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Taxi Drivers Show How Learning Changes Adult Brain

THURSDAY, Dec. 8 (HealthDay News) -- The brains of new taxi drivers change as they learn to navigate thousands of streets and places of interest over several years, a new study shows.

The finding offers more evidence that learning can lead to changes in the adult brain, which is good news for lifelong learning and also for rehabilitation after brain injury, according to the U.K. researchers.

The study included people training to become licensed taxi drivers in London, which requires them to learn the complicated layout of 25,000 streets as well as 20,000 landmarks. The learning period generally lasts three to four years.

The researchers gathered brain images of the taxi trainees over time and also gave them memory tests. Participants were compared to a control group of non-taxi drivers.

At the start of the study, there were no differences between the two groups. But after three to four years, successful taxi trainees showed an increased in gray matter in the back part of the hippocampus. These changes did not occur in trainees who failed or in people in the control group.

The hippocampus is important in spatial navigation and memory.

The findings show that the human brain remains "plastic" even in adult life, enabling it to adapt when people learn new tasks and skills, researchers Eleanor Maguire and Katherine Woollett, of University College London, said in a journal news release.

They suggested that significant cognitive challenges prompt increased production of new neurons and survival of existing neurons. Learning new things may also strengthen connections between existing neurons.

The study appears online Dec. 8 in the journal Current Biology.

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The Society for Neuroscience has more about brain health as we age.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: Current Biology, news release, Dec. 8, 2011

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