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

d 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."

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