Grace Lindsay, a neuroscience graduate student from Columbia University, is guest blogging about neuroplasticity for our “Tales from the Lab” series. This is Grace’s second blog post.
Plasticity is a necessary and powerful force in the developing brain. By adulthood, however, things have mostly settled down. But every now and then, there are events that can upturn the relative stability of the adult brain, forcing a rearrangement of its otherwise consistent connections.
Stroke is one such event. The cutoff of blood to brain tissues leads to the death of neurons, disrupting the neural network in and around the affected region. In a frantic and somewhat messy attempt to salvage what remains, the brain responds by releasing a molecular cocktail to encourage the growth of new cells and of new axons on existing cells, trying to reestablish the lost connections. But this attempt to reconnect is largely random and time sensitive; it rarely is able to restore the brain to the way it was before the stroke. Scientists are studying how to best intervene to enhance the brain’s natural response to injury and improve stroke outcomes.
Photo courtesy of Peter W. Halligan, Cardiff University
While this ability of the cortex to rearrange itself can be damaging, it can also be utilized. Prosthetic devices such as cochlear implants rely on it. Over time and use, the brain learns how to properly process inputs it gets from the implant, allowing a person to improve in important areas such as speech perception. The double-edged nature of the brain’s dramatic response to dramatic change can be fully appreciated.
Grace Lindsay is a first-year Ph.D. student in the Neurobiology and Behavior Program at Columbia University. She got her BS in neuroscience from the University of Pittsburgh in 2011 and then spent a year doing research at the Bernstein Center in Freiburg, Germany. She blogs about all things neuroscience at neurdiness.wordpress.com.