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Older adults' brains may be able to change later in life

September 25, 2012

Many older adults have made heading back to the classroom a part of healthy aging, and new research suggests they may be doing more than just keeping their mind active. A team of scientists from Dartmouth believes the part of the brain responsible for communication between cells - known as white matter - can continue to thrive well into adulthood.

The study was recently published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience and was focused on changes to the brains of a group of students enrolled in a Chinese language course. Researchers looked at the diffusion of water in axons, which play crucial roles in the connectivity of brain cells. The scientists noticed a distinct structural change in the white matter of subjects during the learning process.

"This work is contributing to a new understanding that the brain stays this plastic organ throughout your life, capable of change," said Alex Schelgel, the study's first author. "Knowing what actually happens in the organization of the brain when you are learning has implications for the development of new models of learning as well as potential interventions in cases of stroke and brain damage."

The results build on previous research that suggests having an active mind plays an important role in staving off Alzheimer's disease. A nearly 12-year study from the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago found people without Alzheimer's who participated in brain-stimulating activity significantly reduced their rate of cognitive decline.

"We think that mental activity tends to stave off the initial symptoms of cognitive impairment and therefore to delay dementia onset," study leader Dr. Robert Wilson told The Telegraph.

The findings may add to the growing benefits of lifelong learning, many of which have an impact outside of brain health. Perhaps most importantly, heading back to the classroom provides seniors with a social opportunity they may not have had elsewhere, notes U.S. News and World Report.