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Neural plasticity: can the brain retain its learning capacity as we age?

Image credit: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/wdev.216/full%E2%80%9D%20openin=%E2%80%9D_self

Subash Chapagain
Subash Chapagain Sep 01, 2020
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What happens to the brain when we become old? Is there a way for eternal youth for the brain?
The contextual malleability of the human (or any other) brain by which it allows for the nervous system to modify its connections is called neural plasticity. The brain is capable of changing its activity dynamically in response to intrinsic or extrinsic stimuli by reorganizing its structure, functions, or connections. Neurons have a fundamental ability to modulate the strength and efficacy of synaptic transmission via a gamut of activity-dependent mechanisms, typically referred to as synaptic plasticity. This peculiar phenomenon has been known to be involved in learning and memory, brain development and homeostasis, sensorial training, as well as recovery from brain damages and lesions. Initially not recognized by mainstream neuroscience- shadowed by the confounded observations that the brain shrinks at different levels during the ageing process- neuroplasticity has now reclaimed its importance in neurobiology research and clinical applications as well.

Since the conceptualization of neural plasticity as a feature of the nervous system, enough empirical evidence has been collected that supports the idea that we can continue to learn new skills, activities and languages even into the old age. So, how does this process work at the organizational level in the brain?

Basically, the following two models are of importance when it comes to the neuronal ability of remoulding and holding on to that renewed mould that has eventual cognitive implications: a) Hebbian Plasticity:
Based on Donald Hebb’s theory of cognition and learning from the 1940s, it is deemed that
organized activity within a brain circuit could be sustained, and, importantly re-implemented in the future, if i) neurons were organized so that a circuit could be self-exciting and therefore sustain its own activity for some period of time and ii) if selective strengthening of the neurons has occurred between co-active neurons. This aforementioned phenomenon can be aptly summarized by the neuroscience’s famous catchphrase ‘Neurons that fire together, wire together.’ Thus, the ability of the brain to adapt to and remember new knowledge involves structural and biochemical modifications at the synaptic level, forming new connections and corroborating the ones that share a spatial-temporal similarity of excitation and inhibition.

b) Large scale activity-induced reorganization in response to experience:
Each part of the cortical region of the brain represents its functional motor/sensory counterpart in the other parts of the body. This topographic mapping of the brain, as shown by many experiments, is readjusted to reflect the experience. For instance, in musicians that play
stringed instruments, sensory representations of the left digits (which finger the strings) are larger than the representations found in typical people.

The understanding of the impact of neuroplasticity on cognitive abilities and its relation to the process of ageing can aid in the development of novel therapeutic strategies to overcome the deleterious effects occurring during the ageing process. One of the possible interventions comes from the concept of Contextual Interference Effect whereby some minor tweaks in the protocols of teaching/learning practices might have varying levels of positive effects on the acquisition of new set(s) of skills, even in old age. This provides new insight for reversing the negative ramifications of ageing when it comes to learning and cognition.

[1]Elbert T, Pantev C, Wienbruch C, Rockstroh B, Taub E. Increased cortical representation of the fingers of the left hand in string players. Science 1995, 270:305–307

[2]Hebb DO. The Organization of Behavior: A Neuropsychological Theory. New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc; 1949.

[3]R. Peters, “Ageing and the brain,” Postgraduate Medical Journal, vol. 82, no. 964, pp. 84–88, 2006.

[4]Mateos-Aparicio P, Rodríguez-Moreno A. The Impact of Studying Brain Plasticity. Front Cell Neurosci. 2019;13:66. Published 2019 Feb 27. doi:10.3389/fncel.2019.00066

[5]Pauwels L, Chalavi S, Gooijers J, et al. Challenge to Promote Change: The Neural Basis of the Contextual Interference Effect in Young and Older Adults. J Neurosci. 2018;38(13):3333-3345. DOI:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2640-17.2018

[6]Giurgola, S., Pisoni, A., Maravita, A., Vallar, G., & Bolognini, N. (2019). Somatosensory cortical representation of the body size. Human Brain Mapping. https://doi.org/10.1002/hbm.24614

[7]Mauricio Arcos-Burgos, Francisco Lopera, Diego Sepulveda-Falla, Claudio Mastronardi Neural Plasticity during Aging, 2019 ,Neural Plasticity doi:10.1155/2019/6042132

Creative contributions

Randomized training is better than categorized(blocked) training for skill retention

Subash Chapagain
Subash Chapagain Sep 07, 2020
The practice of different tasks in a random order induces better retention than practising them in a blocked order, a phenomenon known as the contextual interference (CI) effect [1]. This phenomenon, though counterintuitive in the first look, has been reported to be useful in a number of studies that involved teaching a new set of skills to people of old age and people with some neurodegenerative disorders. Though the higher levels of contextual interference lead to poorer performance during the practice sessions, the eventual retention and transfer performance are always better than in the training that involves a blocked session. In a study where the researchers compared the effects of such random practising versus a categorized practice among both young and older adults, they found that older adults retained sequences better when trained in a random condition than in a blocked condition, although the random condition incurs greater task-switching costs in older adults during practice [2]. In another similar research involving aged subjects with Parkinson's disease, the findings showed that employing a cognitively demanding practice environment improved motor skill learning [3]. The neural basis for these clinically promising observations has been analysed. During the random mode of the practice session, the frequent switching of tasks requires more attention to be deployed to the external features (such as visual) of the task at hand for detailed processing of the stimulus, as well as the movement-generated visual feedback. The learner integrates this visual information highly attentively with his/her somatosensory processing, coupling this with an appropriate motor program for each subtask. A random practice context is hence expected to provoke higher involvement of externally driven movements, bypassing the network encompassing the impaired (or aged) brain region. Another finding worth mentioning from the same study is that with practice, the activity in the Default Mode Network (DMN) regions in the brain decreases significantly in the random group as compared to the blocked group. As it is known that DMN regions are particularly vulnerable to ageing effects, decreased activity in the region might help explain why the training-induced ability to suppress this core region is beneficial for skill retrieval[4]. References: 1. Shea JB, Morgan R (1979) Contextual interference effects on the acquisition, retention, and transfer of a motor skill. J Exp Psychol Hum Learn Mem 5:179–187. doi:10.1037/0278-7393.5.2.179 2.Lin CH, Wu AD, Udompholkul P, Knowlton BJ. Contextual interference effects in sequence learning for young and older adults. Psychol Aging. 2010;25(4):929-939. doi:10.1037/a0020196 3. Sidaway, B., Ala, B., Baughman, K., Glidden, J., Cowie, S., Peabody, A., Roundy, D., Spaulding, J., Stephens, R., & Wright, D. L. (2016). Contextual interference can facilitate motor learning in older adults and in individuals with Parkinson's disease. Journal of Motor Behavior, 48(6), 509–518. https://doi.org/10.1080/00222895.2016.1152221 4. Pauwels, L., Chalavi, S., Gooijers, J., Maes, C., Albouy, G., Sunaert, S., & Swinnen, S. P. (2018). Challenge to Promote Change: The Neural Basis of the Contextual Interference Effect in Young and Older Adults. The Journal of Neuroscience, 38(13), 3333–3345. https://doi.org/10.1523/jneurosci.2640-17.2018
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