Neuroplasticity: A brain changer
Written by Rebecca Perrott
In the ever-evolving world of neuroscience, one term stands out as a beacon of hope and fascination: neuroplasticity. It represents the extraordinary ability of our nervous system to adapt and optimize its limited resources in response to external signals. Picture this: our brains, the epicentre of our thoughts and actions, have the power to rewire themselves, forging new connections and generating fresh neurons. Isn't that mind-blowing?
Neuroplasticity, in essence, refers to the remarkable capability of the nervous system to alter its activity in response to both intrinsic and extrinsic stimuli. This adaptation can occur on multiple levels, encompassing structural changes, functional modifications, and even adjustments in the intricate network of synaptic connections between neurons. It's a complex dance of adaptation and transformation.
To grasp the true significance of neuroplasticity, let's explore its mechanisms. There are two primary avenues through which this extraordinary phenomenon takes place: neuronal regeneration or collateral sprouting and functional reorganization. These mechanisms form the building blocks of our brain's ability to change and evolve.
How the brain changes:
Neurogenesis: Continuous generation of new neurons in certain brain regions.
New synapses: The creation of new neural connections because of a new experience or skill
Strengthened synapses: Our brains have the ability to make long-lasting changes in the strength of neuronal connections. Practice makes perfect! Repetition and practice are key to strengthening neural connections.
Weakened synapses: Neural connections that aren’t used become weak.
Overall, brain plasticity allows the brain to constantly rewire and reshape itself. This is one of the most important discoveries in the world of neuroscience. Resulting in the use of technology to rewire the brain, optimise performance and improve learning. I’ve said it already but… Practice makes perfect. One area in which practice is particularly important, besides arithmetic and learning in the classroom, is sport. More recently, the worlds of sport and neuroscience have come together. But before we look into that let's take a look at why we should train our brains.
Why train the brain? Although we think our bodies are the star of the show by exhibiting extreme physical performance as seen by athletes, our brains have a large role to play in our success. From motor cognition and cognitive function to the realm of emotions, these factors collectively shape our performance, particularly in high-pressure scenarios. Sports training has evolved over the years to ensure athletes have optimal strength, skill and ability both physically and mentally. Cognitive training has been implemented for various professional athletes such as the Liverpool soccer team and Formula 1 drivers. This can be attributed to advances in technology applying cognitive neuroscience to sports psychology.
Neuroscience and sport
Neuroscience technology has been implemented into sports training, integrating physical practices and mental practices. Mental training has emerged as a popular method for helping participants develop and maintain effective mental skills. These skills are crucial for achieving optimal performance, enjoyment, and potential success in the competitive realm of sports. Neuro Performance training or NPT combines neurological fitness and physical fitness. This helps with defined skills development that can be specific to a particular individual. Ensuring individuals can develop the necessary skills for success. Furthermore, Neuroscience cognitive assessments can be used to improve and boost athletes' cognitive function and in turn, their game. Typical areas that are focused on are:
Attention and focus
Brain processing speed
Visual processing speed
Neuroscience technology can be used to improve existing talent and maintain health by preventing injury and recovery. By training the brain, athletes can improve reaction speeds and awareness allowing for reduced risk of injury and optimise play. This is particularly important due to the mental and physical demands on athletes when competing. Recently neuroscience technology has been used in formula one and Football to enhance performance.
Formula One drivers need to be physically strong and healthy to withstand the physical demands of driving at such high velocities. In addition to physical strength, they need to have good concentration and highly tuned nervous systems to react to other drivers, debris, and flags on the track. Time is of the essence with regard to F1, thus drivers need to have good peripheral vision and reaction time to respond to obstacles and other drivers. Peripheral vision is the ability to see everything visible to the eye outside the central area of focus or what you see out of the corner of your eye when looking straight ahead. Through peripheral awareness, drivers are able to see other cars and obstacles, allowing them to react to changes throughout the race. Due to the fast pace on the track, drivers need to be aware of their surroundings and react rapidly. By using lightboard exercises, drivers can improve reaction time and peripheral vision. For example:
The BATAK Professional is designed to improve hand-eye coordination, stamina, and reaction time under 'sports-like' conditions. The design is a lightboard consisting of twelve lights that are arranged at maximum stretch. The lights provide targets and light up in various patterns. Respondents will try to hit each light. Hits and misses are timed and scored on the lightboard. In addition to the lights, an infrared strike-back beam is used to strike at a player, adding points if the beam can be avoided.
To see an example of Formula One drivers using the Batak Professional watch below!
NeuroTracker is an application used to train the brain and improve mental agility, situational awareness, attention, executive function, and cognitive stamina. One of Liverpool's defenders, Trent Alexander-Arnold, has used NeuroTracker to improve vision and performance. Trent has identified the benefits of this training as awareness of his surroundings, the ability to identify space and anticipate opponents' movements, and more. West Ham United's goalkeepers have also been using NeuroTracker. Goalkeepers play a crucial role in every match and need to remain focused even when not in a dangerous position. NeuroTracker has helped these goalkeepers improve concentration, accounting for times when their minds may become tired, as well as enhancing mental agility. NeuroTracker offers advantages as it can be used with the guidance of professionals or at home, and it is compatible with various devices such as immersive displays (e.g., 3D TVs or projectors) as well as tablets, computers, or TVs using 3D anaglyph glasses. This cognitive training program has been utilized by professional athletes in the NFL, NBA, NHL, as well as elite special forces and others. The training consists of 3D multiple object tracking to exercise the brain. Multiple objects are moved, and players track the targets for several seconds before repeating the task. As athletes improve or change their level of focus, the target speed and the number of targets may increase or decrease. Furthermore, athletes or players can incorporate motor and complex decision-making tasks such as bouncing a ball while using the NeuroTracker program. This approach helps athletes manage both the physical and mental demands of their game.
To learn more about NeuroTracker watch a demo and Trent Alexander-Arnold’s story here:
Most of us aren’t F1 drivers, even with the number of fines one may have. Nor are we the stars of the Liverpool soccer team… But we can all benefit from training our brains.
References and further readings:
Family-focused eye care: Advanced eye care: Baton rouge. Advanced Eye Center |. (2022, December 5). https://www.advancedeyecenter.com/2021/11/26/what-it-takes-to-succeed-as-a-formula-1-driver/
Neuro-performance. Cognetic Movement. (n.d.). https://www.cogneticmovement.com/neuro-performance-training
Warranty. batpro. (n.d.). https://www.batak.com/batpro.htm
Xavi Valero: Remote training, Neurotracker and mentoring West Ham’s future goalkeepers. West Ham United F.C. (1970, June 29). https://www.whufc.com/news/articles/2020/may/06-may/xavi-valero-remote-training-neurotracker-and-mentoring-west-hams
YouTube. (2020, July 14). NeuroTrackerX demo 2020. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HAnvc_Il0X0
YouTube. (2021, June 22). Red Bull TV “trent’s vision” - neurotracker. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-yAg3pDcSnI