Within hours of the unconscionable shooting of Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, the discussion turned to Giffords’ prognosis. The phrase ‘cautiously optimistic’ smattered the evening newscasts. In Giffords’ favour is a wealth of research indicating that undamaged areas of the brain can compensate for damage to brain areas that control language, movement, and even memory and attention.

The brain’s plasticity, also known as ‘neuroplasticity’, refers to the brain’s malleability, or ability to adapt in response to new experiences. The concept of neuroplasticity is relatively new; just a few decades ago, scientists believed that the brain was hardwired, and thus ‘fixed’. The times they are a-changing, and indeed, on February 26, 2010, ‘plasticity’ was knighted Word of The Day by the New York Times.

Neuroplasticity has applications in a number of facets of neurological inquiry.  For example, plasticity is relevant to stroke recovery and rehabilitation. Plasticity is also the cornerstone of studies that suggest that healthy aging (stimulating social interactions, regular exercise, and a healthy diet) can one day defend against Alzheimer’s Disease. The success of a cochlear implant is dependent on some degree of neural plasticity. When a child suffering from intractable seizures undergoes a hemispherectomy to remove half or a portion of half of the damaged side of their brain that is contributing to the seizure activity, plasticity allows the remaining brain to take over some of the functions of the lost hemisphere.

If your interest is piqued, here are some on-point links:

•  January 3, 2011 Newsweek article: Can You Build a Better Brain?
•  Oliver Sacks’ latest book: The Mind’s Eye (released October 26, 2010)
•  September 30, 2010 episode of CBC’s The Current: an interview with neuroplasticity pioneer Norman Doidge, M.D.
•  November 28, 2008 episode of CBC’s The Nature of Things: The Brain That Changes Itself
•  January 19, 2007 issue of TIME magazine: How the Brain Rewires Itself

Jennifer Hartman, guest blogger