Understanding Brain Plasticity and Synaptic Function

Brain plasticity is one of the most important principles of neuroscience and human development. The term simply refers to the brain’s ability to grow, change, adapt, and be flexible. For example, a baby learning a language uses brain plasticity to absorb the new content, form the brain, and strengthen the connections in the language center of the brain. The grey matter of the baby, for example, can actually expand, or shrink, the more or less it speaks. The brain can literally rewire itself! Without brain plasticity, humans would not be humans.

Brain plasticity has been a term frequently used in neurodegenerative disease treatment when rebuilding brain strength and creating “brain resources” for later. More research is needed about the use of brain plasticity to ward off and mitigate neurodegenerative diseases.

However, the topic of today is not how brain plasticity can be harnessed to cure diseases, but rather recent developments being made to advance our understanding of the term.

Interestingly, a study just released from the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT found that brain plasticity is not as simple as it seems. One would think that the brain becomes stronger, it just does, no other brain areas are compromised. However, the brain is not that simple, it is a complicated array of functions. Unfourtntly for humans, when synapses strengthen, neighboring ones weaken.

“Collective behaviors of complex systems always have simple rules,” says Sur, the Paul E. and Lilah Newton Professor of Neuroscience in the Picower Institute and the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT. “When one synapse goes up, within 50 micrometers there is a decrease in the strength of other synapses using a well-defined molecular mechanism.”

~ Dr. Lilah Newton

Yet, that revelation seems obvious. The concept of brain plasticity is not simply about brain strengthening but also weakening. However, it isn’t so obvious, the finding is actually quite revolutionary.

The study forced mice to strengthen a synaptic function they were not used too, in other words, forcing the synapses to fire in an opposite fashion. As they repeated the synapse firing, it became stronger. For example, they forced one eye of the mouse to remain closed, while forcing the other to remain open. The ability of the open eye to function and see then strengthened due to use, while the closed eye weakened due to lack of use.

Unforurtnatly, the brain can get overwhelmed. When one task becomes very strong and perfect, such as the eye example, it weakens nearby synapses to compensate and level the work balance.

The study found that more AMPA receptor action meant stronger neurons, while less meant weaker ones. The Arc brain protein controls AMPA receptor function, which is therefore essential to brain plasticity. More research is needed to understand arc and how it communicates with AMPA receptors.

More research is needed to corroborate this groundbreaking theory, and see how it could change our understanding of the brain. Needless to say, the study may yield revolutionary breakthroughs moving forward, and may hold the key to solving neurodegenerative disorders.


[1] https://www.brainhq.com/brain-resources/brain-plasticity/what-is-brain-plasticity

[2] http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-scientists-discover-fundamental-rule-of-brain-plasticity-0622.

[3] https://www.hindawi.com/journals/np/si/903065/cfp/

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3419487/

[5] http://science.sciencemag.org/content/360/6395/1349

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