'Neuroplasticity' could transform dementia treatment

By Alpana Mohta, MD, DNB, FEADV, FIADVL, IFAAD | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published July 8, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • Neuroplasticity involves the brain's ability to reorganize and form new neural pathways.

  • Promoting neuroplasticity benefits patients with neurodegenerative diseases, developmental disorders, anxiety, and depression and can enhance academic and workplace performance.

  • Techniques to improve neuroplasticity include brain stimulation, virtual reality, psychedelics, cognitive training, an antioxidant-rich diet, physical exercise, music training, and stress management.

The human brain comprises approximately 100 billion neurons. Neurogenesis, or developmental changes in the brain, was once believed to cease postnatally. However, from our present understanding, certain stimuli, including new learning experiences and injury, enable the brain to remodel and sometimes create new neurons throughout adulthood.

This process is known as neuroplasticity, where the brain undergoes functional and structural changes, reorganizing and forming new neural pathways.[]

These changes can benefit patients with mental health disorders, neurological conditions, and neurodegenerative disease by improving memory, problem solving, and critical thinking, while aiding in learning new skills and problem solving, among many other benefits.

Variants of neuroplasticity

A review in Brain Sciences discusses the two variants of neuroplasticity: functional and structural.[] Both forms are stimulated by a variety of experiences and activities involving learning and memory processes. These stimuli include epigenetic factors, physical activity, stress, learning experiences, and certain drugs (such as antidepressants).

Structural neuroplasticity

‘Plasticity’ indicates the brain's adaptability, and structural neuroplasticity involves changes in the brain's physical structure and neural pathways, including axonal sprouting, dendritic growth, and neurogenesis.

Adult neurogenesis occurs from neural stem cells in the hippocampal dentate gyrus and the subventricular zone, influencing cognition and emotion. Its dysregulation causes cognitive decline and psychiatric disorders.

Functional neuroplasticity

Functional neuroplasticity refers to changes in the organization of neural circuits, allowing the brain to shift functions from damaged regions to undamaged areas. This includes synaptogenesis—the formation of new synaptic connections—vital for memory and learning.

Fundamental mechanisms include long-term potentiation (LTP), which strengthens connections to improve memory, and long-term depression (LTD), which weakens less-used connections to make room for new information—like clearing out old files from a computer to make space for new ones.

Who can benefit from neuroplasticity

There is scientific evidence that under certain circumstances, promoting neuroplasticity can be helpful.

  • Rehabilitating patients with anxiety, depression, traumatic brain injury (TBI), stroke, and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease (AD), Parkinson’s disease (PD), and multiple sclerosis.[][]

  • Age-related cognitive decline in healthy adults (improving memory, attention, problem-solving skills, learning new skills, social interactions)[]

  • Developmental disorders (autism spectrum disorder and ADHD) through cognitive training (problem-solving, critical thinking)[][]

  • Academic performance in children and adolescents

  • Acquiring and retaining new skills in professional contexts (better job performance, adaptability in changing work environments)[]

Brain stimulation techniques

German researchers have highlighted the utility of various brain stimulation techniques (described below) to induce synaptic changes that influence neurotransmitter release and receptor activity.[] These techniques include the following:

  • Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS): TMS is a non-invasive, FDA-approved technique for treatment-resistant depression, migraines with aura, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. It is used for motor cortex mapping in conditions like multiple sclerosis.

  • Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS): DBS involves implanting electrodes in specific brain areas to modulate neuronal activity. It is used for reducing motor symptoms such as tremors, rigidity, and akinesia in PD, and it provides relief for medication-refractory cases of dystonia and epilepsy.

  • Transcranial Electric Stimulation (TES): TES includes techniques such as transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS), and transcranial random noise stimulation (tRNS). It is useful for improving memory, attention, and mental rotation, and for treating depressive symptoms, and it enhances motor function recovery in stroke patients.

Futurist researchers publishing in NPJ Microgravity also predict that brain stimulation would mitigate low gravity, ionizing radiation, and isolation-induced behavioral and psychological impairments in those undertaking long-duration and deep-space missions.[]

Other experimental therapies to promote neuroplasticity

Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR)

Despite their benefits in stimulating cognitive functions and enhancing sensorimotor integration, immersive VR and AR remain understudied. A review in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease identified only nine studies examining their use in AD or mild cognitive impairment.[]

VR tools showed potential in detecting prodromal AD. The review concluded that "iVR has the potential to engage vulnerable groups meaningful[ly] in rehabilitation tasks that are otherwise very difficult to sustain."


A report in BMC Neuroscience states that psychedelics like psilocybin and LSD promote neural plasticity in animal models by acting on serotonin 2A (5-HT2A) receptors, leading to the growth of new dendritic spines and synapses. However, the exact mechanisms, long-term benefits, and abuse potential require further study.[]

Natural ways to promote neuroplasticity

Cognitive training and learning

Engaging in activities that challenge the brain, such as puzzles, learning new skills, or playing musical instruments, can strengthen neural connections involved in LTP.[]

Nutrition and diet

A diet rich in antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids can support neuroplasticity by reducing oxidative stress and inflammation.[]

Physical exercise

A 2024 review from Frontiers in Molecular Neuroscience found that high-intensity interval training (aka, HIIT) increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor, lactate, and vascular endothelial growth factor, which promote neurogenesis, synaptogenesis, and angiogenesis.[]

Exercise-induced lactate also improves cerebral blood flow and synaptic plasticity, supporting cognitive functions and recovery from neural injuries.


Researchers at the American University of Dubai conducted a literature review on the impacts of music on brain function.[] They stated that “music training can bring about structural and functional changes in the brain, and studies have shown its positive effects on social bonding, cognitive abilities, and language processing.”

Apart from the benefits of music in neurological disorders, the authors state that music improves cancer-associated pain and enhances emotional states, physical rehabilitation outcomes, and mood during pregnancy.

Other beneficial habits for fostering neuroplasticity include quality sleep, stress management, and mindfulness meditation. Quality sleep enhances synaptic homeostasis, and mindfulness stimulates brain areas for memory and emotional regulation.[]

What this means for you

Neuroplasticity is a lifelong process involving neurons, glial, and vascular cells. It can occur through learning, experiences, and memory formation, or in response to brain injuries. Enhancing brain plasticity through environmental enrichment, adequate rest, physical exercise, and mindfulness can support cognitive health, enabling learning and recovery in your aging patients.

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