Brain Plasticity

Although you might think that the structure of your brain is formed before you are born and does not change, this actually isn’t the case. As we grow and learn, the brain is constantly making new connections and pathways between different areas. It used to be believed that anything which had not been developed by a ‘critical period’ during childhood would be lost, with little change after this time, although we now know this is not true.

For example, our different skills and experiences can help to shape our brain. This has been particularly studied using musicians, as extensive practice and repetition of certain fine-tuned motor actions can result in more of the motor cortex being involved in directing the actions of the hand and fingers.

Pascual-Leone et al (1995) found that novices learning to play a simple exercise on a piano over 5 days showed an increase in size in the cortical areas involved in the movement of the fingers. Schlaugh (2001) carried out fMRI to compare the size of the intrasulcal length (part of the motor cortex) in professional musicians and controls, and found it was much longer for musicians in the right hemisphere (which controls the left hand). This is shown in the image below, taken from this paper.


It is through the process of brain plasticity that new memories are formed. Motor memories such as becoming more accomplished at music are one type of memory which alter the brain structure, but our personal memories also change our brain. This occurs through the process of Long-term Potentiation (LTP), which is the process of connections between cells at synapses strengthened. It mainly occurs in the hippocampus and other cortical areas responsible for our long term memories. This process is illustrated by the image below:


Brain plasticity is also encouraged in treatment and rehabilitation from brain injury. For example, after a stroke it has been found that giving excitatory stimulation to the damaged areas can improve function (e.g. improving language function – Szaflarski et al, 2011). Just by encouraging movement in people who have had a stroke can also help them to regain function of limbs on their impaired side.

Thank you for reading and don’t forget to check back next week for another post!



Visual Extinction

Visual Extinction is a condition caused by damage to the parietal lobe, and is similar, although distinct from Visual Neglect.

It is characterised by the ability to see stimuli in the opposite visual field to the brain damage, but only when there is no competition from other stimuli in the visual field on the same side as the brain damage. If there are stimuli in both visual fields then only the one which is projected to the intact side of the brain will be seen.

It is diagnosed using confrontation testing:
– the experimenter wiggles their left/right fingers or both in the air while sitting opposite the patient
– patient can detect each finger when they are presented separately
– however, if both are presented then they can only detect the finger on the left (assuming the right parietal lobe is damaged)

The video below shows a variation of this technique:

However, there are some circumstances in which extinction can be reduced.

Riddoch (2003) presented patients with pairs of objects, which were correctly or incorrectly presented for action. For example, a corkscrew pointing towards the cork in a wine bottle (correct), or at the bottom of the bottle (incorrect).
The results showed that they were better at reporting both items when they were correctly presented for action. When one item was extinguished, they were more likely to report the active item, even if it is in the impaired visual field.
Therefore, which object they reported was influenced by the interaction between them.
This finding was important as it suggests that extinction occurs quite late, in higher-order visual areas and there is some unconscious processing of extinguished items.

Like Neglect, extinction can also occur in motor actions, not just vision.
For example, several case studies have shown that patients can use both arms equally well separately, but become much worse at using their bad arm when doing so at the same time as the good arm.

Hope you enjoyed this post – don’t forget to check back soon for more!