Written for The Tutor Team published April 2019.
In my previous blog we explored lifestyle factors that can help your brain support your memory. In this blog we will discover what neuroplasticity really means and what research shows us about how we can try to improve it.
The brain is a muscle
The brain is a muscle the more we use it and practice the stronger it becomes. Younger brains have more plasticity. As we age we lose plasticity, just like we can experience muscle wastage if we stop using a muscle in our body. The body will only fuel parts of the brain that are being used. The brain uses 25-30% of our nutrients and as it cannot conserve energy it has to be extremely efficient. In reality this explains why we find it hard to break habits or form new behaviours, because our brain has to work incredibly hard to create the new pathways.
Neuroplasticity refers to how our brain changes its structure and organisation as we experience, learn and adapt to our environment. It is part of our evolutionary adaptation to help our species learn from experience and survive.
Neurogenesis is the brains ability to make new neurons (Thuret, 2019). According to Dr Thuret, Kings College London, we can make 700 new neurons a day under the right conditions.
Scientists believe that BDNF (Brain-derived neurotrophic factor) is the primary agent responsible for neuroplasticity. It is a type of neurotransmitter that helps neurons to connect and combine, grow and repair. BDNF has also been found to increase our long term memory storage and improve our alertness (Bekinschtein et al. 2008).
Sleep is vital for memory storage, Bachmam et al. (2012) reported that BDNF improves sleep, in particular slow wave sleep. During slow wave sleep growth and repair hormones are released which would support new memories being formed as well as the brain reorganising.
Lots of researchers around the world are investigating what factors increase and decrease our levels of BDNF. Much of the research is fairly new and exploratory which means that lots of studies have been carried out on mice. However, they are still useful in building our understanding of neuroplasticity and memory.
Spring, summer and sunlight
Molendijk et al (2012) studied 2851 people and found that they had higher levels of BDNF in the spring and summer months. Although the effect sizes were moderate the authors suggest that spending 30 minutes in the sunshine can boost your BDNF levels.
Ferris, Williams & Shen (2007) used endurance cycling to measure the impact on BDNF. There was a 30% increase in BDNF after 30 minutes of cycling, and a positive relationship between aerobic intensity and BDNF. Cognitive function also improved significantly after exercise.
Whole coffee fruit
Unfortunately a cup of coffee doesn’t count, however there are supplements available for the whole coffee fruit, sometimes referred to as the coffee cherry. The fruit is what contains the bean(s). Reyes-Izquierdo et al. (2013) found that 60 minutes after taking the supplement BDNF levels doubled.
Other research shows that stress and insomnia decrease BDNF levels, but that sleep moderates the effects of stress. So if your child is feeling stressed then getting a good night’s sleep can really help to minimise the effects of stress.
Making new habits
According to Dr Swart the best way to form new behaviours or habits is to prime the brain. Take something small, not too challenging but interesting that you want to do everyday or regularly. In a previous blog post I talked about 5 minute revision, this is a similar idea. Start small, do something a bit different to usual.
She also suggests creating a daily mantra “I will revise every day”, the wording is important saying you won’t do something isn’t effective. Dr Swart’s research has also found that neural changes were most likely to happen when we enjoyed doing something.
Research also shows that habits grow. One study found that by asking participants to do some weight training, they ended up increasing their overall exercise, eating more healthily and drinking less alcohol. Starting small with revising one subject a day could help other positive behaviours at school and home.
Take home messages
The brain is a muscle that needs exercise, good nutrition and rest
It is possible to learn new skills, even if they seem impossible
Habits are difficult to break and hard to form
Small steps are fundamental to success
Try to learn new things in a fun way