Brain plasticity: What is it and how can you make it work for you?

In the past, researchers believed that everybody was born with a set number of brain cells and a pre-determined level of intelligence that you couldn’t change.

We now know this isn’t true.

In fact, the brain can expand and change over time through a process known as “brain plasticity” – the growth and development of new brain cells and neural connections.

The discovery of this phenomenon is one of the most significant breakthroughs in neuroscience. When harnessed in the right way, brain plasticity could help you learn new things and stay mentally sharp as you get older.

London cab drivers have larger memory centres than the average person

Your brain contains approximately 100 billion neurons – the nerve cells that send and receive messages between your brain and body. The connections between these neurons are called “synapses”.

Brain plasticity, officially called “neuroplasticity”, describes the brain’s ability to grow neurons and synapses, establishing new neural connections throughout your life.

As a result, every experience you have has the potential to alter the physical and chemical make-up of your brain. This is how you learn new things, improve your memory, or sharpen your cognitive abilities.

When you are born, your brain is a blank canvas. During your early years, you go through a period of rapid development, growing neurons and synapses as you learn to walk, talk, and interact with the world.

As you reach adulthood, this development slows, but that doesn’t mean your brain is no longer capable of growing and changing, no matter how old you are.

London taxi drivers are the perfect example of this.

According to Scientific American, cabbies spend three to four years driving around the city, memorising 25,000 streets in a 10km radius of Charing Cross Station. They then test their memories in a notorious exam called “The Knowledge”.

Studies show that this intensive training changes their brains and, as a result, London cab drivers have a larger-than-average hippocampus – the memory centre of the brain.

If you can alter your brain in a similar way, you may be able to stay mentally healthy for longer as you age.

Leveraging neuroplasticity could help you slow mental decline

As you age, your brain naturally loses cells and neural connections. This is why many people experience gradual mental decline and memory issues in their later years.

You may assume that this is an unavoidable consequence of aging, but that isn’t necessarily true. If you leverage brain plasticity and encourage the formation of new brain cells and neural pathways, you could counteract some of the natural decline that you experience.

This doesn’t mean that you can completely avoid mental decline, but you may be able to slow it by keeping your brain active as you get older.

Learning something new helps your brain develop in adulthood

When you are young, you spend most of your time learning. However, as an adult, you are less likely to develop new skills and expand your brain. If you keep learning throughout your life, you can encourage brain plasticity.

For example, studies show that learning to play a musical instrument or creating art can improve your memory and attention span.

Learning a foreign language can also increase the size of your hippocampus, just like the London cab drivers.

Even if you only spend a few minutes a day learning something new, it could have a positive effect on your brain health in the future.

Regular exercise encourages brain plasticity

You are likely to be aware of the physical health benefits of exercise and we often hear about how it could reduce the chances of mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. However, you may not be aware that it can also keep your brain supple because it promotes neuroplasticity.

According to Harvard Health, exercise causes the release of “growth factors” – chemicals that encourage new cell growth in the brain and protect existing cells.

Numerous studies have shown that areas of the brain that deal with thinking and memory processing are larger in people who exercise regularly.

Eating the right foods could improve your brain health

Changing your diet could give your brain the building blocks it needs to grow, underpinning a lot of the benefits of regular learning and exercise.

There are several important vitamins and nutrients that could increase neuroplasticity. Common foods and drinks that contain these ingredients include:

  • Nuts and seeds
  • Fish
  • Beans
  • Berries
  • Leafy greens
  • Dark chocolate
  • Green tea.

By introducing these foods and drinks to your diet, you may be able to protect your brain health and develop your cognitive abilities as you age.

Following these simple steps to leverage brain plasticity could help you reduce the chances of cognitive issues in your later years.

Get in touch

Get in touch or email us at to speak to your financial adviser.

Posted in Blog.