Neuroplasticity & Mental Wellness: Our Path Forward

Lawrence Choy, MD
Nov 5, 2018 · 7 min read
Illustration by Hendrasu (Shutterstock)

I am a member of the Mental Wellness Initiative of the Global Wellness Institute. We recently published our White Paper — Mental Wellness: Pathways, Evidence and Horizons. I contributed a section on neuroplasticity, which will be shared in the following and upcoming posts.

Mental wellness refers to our psychological and emotional health. The term also encompasses the general sense of well-being in the physical, social, occupational, spiritual, financial, and environmental aspects of our lives. It is an active lifelong process that involves making conscious and intentional choices toward living a healthy, purposeful, and fulfilling life. It enables us to realize our potential, cope with daily stresses, work productively, and contribute meaningfully to our community and society.

Wellness practices have existed for centuries and millennia in promoting health and harmony. However, we were unable to provide a “hard science” explanation for their underlying benefits until the past few decades, thanks in large part to the advent of revolutionizing research technologies in brain imaging and molecular genetics. During the 1990’s, coined the Decade of the Brain, our understanding of the most complex structure in the universe underwent a radical paradigm shift. At the time, the scientific community was quite convinced the brain was fixed and incapable of change when we reach our adult age. Moreover, we thought everyone was born with a fixed number of brain cells that would decline inevitably with age, without a chance to regenerate. This bleak belief implied that we were not able to change much nor significantly improve ourselves once we reach adulthood. As the saying goes,”You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

Fortunately, we were all proven wrong. We discovered stem cells actually exist in the adult brain. Furthermore, these newborn brain cells have the capacity to develop into mature functional neurons to aid in memory and learning in a remarkable process called Neurogenesis. In other words, we can add gigabytes and upgrade our brain’s operating system in our old age!

We now have substantial scientific evidence that explains how wellness habits promote our brain to change and rewire itself through a lifelong process termed Neuroplasticity. The strengthening and integration of the neural connections in the higher level brain regions, namely the prefrontal cortex (PFC), are fundamental in the benefits of wellness practices.

In gaining a deeper understanding of neuroplasticity and its practical applications, we can better harness its immeasurable potential, empowering ourselves and each other toward meaningful growth and positive change. We will ensure that we not only survive in our fast-changing modern day world, but learn to thrive both individually and collectively in a shifting landscape of unpredictability and uncertainty. With the awareness, knowledge, and practice of self-directed neuroplasticity, we can achieve mental and overall wellness.


Illustration by Rost9 (Shutterstock)

Neuroplasticity simply means change in the nervous system. It refers to our brain’s intrinsic and dynamic ability to continuously alter its structure and function throughout our lifetime. Neural changes occur on multiple levels, ranging from the microscopic to the observable and behavioral. It happens on different time scales, spanning mere milliseconds to years and decades.

Brain plasticity can be positive, adaptive, and favorable or negative, dysfunctional, and undesirable. Positive neural changes are reflected in improved capabilities and performance as seen in the acquisition of knowledge or skill. On the other hand, negative plasticity is manifested as a decline or loss of functional ability, occurring in normal aging, brain injury, and strokes. Bad habits, drug addiction, and chronic pain are examples of unwanted maladaptive plasticity.

Time is of the essence in neuroplasticity. Across our lifespan, age may be the most important factor in determining our brain’s capacity for change. Neuroplasticity is strongest during our first five years of life (Fig. 1). In this early critical period of activity-dependent plasticity, neural connections are formed at an immensely rapid pace. This window of heightened plasticity provides us with the invaluable ability to learn with enormous ease. We can acquire new skills through mere observation, immersion, and interactions in our social environment. In this critical period, we need to receive basic social experiences and multi-sensory stimulation, or we may risk becoming incapable of acquiring the more advanced skills and abilities later in life.

Experiences Build Brain Architecture

Figure 1. Human Brain Development. Nelson, CA (reused with permission)

Our brain’s plasticity potential declines exponentially during the first five years and then steadily thereafter, reflecting both a decrease in the rate of formation of neural connections and an increase in the rate of pruning of unused connections. These neural changes vary in rate and time span across different regions of the brain, such that sensory and language areas of the brain mature earlier and are less able to change later in life. During the developmentally sensitive periods of “Use it or lose it”, neural connections become stronger and more permanent through repeated use, while connections weaken and prune off if they are unused. Hence, repetition is the key to learning and mastery.

Throughout childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood, our PFC remains remarkably plastic, forming extensive connections and networks with other brain regions to develop higher cognitive functions and skills, collectively known as executive functions. The higher level regions of the brain subserving executive function skills have sensitive periods of plasticity in early childhood and again in adolescence (Fig. 2). The underlying process reflecting this wide-ranging plasticity is aptly described in the neuroscience axiom — “Neurons that fire together, wire together. Neurons that fire apart, wire apart.

Figure 2. Executive Function Skills Build into the Early Adult Years. Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (reused with permission)

Across the lifespan, the amount of physiological effort required to form new neural connections increases over time (Fig. 3). In our adolescence, we have to apply greater effort to learn something new than in childhood. After we reach early adulthood, learning and getting rid of bad habits become increasingly difficult to achieve. Thus, if we want to learn a new skill or get rid of an undesirable habit, it is truly best to start sooner than later.

Figure 3. Brain Plasticity Across the Lifespan. Pat Levitt (reused with permission).

In our middle to late adulthood, our aging brain continues to undergo gradual changes in structure and function. Most of the normal age-related neural changes manifest as declines in cognitive abilities, affecting domains such as attention, learning, memory, and processing speed.

It is important to emphasize that in early childhood, we inherently lack autonomy and capacity to make informed decisions. Consequently, we are fully dependent on our parents, caregivers, and other influential people to nurture and guide us in the proper direction towards a meaningful and productive life. Furthermore, early life exposure to trauma or adversities can have profound stress-related effects on the brain with potential lifelong consequences.

Under prolonged periods of stress, the activity of the amygdala, our emotional processing center, predominates over our PFC (Fig 4.). This “fight, flight, or freeze” stress response activates lower level neural pathways, directing our brain’s plasticity in favor of adapting to a life in survival mode. Psychosocial stressors in childhood such as poverty, parental separation and divorce, emotional neglect, psychological, physical or sexual abuse, and/or mental illness and substance use in our home environment adversely impact the development of our PFC. A life in a chronic stress state conditions us to become anxious, defensive, and reactive, rather than curious and playful. We may be at risk of perpetual struggles in life, facing difficulties and failures in school, work, and relationships. Achieving mental wellness in adulthood may be challenging and even perceived as unattainable in extreme cases.

Figure 4. Prefrontal cortical versus amygdala circuits: the switch from non-stress to stress conditions. Arnsten AFT (reused with permission).

Toxic Stress Derails Healthy Development

The negative effects of neglect and trauma from our past, however, can be mitigated and even overturned by enhancing positive neuroplasticity and committing to a life of Mental Wellness. With a deeper understanding of the effects and impact of our lifestyle choices, habits, and behaviors, we can empower ourselves to realize and harness our brain’s plasticity toward positive and transformative growth.

My next post features the science behind the practical applications of mental wellness practices in driving positive neuroplasticity in changing and rewiring the brain. Please click here to read!

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