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20 - Paradoxical phenomena in brain plasticity

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 December 2011

Bryan Kolb
University of Lethbridge
G. Campbell Teskey
University of Calgary
Narinder Kapur
University College London
Alvaro Pascual-Leone
Harvard Medical School
Vilayanur Ramachandran
University of California, San Diego
Jonathan Cole
University of Bournemouth
Sergio Della Sala
University of Edinburgh
Tom Manly
MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit
Andrew Mayes
University of Manchester
Oliver Sacks
Columbia University Medical Center
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Brain plasticity refers to the potential for the brain to change physically, chemically or physiologically to adapt to environmental change and to compensate for brain perturbations such as injury. Although there is a tendency to perceive plasticity as a singular change in which synapses are added or subtracted, experience-dependent change in the nervous system is much more complex and it is clear that experience modulates plasticity in unpredictable ways. Thus, the same experience can have different effects at different ages, in the two sexes, in the two hemispheres and in different cortical layers and regions. Many of these differential changes present a paradox in that they are not predictable a priori. The challenge is to understand how plastic changes occur, which ultimately will be at the level of gene expression, so that the rules governing brain plasticity can be written.


Behavioural neuroscience has been guided throughout the twentieth century by the principle of localization of function. One underlying assumption has been that there are continuously adaptive responses to the experiences that challenge the cerebral cortex – processes referred to as plasticity. For example, if we learn a motor skill such as playing the piano, there are correlated changes in the organization of the motor representations of the fingers in the cerebral cortex. Indeed, it is likely that the increasing dexterity of the fingers as the piano-playing skill improves occurs because of the changed motor representation.

The Paradoxical Brain , pp. 350 - 364
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2011

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