Neuroplasticity is a term that you may have heard used in relation to trauma treatment. It discusses how the brain changes and adapts and how new pathways can be created in response to trauma and recovery.
What Is Neuroplasticity?
The brain is home to around 100 billion neurons. Initially, scientists thought that the creation of new neurons stopped soon after birth, but it has since been proven that the brain can create new pathways, neurons, and connections throughout life. This is the concept of neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to create new pathways and neurons.
There are two types of neuroplasticity:
- Structural plasticity – the brain’s ability to change its structure due to learning and experiencing new things.
- Functional plasticity – the brain’s ability to move functions from damaged areas to undamaged areas.
As we learn and grow as children, our brains constantly adapt and change. By age 3, there are approximately 15,000 synapses to a neuron, which relay information between each other. Adults, however, only have around half that amount as the brain eliminates unused connections and strengthens others in a process known as synaptic pruning. Often occurring in adolescence, synaptic pruning helps people adapt to their environments.
However, neuroplasticity is not always positive. Detrimental changes can be caused by traumatic brain injuries, substance use, and traumatic experiences.
Trauma and the Brain
People who have experienced traumatic events will often experience changes within their brains. For example, when experiencing a trigger that reminds them of their trauma, they may go into fight, flight, or freeze mode, despite being physically safe and in a non-threatening space. This is partially thanks to the reptilian part of the brain, the oldest section of the brain that is responsible for basic survival.
Trauma also affects the brain’s limbic system. Here, we experience emotions and are warned about dangerous situations. When people experience an event, it is processed by the thalamus, which filters through the information and sends anything relevant to the amygdala, warning of any potential danger. The information is also sent to the frontal lobe, which allows us to comprehend what has happened. However, the amygdala processes things faster to enable us to escape danger quickly.
Experiencing trauma weakens the relationships between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is part of the neocortex, the part of the brain that understands abstract thoughts and language. However, trauma weakens the prefrontal cortex and, combined with an overactive amygdala, creates the perfect storm. This can lead to strong emotional reactions to triggers, causing those struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to avoid situations or places that remind them of their trauma.
Brain scans have also found that traumatic events cause a decrease in activity in Broca’s area, an area in the neocortex responsible for speech. At the same time, there is increased activity in the right side of the brain, where memories associated with sound, touch, and smell are stored. Therefore, trauma is not experienced as a defined story but rather as a series of experienced memories of images, sensations, sounds, and emotions.
Neuroplasticity and Trauma
Neuroplasticity can help those struggling with trauma change their neural pathways and alter unhealthy coping mechanisms or negative thoughts associated with their trauma. Small changes repeated frequently can rewire the brain and strengthen new neurons by creating new, healthy habits, overriding the wired-in responses caused by trauma.
There are many benefits of neuroplasticity, such as:
- Strengthening healthy pathways in the brain
- Learning new things
- Enhancing cognitive abilities
- Improvements that may boost brain fitness
When trying to create these new habits and change old pathways, it may seem as though they are not working. However, it can take many repetitions to create and strengthen them. Eventually, new networks can help you manage triggers and turn to healthier coping mechanisms.
There are many things that you can do to improve your neuroplasticity, such as:
- Getting more rest – Sleep plays a significant role in brain growth, recovery, and physical and mental health. Research has also found that sleep can improve dendritic growth in the brain. As dendrites are the growths on the end of neurons that transmit information, getting more sleep can help boost neuroplasticity.
- Exercising – Exercising has many benefits for your brain. One study found that exercise plays a key role in new neuron formation in the hippocampus, the brain area responsible for memory. Try walking, weight training, and swimming exercises to boost neuroplasticity!
- Seeking enrichment – Having an enriching environment in which to learn and grow is great for encouraging neuroplasticity. You may want to try things such as travelling to a new country, creating art, exploring new places, or learning an instrument.
However, for those struggling with deep trauma and PTSD, focusing on neuroplasticity may not be enough to combat symptoms. In this case, do not hesitate to reach out for professional help. Therapists can help create meaningful changes within the brain and the body.
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to forge new pathways and create new connections between neurons. Although it can be negative, as those who have experienced trauma also experience brain changes, it can also be a positive force.
Those struggling with PTSD can utilise the concept of neuroplasticity to create positive changes within their brains that allow them to create new pathways that can strengthen areas that may have been affected by trauma.
If you have a client or know of someone struggling with trauma, reach out to us at Khiron Clinics. We believe that we can improve therapeutic outcomes and avoid misdiagnosis by providing an effective residential programme and outpatient therapies addressing underlying psychological trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to realistic, long-lasting recovery. For more information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).
 Li W, Ma L, Yang G, Gan WB. REM sleep selectively prunes and maintains new synapses in development and learning. Nat Neurosci. 2017;20(3):427-437. doi:10.1038/nn.4479
 Liu PZ, Nusslock R. Exercise-mediated neurogenesis in the hippocampus via BDNF. Front Neurosci. 2018;12:52. doi:10.3389/fnins.2018.00052