The aging brain is more malleable than previously believed

August 1, 2012

Neuroscientists are finding that, as we get older, our aging brains are proving surprisingly malleable, and in ways not previously anticipated. But there are limitations.

There is growing evidence that, beyond what was previously believed, the adult is remarkably malleable and capable of new feats -- even in the last decades of life.

In fact, can trigger major physical changes in the within just a few days, and certain conditions can accelerate this physical, chemical and functional remodeling of the brain.

"We used to think that the brain was completely formed by development and its basic structure didn't change much in , but as research went on we discovered that wasn't true, at least in the ," explains Randy Bruno, a member of the Kavli Institute for at Columbia University. "We now know that an underlying portion of the brain called the thalamus, which feeds the cortex information from our senses, is also remarkably plastic."

Change can also happen quickly. Using new research techniques on rats, Bruno's lab has found that the bridging the to the cortex are not only massively plastic, but they grow and retract rather rapidly in only a few days in response to different sensations. "The rapidity of this growth is really striking—it happens within just three days, which is something nobody in the past thought was possible. Those kinds of rapid physical changes also probably occur in other parts of the brain as well."

In fact, certain conditions accelerate this physical, chemical and functional of the brain. Said Michael Merzenich, Emeritus Professor at the Keck Center for Integrative Neurosciences at the University of California at San Francisco, and Director and founder of the Brain Plasticity Institute, "In our experiments in adult rats, changes only occurred when the animal was attentive within a rewarded learning environment. When we train the animals to improve their behavioral capabilities under near-optimal contextual conditions, we can drive easily recordable functional and physical changes in the cerebral cortex within a day or two. By contrast, little or no change is induced by the passive exposure of an animal to many days of stimulation with thousands of the same stimuli applied in training."

At the same time, there are limitations that come with age. "There is no evidence that there is any part of the adult brain that is not plastic," said Randy Nudo, Director of the Landon Center on Aging and Professor in the Department of Molecular and Integrative Physiology at the University of Kansas. "But studies indicate that some aspects of musical training, such as the ability to perceive temporal patterns, require the brain to be trained during early developmental periods when its primed for certain types of stimuli. For other aspects of musical development, such as the ability to perceive and repeat a sequence of tones, it's irrelevant whether you've had that experience and training early in life."

All of this matters when considering the relationship between age and brain developmental disorders such as autism, Down's syndrome, and dyslexia. "The brain is plastic for life," said Merzenich. "The fundamental thing that determines how much [persons with brain disorders] will improve is the level of their initial impairment, but not their age."

Explore further: Persistent sensory experience is good for aging brain

More information: The complete story is available at: www.kavlifoundation.org/scienc … tastic-plastic-brain

Related Stories

Persistent sensory experience is good for aging brain

May 24, 2012
Despite a long-held scientific belief that much of the wiring of the brain is fixed by the time of adolescence, a new study shows that changes in sensory experience can cause massive rewiring of the brain, even as one ages. ...

Brain changes may hamper decision-Making in old age

April 17, 2012
(HealthDay) -- The ability to make decisions in new situations declines with age, apparently because of changes in the brain's white matter, a new imaging study says.

Researchers show reduced ability of the aging brain to respond to experience

May 24, 2011
Researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine have published new data on why the aging brain is less resilient and less capable of learning from life experiences. The findings provide further insight into the cognitive decline ...

Disinhibition plus instruction improve brain plasticity

April 12, 2011
(PhysOrg.com) -- The healthy brain has balance of excitatory and inhibitory signals that stimulate activity but also keep it under control. Some brain diseases, like autism and Down's syndrome, have too much inhibition, which ...

Recommended for you

Small but distinct differences among species mark evolution of human brain

November 23, 2017
The most dramatic divergence between humans and other primates can be found in the brain, the primary organ that gives our species its identity.

What if consciousness is not what drives the human mind?

November 22, 2017
Everyone knows what it feels like to have consciousness: it's that self-evident sense of personal awareness, which gives us a feeling of ownership and control over the thoughts, emotions and experiences that we have every ...

Team constructs whole-brain map of electrical connections key to forming memories

November 22, 2017
A team of neuroscientists at the University of Pennsylvania has constructed the first whole-brain map of electrical connectivity in the brain based on data from nearly 300 neurosurgical patients with electrodes implanted ...

To forget or to remember? Memory depends on subtle brain signals, scientists find

November 22, 2017
The fragrance of hot pumpkin pie can bring back pleasant memories of holidays past, while the scent of an antiseptic hospital room may cause a shudder. The power of odors to activate memories both pleasing and aversive exists ...

Pitch imperfect? How the brain decodes pitch may improve cochlear implants

November 22, 2017
Picture yourself with a friend in a crowded restaurant. The din of other diners, the clattering of dishes, the muffled notes of background music, the voice of your friend, not to mention your own – all compete for your ...

New research suggests high-intensity exercise boosts memory

November 22, 2017
The health advantages of high-intensity exercise are widely known but new research from McMaster University points to another major benefit: better memory.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.