SWISS MEDICAL EXPERTISE: ZURICH, MALLORCA, LONDON, NEW YORK

4 Minutes

Edited & medically reviewed by THE BALANCE Team
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When we understand the brain’s capacity to reorganise and reform itself—known clinically as neuroplasticity—we gain an insight into how to transform our approach to mental health and well-being. Neuroplasticity is what allows us to learn new skills, form memories, and even overcome mental challenges like depression and anxiety. Once we understand how the brain works, it’s much easier to change it. In order to understand this topic more, we sat down with our Founder & CEO, Abdullah Boulad, to learn about how it works, the best practices to enhance it, and how it gives us insight into treating addiction.

Neuroplasticity

At its core, neuroplasticity is about change. Every experience, thought, emotion, and learning process we undergo reshapes our brain’s physical structure, enabling us to adapt to new situations, overcome challenges, and heal from psychological trauma. Until recently, it was believed that the brain stopped changing after adolescence. But this has been proven false. Our brains can actually change and evolve throughout all of adulthood. This ability to change is what neuroplasticity is all about.

When we learn something new, engage in new activities, or even rethink old patterns, the connections between neurons in the brain reorganise. This plasticity is the brain’s way of tuning itself to meet the demands of its environment. Abdullah Boulad explains: “Any day to day tasks and routine are key to forming your future self. This means that once you decide to take up a new hobby, practice those piano scales, rehearse choreography, or just sit down and write, your brain’s neurons will start firing up, and the more you practice the more pathways are created.” He goes on, “On the other end of the spectrum, not using a specific skill will only put those pathways to sleep, and then disregard them.” We can all rewire our brains based on our needs, shaping our path for the hours, days, or even years ahead.

There are three main mental health treatments that use the principles of neuroplasticity. The first is cognitive-behavioural therapy or CBT. This works to help patients identify and change destructive thought patterns that have a negative influence on behaviour and emotions. Through repetitive practice of new thought patterns, CBT can significantly change the brains structure, essentially rewiring it to create healthier thinking habits and responses to stress and anxiety. CBT afters the brain circuits that are involved in regulating emotions.

The second practice is mindfulness-based stress reduction (MSBR) which trains the brain to focus on the present moment and become aware of thoughts and sensations without judgement, MBSR can modify neural pathways associated with stress and anxiety. This has been shown to enhance memory, self awareness, and empathy.

The third practice is neurofeedback sessions which involve monitoring the brain’s electrical activity and providing real-time feedback to encourage specific brain activities. It is based on the concept that by reinforcing certain brainwave patterns, it can promote change in neural networks. This practice has been proven to improve symptoms in conditions like ADHD, anxiety, and depressive disorders.

To use neuroplasticity in everyday life, incorporating practical strategies that promote brain health and cognitive flexibility is very important. One of the most common practices is mindfulness and meditation. When you welcome your mind into what you are doing, you promote the areas of the brain linked to self-awareness and stress reduction. Activities like learning new languages, solving puzzles, or playing musical instruments not only increase neural connections but also enhance cognitive functions like memory and problems solving skills. When we challenge the brain, we encourage new synaptic connections and can even protect against cognitive decline.

Abdullah adds: “One of the best ways to enhance neuroplasticity is through alternative fitness routines like pre/pointe ballet, dancing, or aerial fitness. These exercises are multidirectional and will keep your heart and muscles alert.” Physical activity increases blood flow to the brain and elevates brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which support the growth of new neurons.

When someone becomes addicted to a substance, it activates the reward system in the brain. This allows negative habits to develop quite easily on the ability to create immediate happiness, satisfaction, and gratification. This behaviour cycle changes the brain, and strengthens the synapses that reinforce the need for the substance. As a person continues the behaviour, a tolerance builds up. Abdullah explains: “All addictions are neuroplasticity diseases, and it’s important to treat them as such.” It is not the detox of the body that will heal an addict, but the understanding of cues and triggers that flare the desire to take the drug in the first place. Now that we understand the brain’s ability to change, treatment allows us to correct the signalling and restore connections to make that change happen.

Our brain’s have the ability to change themselves. Until recently, it was believed that our brains remained static after adolescence. Now, research proves otherwise. Our brains are constantly evolving. When we learn new things, challenge ourselves, and engage in more physical activity we create new neural pathways in the brain. The more we practice, the more they fire up. This knowledge informs how we are able to treat mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, and addiction. All addictions are neuroplasticity diseases, and should be treated as such.

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