Dendrites, the tree-like branches of neurons, are covered in protrusions called "dendritic spines" (white dots). Spines receive signals from other neurons and are highly plastic, changing in shape, volume and number over time. (Morales, et al. The Journal of Neuroscience, 2014.)
Neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to change over time. For example, brain cells may be created or lost, and the connections between cells may be strengthened or weakened, altering the circuits responsible for sensation, perception, cognition and action. In other words, “plasticity” is a dynamic process in which the brain is constantly rewired in response to new inputs - from both the internal and external worlds.
All these physical changes alters our abilities. This seems obviously in young children whose brains are rapidly developing as they learn. But until the last decade or so, there was little support for the idea that such changes continue throughout our lifetime.
Using powerful new research tools and techniques, scientists are studying the changes that occur at various levels of organization in the brain, from molecules to cells to circuits. The ultimate goal is understanding how the nervous system manages to stay both robust and flexible. How is this balance established, how is it maintained throughout our lives and how does it enable us to change our behavior? And can we take advantage of these mechanisms to combat brain disorders?