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Aging Brain Can Learn New Tricks
Date:7/11/2008

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 thir
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