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Learn more about the results we get at Within

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What is neuroplasticity?

The ability to change and adapt is often considered essential to mental health. But it’s also a critical skill taught in many therapy programs for eating disorders.

Scientifically referred to as neuroplasticity, the process allows our brains to learn so much from the world when we are young, and it even continues into adulthood, letting us continue to make new connections.

Still, neuroplasticity slows down with time, making it easy to become entrenched in our way of thinking. And this can be an especially dangerous trap for someone who’s developed unhelpful thoughts or habits connected with an eating disorder.  

The conditions are often maintained by firmly held beliefs and feelings. But with training and time, it’s possible to regain adaptability and break some of the unhealthy and unhelpful patterns that hold eating disorders up.

Last updated on 
December 27, 2023
What is neuroplasticity?
In this article

How neuroplasticity works

 To understand neuroplasticity, it’s first helpful to understand a bit about the design of the brain itself.

This vital organ comprises billions of neurons, or “messenger” cells, which can send information to each other in the form of electrical signals called nerve impulses. As we learn new skills, these messages are sent back and forth to different neurons, eventually creating a connection called a neurological pathway.2

When the landscape of the brain changes in this way, it’s called neuroplasticity. (Plasticity, in this case, refers to the ability to change.)

As skills are practiced, these connections strengthen, creating a sense of competency when performing a learned task. But the process can also work in reverse, with connections becoming weaker or even disappearing if they’re not reinforced as time goes on.2

What is neuroplasticity?

Neuroplasticity over time

Indeed, the very nature of this mechanism means the brain’s map of neurological pathways constantly changes over time.

The most significant transformations are typically seen early in life when the mind is designed for babies and young children to pick up new skills easily.

At birth, every neuron in the brain has more than 2,500 synapses or small spaces between neurons where possible connections can be made. By the age of 2 or 3, the neurons in most human minds will have more than 15,000 synapses each.1

The number of synapses can be halved by the time we reach adulthood.

But that number can be cut by as much as half by adulthood. That’s because neurons that aren’t frequently used can die in a process called synaptic pruning.2 Yet this cycle is actually an evolutionary adaptation in and of itself, helping the brain keep a reasonable number of synaptic pathways open at any given time.2

Neuroplasticity and eating disorders

 Just as neuroplasticity can help us adapt to new situations, it can help us move on from old, unhelpful ways of thinking. And in many instances, these types of hurtful thought patterns are at the heart of an eating disorder.

Disordered eating patterns may arise as a response to stress or trauma and eventually become “learned” as a coping mechanism. They can be reinforced by negative thoughts we continue to tell ourselves about our bodies. Some eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, have been connected to chemical imbalances that can make neuroplasticity more difficult for the brain.5

Building new neurological pathways is a goal of many forms of therapy used to help with eating disorders. For example, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), the leading recommended therapy for bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder, among others, has been connected to increased neuroplasticity, thanks, in part, to the games, puzzles, and other tools commonly used in the practice.6,7

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How to improve neuroplasticity

Still, that doesn’t mean we cannot continue learning and adapting after a certain age. In fact, that’s far from the truth.

Scientists have discovered plasticity in the brains of people who experienced strokes and traumatic head injuries, with healthier areas of the brain taking on functions that may have been the responsibility of the injured regions of the brain.2

And even without the need to overcome debilitating injury or disease, the brain can continue to develop.

Continuing to stimulate the brain differently is a helpful way to keep more synapses alive.2 This could look like anything from learning a new language or instrument to reading, doing puzzles, or even creating art.

But it’s not just mental movement that can keep things growing. Physical activity has also been connected to the retention of neurons in key areas of the brain, including areas involved with memory.3 Other studies show regular exercise could help the brain boost production of certain proteins that aid in neurological connectivity.4

Yet, as with nearly all versions of growth, rest is an essential ingredient for neuroplasticity. Taking the proper time to sleep helps ensure these new skills aren’t just built in the brain but that their connections have time to be reinforced.

Hopefully, the result will be a healthier, happier outlook on life and proof that recovery is always possible if we set our minds to it.

Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Disclaimer about weight loss drugs: Within does not endorse the use of any weight loss drug or behavior and seeks to provide education on the insidious nature of diet culture. We understand the complex nature of disordered eating and eating disorders and strongly encourage anyone engaging in these behaviors to reach out for help as soon as possible. No statement should be taken as healthcare advice. All healthcare decisions should be made with your individual healthcare provider.

Resources

  1. Graham, J. (2011). Children and Brain Development: What We Know About How Children Learn. The University of Maine. Accessed November 2023.
  2. Dabrowski, J., et. al. (2019). Brain Functional Reserve in the Context of Neuroplasticity after Stroke. Neural Plasticity, 9708905.
  3. Sik Kim, Y., Keun Shin, S., Baek Hong, S. et. al. (2017). The effects of strength exercise on hippocampus volume and functional fitness of older women. Experimental Gerontology, 97(15), 22-28.
  4. Vorkapic, C., et. al. (2021). Born to move: a review on the impact of physical exercise on brain health and the evidence from human controlled trials. Arquivos de Neuro-Psiquiatria, 79(6). 
  5. Pappaianni, E., Borsarini, B., Doucet, G. E., et. al. (2022). Initial evidence of abnormal brain plasticity in anorexia nervosa: an ultra-high field study. Scientific Reports, 12, 2589.
  6. Mansson, K. D. T., Salami, A., Carlbring, P., et. al. (2016). Neuroplasticity in response to cognitive behavior therapy for social anxiety disorder. Translational Psychiatry, 6, e727.
  7. Murphy, R., Straebler, S., Cooper, Z., et. al. (2010). Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Eating Disorders. Psychiatric Clinics, 33(3), 611-627.
  8. Wang, S. B., Gray, E. K., Coniglio, K. A., Murray, H. B., Stone, M., Becker, K. R., Thomas, J. J., & Eddy, K. T. (2021). Cognitive rigidity and heightened attention to detail occur transdiagnostically in adolescents with eating disorders. Eating Disorders, 29(4), 408–420.
  9. Reed, M. B., Vanicek, T., Seiger, R., Klöbl, M., Spurny, B., Handschuh, P., Ritter, V., Unterholzner, J., Godbersen, G. M., Gryglewski, G., Kraus, C., Winkler, D., Hahn, A., & Lanzenberger, R. (2021). Neuroplastic effects of a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor in relearning and retrieval. NeuroImage, 236, 118039.

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