Myths about the brain no. 3: Brain damage is always permanent

The idea that “brain damage is permanent” has been floating around for a while. It’s based on the idea that the brain has a finite number of cells at birth and once you lose them, you can never get them back.

Now, this is partially true. Neurons that are damaged do not regenerate (hence why severe brain-damage is permanent). However, the brain can make new connections in the brain (between different sites, sometimes far away from the damaged area) to compensate for this loss.

The idea of synapses developing between different neurons is the main process of learning, so the brain is constantly making new connections and trimming away superfluous ones. As a result of this, if someone suffers damage to some neurons and they die, other neurons will be used through new synapses being made between the other neurons. This was demonstrated in a recent study. They found that the brain could learn new conditioning experiences when the hippocampus (the brain site that underlined this process and effectively made this association happen) was damaged. Alternative brain structures (specifically the infralimbic and prelimbic prefrontal cortices) were used because the hippocampus was unable to perform it’s usual role.

It’s also been found that patients who have Alzheimer’s display similar activity in these brain regions, implying that these areas are compensating for other damaged brain structures.

So whilst the idea of “brain damage being permanent” is wrong, this doesn’t mean that you can go around smashing your head on things with impunity; you really need to look after your brain.

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