Neuroplasticity is one of the most researched subjects nowadays, especially when it comes to visual and digital arts. What is, then, the impact of developing visual skills onto the brain? And in the specific case of drawing: does it really impact the structure of the brain? Many artists fantasize about the possibility of shifting their brain by using the left hand instead of the right one (or vice-versa) – but is that really possible?
In this post, Ana Mendes (AM) speaks with Luis Lacerda (LC), neuroscientist of the Natbrainlab and institute of Child Health (UK) to investigate what neuroplasticity is – the ability of our brain to restructure itself. And, as it is so rare to hear a neuroscientist in direct speech, we transcribe the interview ipsis verbis, to give a better understanding of neuroscience from a professional perspective.
AM: In our last talk, you mentioned that our brain is always changing. Could you please clarify, for example, »to what extent an activity such as drawing may impact the brain?«
LC: »Well, in terms of neuroscience, the type of cells that we have – I mean, related to the brain… In the nervous system, we have the neurons that are part of the structure network. The neurons are the main source of transmission of information, but we also have other cells: microglia, astrocytes and oligodendrocytes, for example. These cells are more abundant than the neurons and they guarantee that the structure is well preserved. These cells are crucial to guarantee the proper functioning of the neurons. There is a whole process, since the activation of a stimulus that makes these cells change structure and adapt themselves to allow that this stimulus is transmitted. The stimulus is emitted from the neuron, and its speed is influenced by a layer of fat that surrounds them. There are many diseases called demyelinating that are a consequence of some loss of structure of this layer, such as multiple sclerosis.
When I say that the brain is always changing, I mean that the configuration of these astrocytes change constantly to adapt themselves to the stimulus of the neurons. If we have one neuron, we have one astrocyte, the astrocytes will change their shape to be able to, let’s say in a scenario of more strenuous physical activity, act like bridges between the neurons and the blood vessels that allow the blood vessels to dilate so that the blood flux is larger and therefore the oxygen can arrive easily to some parts of the body – this is just an example.
These processes can have a chemical nature or electrical – if on the body there is an unbalance of certain chemical elements, it is possible that this gradient/this concentration that is measured by other cells, issues a stimulus that will make that other cells on the body, starting from the transmission of that stimulus, change on opposite way to the stimulus to reduce the lack of balance. These processes, called synapses, can be either inhibitory or excitatory. In the brain, many of these events happen within fractions of second, this conformation… Depending then on the stimulus – visuals, audio, etc. – there is this transformation that even so happens on the level of the so-called neuroplasticity, but at a small scale; it is something normal.
Nevertheless, and on a long-term basis, as a consequence of some incapacity, intensive training, etc. there are other conformations that are more permanent. The first ones are volatile because they are a consequence of the stimulus that we receive. There are some studies, for instance, of a man  who lost his vision and who could, after receiving training for eco-localization, emit a sound and react to it, like a bat – use the areas of the brain that were initially responsible for processing visual information with audio data. The scientists made some scans and understood that he had an increase of activity in the area of the occipital lobe. This is something that is important, but sometimes is transmitted in wrong terms from the scientific community to general public. When it comes to the increase of activity (in the brain), we need to always be careful with the methodology used, as some processes are not very consistent. In regard to functional imaging resonance magnetic, one of the problems that limits the technical interpretation deals with the copulative configuration of the neurovascular system – as the blood vessels and neurons are all together, sometimes when one measures an increase of the volume of the blood, as a consequence of this neuronal activity, what we are trying to do is to recover this neuronal activity considering that increase in the flux that is measured by the magnetic resonance imaging through differences on the magnetic properties of the blood. Because when the blood flows more to a certain area, it gets more oxygen that will then be freed to the cells; so, what we measure is the difference between the blood that used to be oxygenated and the blood that stops being oxygenated. We have the hemoglobin that sends oxygen to the cells – and the reason behind this logic is that areas that are more active need more oxygen to perform their role; thus, in those areas where we saw that there is an increase of the concentration of hemoglobin without oxygen that is to some extent related to the stimulus neuronal. These different processes occur on a different scale, but theoretically, they vary from fraction of seconds to a few seconds.
This is the neuroplasticity that occurs every day in each of us. The long-term change that deals with the structure of the brain may depend on genetic elements, or on ambient elements, but, usually, it takes awhile to be verified. There was a study made with twins, developed in the group that I was working in, who according to the ambient where they grew up to the activities performed – education – developed different structures of the brain.
It has been proved already that there is re-organization of the brain and that is all a consequence of these processes that occur that allow keeping the structure of the neuronal cells that we have.
Without studying it in detail, that is the understanding that I have of neuroplasticity, how things change in our brain.«
AM: And is it that possible that, in the case of drawing, it may have an impact on the composition of the brain (meaning the right and left the side of the brain)? Many artists have made this experiment – trying to use the right or left hand in order to shift the brain, as mentioned by Henrietta Howells (neuroscientist, Natbrainlab) in our last talk.
LC: »That’s a good question. Do you mean that if the person would start to use the left hand would become more creative…?«
AM: Or if it would develop specific areas in the brain…
LC: » I’m not sure. One thing is: the volume of the brain is limited, but there is always space to be found – what I mean is that not only new neurons are formed, but new synapses, the connections between, them are created. Considering that ability of the brain to change/adapt, it is possible that some of the functions be modified to change; the brain is somehow a muscle, in the sense that throughout the development of the individual, at the beginning there are many neurons, afterwards – depending on ambient influence, etc – there are some pathways that become more solid, some start to develop, and others are lost. The process is called pruning. It is like pruning the synapses that are not being used. Subsequently, the neurons lose connection and die – that process is easier to happen when the person is young.
What you are asking could be something that would have different levels; that is to say that the change happens according to the age of the person. Sometimes we say that an old person does not learn a new language, but from a perspective of neuroscience I would say that, when we are younger, as the connections (in the brain) are not all formed, it is easier to mold it. As the brain is formed, I would not say that it is not possible, but that to verify any relevant change, it would be necessary a much longer period of time than in adolescence or even earlier.«
Luis Lacerda has recently been awarded a PhD in Neuroimaging from King’s College London before joining the Institute of Child Health, University College London as a Research Associate. He works on the development of acquisition and processing techniques for Magnetic Resonance Imaging. His particular focus is in diffusion imaging and the ability to recover information about brain microstructure and anatomy for clinical and neurosurgical purposes.
- Jump Up University of Montreal. »Some blind people ‘see’ with their ears, neuropsychologists show.« ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 17 March 2011. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/03/110316104123.htm>