Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Brain Plasticity

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on September 25, 2012

Schizophrenia is a problem with brain mapping, so says Sophia Vinogradov MD, a psychiatrist from UC San Francisco. As such, cognitive enhancing programs might, and she said might at least twenty times during this one hour Grand Rounds, improve the outcome of this dreaded disease. She reminded the audience, filled with psychiatrists, that it was only twenty years ago that we were all taught that the brain stopped changing somewhere around age fifteen. Now, we know that the brain changes throughout one’s lifetime, albeit at different rates of change as we age. Learning, she reminded us takes place with repetition. I think we all know that! More specifically, she taught us that the first time we learn a new skill, we are tentative, but with intensive repetition, that skill, like playing scales on a piano, becomes automatic. I think we all know that too. This automatic quality to a new skill is evidence that we have created a new “brain map”. As such, we can train our brain, if we apply intense repetition, to form new neural connections, and hence new skill sets. Little children, it seems to me, need less repetition to develop new brain maps, and hence their brains are more plastic. Aging, in other words, demands from us that we have to work harder to acquire new ways of thinking, but the good news, is that we can expand our brain, literally. Phew!

4 Responses to “Brain Plasticity”

  1. Jon said

    The concept of training one’s brain has expanded as I have learned about it over the years. Indeed, we have each learned new skills and have improved those skills through inculcation. That this slows with age is well understood; however, there is some satisfaction to those of use no longer in our youth that you actually can teach an old dog new tricks – albeit more slowly.

    What is new to me in this post is 1) that schizophrenia is a problem with brain mapping, and 2) what the cognitive enhancing programs that might improve the condition would be. Is there any simple way to elaborate on these points?

    • Shirah said

      Thanks, Jon.
      The concept of schizophrenia as a problem with brain mapping, is for example, the paranoid ideation, often associated with schizophrenia is the brain misinterpreting information which causes the individual internal distress. This is a “faulty map” so to speak. Cognitive enhancing programs can re-train the brain to understand that what the individual codes as paranoia, can be re-learned as something to be ignored. In other words, the person will learn how to de-code the signals of their brain differently.

  2. Shelly said

    Since schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are closely related, did she mention anything about those “faulty maps” in the second disease (bipolar disease)? Are cognitive issues symptoms noted in both disorders as side effects of the medications used to treat them? At what age would you say that our brains become “less plastic” and repetition becomes more necessary?

    • Shirah said

      She did not, but I would assume it would apply to bipolar as well. Cognitive issues are both symptoms of the disorder AND side effects of medication. In general, the brain is fully formed between the ages of 15 and 25. The significant decrease in plasticiity occurs around 40-50. Thanks.

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