplasticity for stroke recovery: 

Two essential methods are:

1. Task repetition. (New learning)

2. Task-specific practice. (Relating to an old one.)

Neuroplasticity for treating depression

 In this connection, we have good news and bad news.

The bad news is that when it comes to psychiatric disorders, negative Neuroplasticity leading to depression can cause damage to the brain, encouraging unhealthy and maladaptive pathways and discouraging healthy and adaptive ones.

The good news is that some treatment for depression seems to halt the damage and perhaps even reverse it. Even better news is Neuroplasticity has shown us that “your day-to-day behavior can have measurable effects on brain structure and function, which can offer healing and recovery from psychiatric disorders.

It may not be easy and might take sustained effort, but we can remodel our brains at any age in ways that can help us to function better.

Neuroplasticity helps with anxiety:

This is similar to psychiatric disorders. Changing thought patterns through recall and memory patterning, breathing exercises, eye patterning, modifying postural habits, increasing awareness, and targeting sensory perception are the essential methods.

The activities suggested for both psychiatric disorders and anxiety include:

1. Memory tasks and games.

2. Learning to juggle.

3. Learning to play a new musical instrument.

4. Learning a new language.

5. Practicing yoga.

6. Mild/moderate regular exercise.

7. Challenging brain activities.

8. Learning a new subject. (Larger or complex topic in a short time.)

Chronic pain treatment with Neuroplasticity:

The following methods are recommended:

1. Transcranial direct current stimulation.

2. Transcranial magnetic stimulation.

3. Intermittent fasting.

4. Glucose administration.

5. Regular exercise.

6. Healthy eating.

7. Quit smoking.

8. Keep the mind active.

9. Relaxation techniques.

10. Mindfulness meditation.

11. Listening to music.

Role of music in Neuroplasticity:

The anterior portion of the corpus callosum was found to be larger in musicians, especially those who began their training at a younger age. The right motor cortex was larger in right-handed musicians than right-handed non-musicians. The volume of the cerebellum in male musicians was larger than non-musicians. The volume of gray matter in motor auditory and visuospatial cerebral areas was more extensive in musicians than in non-musicians. Musicians were found to have more structural right posterior internal capsules than non-musicians. Musicians have higher gray and white matter density in the left primary sensory-motor cortex and right cerebellum as well as higher white matter integrity in the right posterior internal capsule. Musicians have enhanced responses to temporal novelty in the left anterior hippocampus. They also have earlier and larger auditory and audiovisual reactions to speech and music stimuli. Pianists have increased cortical representation of piano tones.  

Growth mindset and Neuroplasticity:

Instead of telling a child, he must have done well because he is smart, try saying something like, “Great job on the test! You must have worked really hard!” Focusing on the work it took to achieve the goal helps create a healthy attitude and belief that he can improve and succeed with continued effort. 

This is the idea behind the “Growth Mindset.” According to psychologist Carol Dweck, known for her research on an individual’s implicit theory of intelligence, “In a fixed mindset, students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence; their talents are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount, and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb.” “In a growth mindset, students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching, and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone is the same, or anyone can become Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.” Along with encouraging a growth mindset, helping students understand their brain can actually grow and become stronger can also boost their confidence and improve learning. The repeated exposure to high-frequency words through engaging Shared-Reading Big Books, Poems, Stories, Songs, Chants, and Action Activities gives students the practice they need to become confident and proficient readers, writers, and communicators.

Mindset and Neuroplasticity may not be something that we may not usually talk about with students when discussing the learning process. But if we explain to them how the brain changes and grows as they learn and that they can get better at a skill by trying.

Role of Art Therapy in Neuroplasticity:

Art Therapy is classified as activity-dependent plasticity, where neural plastic change occurs from the physical world, cognitive function, and personal experience. It is an intrinsic process, meaning that it is not a change that occurs in response to outside factors – it is entirely up to the participant.

Because the brain can change and heal itself through its neuroplastic abilities, it is essential to understand its role in learning and rehabilitation. Essentially learning and rehabilitation activities are a result of the plastic change. The feeling and activity generated by producing art inspire a profound inner change in the participants entirely their work and choice making it an exceptional and valuable experience for them. It also makes neuroplastic change far more likely as it is driven by the participants’ own motivation and engagement. By understanding processes that are happening, activities and progress can be better designed, understood, and monitored to support the desired outcome. The stronger the impression the activity makes on the brain the more likely it will be to cement neuroplastic change.  

It is also very uplifting to know that things are not hopeless – so many situations that used to be viewed as final and unchangeable now no longer are – and that is worth celebrating. Neuroplastic change may not be a cure-all, but it certainly can contribute to improved outcomes.

Many existing art therapy programs that cater to various communities work solely because Neuroplasticity is driving the change, but previously unaware that they were successful. Now that we know, programs can be even more tailored to the individual, and the obtained results can be accurately monitored.

 

Benefits of neuroplasticity on the brain

1. Recovery from brain events like strokes.

2. Recovery from traumatic brain injuries.

3. Ability to rewire functions in the brain. (e.g. If any area that controls one sense is damaged, other areas may be able to pick up the slack.)

4. Losing function in one area may enhance function in other areas. (if one sense is lost, others are heightened.)

5. Enhanced memory abilities.

6. Wide range of enhanced cognitive abilities.

7. More effective learning.

How to rewire your brain with neuroplasticity

A few of the methods that enhance or boost neuroplasticity will include:

* Intermittent fasting.

* Traveling exposes your brain to novel stimuli and new environments opening up new pathways and activities in the brain.

* Using mnemonic devices. Memory training can enhance connectivity in prefrontal parietal network and prevent age-related memory loss.

* Learning a musical instrument may increase connectivity between brain regions and help form new neural networks.

* Non dominant hand exercises can form new neural pathways and strengthen connectivity in the brain.

* Expanding your vocabulary activates the visual and auditory processes and memory processing.

* Creating artwork enhances the connectivity of the brain at rest, which can boost introspection, memory, empathy, attention, and focus. 

* Dancing reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s and increases neural of connectivity.

* Sleeping encourages learning retention through growth of the dendrite spines that act as connection between neurons and help transfer information across cells.

Neuroplasticity for stroke recovery: 

Two key methods are:

1. Task repetition. (New learning)

2. Task specific practice. (Relating to an old one.)

Neuroplasticity for treating depression:

 In this connection we have good news and bad news.

The bad news is that when it comes to psychiatric disorders, there is a sort of negative neuroplasticity; depression can cause damage to the brain; encouraging unhealthy and maladaptive pathways and discouraging healthy and adaptive ones.

The good news is that some treatment for depression seems to be able to halt the damage and perhaps even reverse it.  Even better news is neuroplasticity has shown us that “your day-to-day behavior can have measurable effects on brain structure and function, which can offer healing and recovery from psychiatric disorders.

It may not be easy and might take sustained effort, but we have the ability to remodel our brains at any age in ways that can help us to function better.

Neuroplasticity helps with anxiety:

This is similar to psychiatric disorders. Changing thought pattern through recall and memory patterning, breathing exercises, eye patterning, modifying postural habits, increasing awareness and targeting sensory perception are the key methods.

The activities suggested for both psychiatric disorders and anxiety include:

1. Memory tasks and games.

2. Learning to juggle.

3. Learning to play a new musical instrument.

4. Learning a new language.

5. Practicing yoga.

6. Mild/moderate regular exercise.

7. Challenging brain activities.

8. Learning a new subject. (Larger or complex subject in a short time.)

Chronic pain treatment with neuroplasticity:

The following methods are recommended:

1. Transcranial direct current stimulation.

2. Transcranial magnetic stimulation.

3. Intermittent fasting.

4. Glucose administration.

5. Regular exercise.

6. Healthy eating.

7. Quit smoking.

8. Keep mind active.

9. Relaxation techniques.

10. Mindfulness meditation.

11. Listening to music.

Role of music in neuroplasticity:

The anterior portion of the corpus collosum was found to be larger in musicians especially those who began their training at a younger age.  The right motor cortex was larger in right-handed musicians than right-handed non-musicians.  Volume of the cerebellum in male musicians was larger than non-musicians. The volume of gray matter in motor auditory and visuospatial cerebral areas was larger in musicians than in non-musicians.  Musicians were found to have more structural right posterior internal capsules than non-musicians.  Musicians have higher gray and white matter density in the left primary sensory-motor cortex and right cerebellum as well as higher white matter integrity in the right posterior internal capsule. Musicians have enhanced responses to temporal novelty in the anterior left hippocampus.  They also have earlier and larger auditory and audiovisual responses to speech and music stimuli. Pianists have increased cortical representation of piano tones.  

Growth mindset and neuroplasticity:

Instead of telling a child he must have done well because he is smart, try saying something like, “Great job on the test! You must have worked really hard!”Focusing on the work it took to achieve the goal helps create a healthy attitude and belief that he can improve and succeed with continued effort.  This is the idea behind “Growth Mindset”. According to psychologist Carol Dweck, known for her research on an individual’s implicit theory of intelligence, “In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence; their talents are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb.” “In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone is the same or anyone can become Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.” Along with encouraging a growth mindset, helping students understand their brain can actually grow and become stronger can also boost teir confidence and improve learning. The repeated exposure to high frequency words through engaging Shared-Reading Big Books, Poems, Stories, Songs, Chants, and Action Activities gives students the practice they need in order to become confident and proficient readers, writers, and communicators.

Mindset and neuroplasticity may not be something that we may not normally talk about with students when discussing the learning process. But if we explain to them how the brain changes and grows as they learn and that they can get better at a skill by trying.

Role of Art Therapy in neuroplasticity:

Art Therapy is classified as activity-dependent plasticity, which is where neural plastic change occurs from a combination of physical and physical and cognitive function and personal experience.  It is an intrinsic process, meaning that it is not a change that occurs in response to outside factors – it is entirely up to the participant.

Because the brain can change and heal itself through its neuroplastic abilities, it is essential to understand its role in learning and rehabilitation. Essentially learning and rehabilitation activities are result of plastic change. The feeling and activity generated through producing art inspires a profound inner change in the participants that are entirely their own work and choice making it a very special and valuable experience for them.  It also makes neuroplastic change far more likely as it is driven by the participants’ own motivation and engagement. By understanding processes that are happening, activities and progress can be better designed, understood, and monitored to support desired outcome. The stronger the impression the activity makes on the brain the more likely it will be to cement neuroplastic change.  

It is also very uplifting to know that things are not hopeless – so many situations that used to be viewed as final and unchangeable now no longer are – and that is definitely worth celebrating.  Neuroplastic change may not be cure-all; but it certainly can contribute to improved outcomes.

Many existing art therapy programs that cater to various communities work solely because neuroplasticity is driving the change, but previously unaware that it was why they were successful. Now that we know, programs can be even more tailored to individual and results more accurately monitored.

Role of Yoga and meditation in Neuroplasticity :

Dr. Sarah Lazar, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, demonstrated through mindfulness studies that you can change your brain’s shape after eight weeks of meditation for 20 minutes a day (published in the Journal of Psychiatry Research). Researchers also found that the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for our “fight or flight” and fear responses, actually shrinks when practicing mindfulness meditation, decreasing out stress response, and becoming less reactive. 

The changes that occur in our brain resulting from meditating reduce blood pressure, stress, anxiety, and depression while increasing our emotional intelligence, productivity, creativity, and concentration. We can solve difficult problems, become more pro-social, and find freedom from habitual thoughts and feelings that no longer serve us. This allows us to develop a skillful way of being with ourselves and others.

Research papers published by Chantel Vellamure, Marta Ceko, Valerie A. Cotton, and Catherine Bushell on May 12, 2015 (sponsored by International Research Program of NIH, National Centre for Complimentary and Alternate Medicine), mentions the following:

“In conclusion, regular practice of yoga may have neuroplastic effects against whole brain age-related gray matter decline. Our results suggest that more weekly regular yoga practice is associated with larger brain volume in areas involved in bodily representation, attention, self-relevant processing, visualization, and stress regulation. 

Distinct components of yoga practice (postures, breathing exercises, and meditation) or combination of these predicted gray matter volumes of these brain areas differently, in keeping with the nature of processing taking place in those structures.

Furthermore, certain brain changes continue to occur after several years of practice, as reflected by the link between increasing yoga experience and increasing brain volumes in areas sub-serving autonomic interpretation, emotional processing, and regulation, hierarchical sequential organization, and in a brain area implicated in either the monitoring of transition between innocuous to painful sensation or in experiences characterized by insights into the unity of all reality and feelings of peace and joy. Most of those experience-related changes were located in the left hemisphere suggesting that increasing years of yoga practice progressively tunes the brain towards a parasympathitically driven mode and positive affective states. Together these findings provide a neural basis for some of the beneficial effects of yoga. Finally, the current study involved yoga practitioners who were otherwise typical North Americans. As such, if the observed structural brain variances are indeed related to yoga training, they should be within the reach of the average and not reserved to a select few.”  

Future Directions of Neuroplasticity:

Researchers point out that the propensity for experience-dependent plasticity throughout life can be more or less potentiated by diverse factors, including individual genetic, cellular, molecular, and environmental differences. 

These researches have lead us to understand that the rules that regulate plasticity are not only more intrinsically variable than were previously thought, but can also be shaped and in mature brains. This is particularly relevant for neurodegenerative and neuropsychiatric conditions where plasticity mechanisms appear to be dysregulated.  

Neuromodulator systems display immense variability between individuals. Without properly establishing a link with behavior, the nature of reorganization, whether adaptive or maladaptive, will remain difficult to establish.

 

References:

1. The Seductive, But Dangerous, Allure of Gabor Mate

https://www.psychologytoday.com

2. Extinguishing Fear When It Really Matters by Alternating Breath

https://www.neurohacker.com

3. What Is Neuroplasticity? A Psychologist Explains

https://positivepsychology.com

4. Neuroscience of Mindfulness

Observer.com

5. The Growth Mindset

https://www.mindsetworks.com

6. Art Therapy and Neuroplasticity

https://afredadler.edu

7. Neuroprotective effects of yoga practice

https://www.ncbi.nim.nih.gov

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