Some time ago, we were inspired by some debate in the literature on whether the term neuroplasticity was overdone. Cooked up. Passe. It is timely to revisit this now, for two reasons. First, I did a talk at the Royal Australasian College of Physicians last night – the inaugural seminar in the College of Rehabilitation Physicians’ Mind series. They are calling the series “Art vs Science. Why the ‘v’?” The whole Mind Special Interest Group is, as far as I can tell, the brainchild of Dr Jane Malone, who is one of those rare people who run two lives – one as a Rehab Physician and one as a playwright. The thing is, she seems to run both slightly better than I seem to be able to run one. At this gig, I also met Lisa Pryor. Lisa is impressive – ants pants impressive – lawyer, journalist for the Sydney Morning Herald, author of two (very interesting sounding) books and she is about to start a Med degree (!) The message here is “If at first you succeed, and then you succeed again, try something completely different to succeed at”. Anyway, I digress – The second reason for revisiting Neuroplasticity Neuroschplasticity is that we have the results of our referendum: “Should the term neuroplasticity be banned?” It was a landslide for the negative – 845 respondents, 94.5% said ‘No’. The people have spoken.
On terms neuro – (the impressive) Lisa Pryor suggested we patent a new term that got some air time last night – ‘neuroelasticity’. This is not completely tongue in cheek – I think the neuroelastic nature of the brain (and in fact of biology – bioelasticity perhaps) is even more marvellous than neuroplasticity. What I mean by neuroelasticity is that amazing ability of the brain to change in a non-permanent fashion – Sherrington showed a century ago that the S1 representation of our body changes moment to moment and day to day. Plastic changes are, by definition, irreversible – Young’s modulus says that there is a certain amount of reversible change that can occur in a system – this is called elastic change – before the change is irreversible – this is called plastic change. That the dorsal horn sensitises in minutes is an elastic change. That S1 representations can be shifted by visuotactile illusions, by taping two fingers together or by reading Braille (have a look here for an interesting paper on this and heaps of good leads) all provide examples of neuroelasticity.
I wonder if we should reserve the term neuroplastic to those difficult to reverse neural changes and adopt the term neuroelasticity for the magnificent moment to moment and day to day changes that occur in brain function. Just a thought.
Braun C, Schweizer R, Elbert T, Birbaumer N, & Taub E (2000). Differential activation in somatosensory cortex for different discrimination tasks. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 20 (1), 446-50 PMID: 10627620