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Aging Brain Can Learn New Tricks

In MRI study, older folks' 'gray matter' grew as they picked up juggling skills

FRIDAY, July 11 (HealthDay News) -- Baby boomers, take comfort: A new study among older would-be jugglers suggests the aging mind doesn't lose the ability to learn new skills.

The finding is based on an analysis of brain scans taken while people aged 50 and up learned the art of juggling. Although they typically picked up the skill less readily than young people did, older folks who did succeed as jugglers displayed brain changes similar to those seen in much younger brains.

"This study demonstrates that we're not just completely shriveling up as we age," noted Paul Sanberg, a professor of neurosurgery and director of the University of South Florida Center for Aging and Brain Repair in Tampa. "Old brains can continue to be plastic and make changes. And clearly, the learning of new tasks clearly is not exclusively in the realm of young people."

Sanberg was not involved in the research, which was conducted by German scientists and published in the July 9 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.

To gauge the ease with which the aging brain can learn new tricks, a team led by Janina Boyke, from the department of systems neuroscience at the University of Hamburg, attempted to teach 69 healthy German men and women between the ages of 50 and 67 to juggle. In this case, juggling involved keeping three balls in motion for a minimum of 60 seconds.

At the same time, the team used MRI to scan for regional brain activity and size, both before instruction began, as well as at the height of the participants' juggling ability -- typically about three months after juggling practice was initiated.

None of the volunteers were able to juggle prior to the study.

After the three-month teaching period was completed, all juggling ceased. The researchers then waited an additional three months before conducting a third MRI scan, at which point the participants had lost the skill and were no longer considered to be proficient jugglers.

Boyke and her colleagues then compared the three scan sets to those they had taken of a group of 20-year-olds who had also been taught to juggle in a prior study.

According to the researchers, 100 percent of the younger group learned to juggle for 60 seconds, but less than a quarter of the older group were able to master the task.

However, older men and women who did successfully acquire juggling skills showed the same brain changes that had been observed among the younger group, the researchers report.

Specifically, the scans revealed comparable gray matter growth among both young and old jugglers in an area of the brain called MT/V5, which is tied to vision and motion.

The older adult group also achieved increased gray matter growth in two other brain regions, known as the hippocampus and nucleus accumbens. Such growth had not been apparent among the younger jugglers, the team said.

But without continued practice, these brain changes faded. In fact, in both young and older study subjects, the neurological changes disappeared by the three-month mark after juggling was halted.

Based on these findings, the authors believe that older brains can, theoretically at least, retain that youthful ability to learn new skills. However, they caution that age-linked limitations such as poorer hand-eye coordination and neural function could impede the process as people age.

"It may be true that as we age we have to develop some slightly different strategies from when you were young in order to facilitate learning new things," observed Sanberg. "But this ability for the brain to adapt as it ages means that it can continue to perform well in normal people, well into old age."

More information

To learn more about the human brain, visit the U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

SOURCES: Paul Sanberg, Ph.D., D.Sc., distinguished professor, neurosurgery, and director, University of South Florida Center for Aging and Brain Repair, Tampa; July 9, 2008, Journal of Neuroscience

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