One of the most surprising discoveries in recent years is that our brains can continue to grow even as we age. Known as neurogenesis or brain plasticity, it is now well established that the brain has the ability to change throughout one’s life, making new connections between cells. For many years, most believed that the connections in the brain became fixed and it was only a matter of time before we started losing brain cells. Recent studies show the brain never stops changing.
One study compared how the brain changed over time between London taxi drivers and London bus drivers. The taxi drivers were constantly learning new street names and locations, as well as new routes. The bus drivers on the other hand, had a fixed routed each day that required very little cognitive adaption. Brain scans showed that the taxi drivers had significantly more growth in specific parts of their brains, indicating that the brain is an active neurological organ capable of changing itself.
Increased plasticity has also been observed in the brains of those who are bilingual. It appears that learning a second language causes functional changes in the brain: the back, left part of the brain is larger in those speaking more than one language than in the brains of those who just speak one. Differences are also evident in the brains of musicians compared to those of non-musicians. Brain size was greatest in professional musicians, smaller in amateur musicians, and smallest in non-musicians in several brain areas. Finally, extensive learning of abstract concepts will can also trigger changes in the brain. One study examined the brains medical students in Germany three months before their medical exam and then again immediately after the exam. They then compared them to the brains of students who were not studying for an exam. The brains of the medical students who were preparing the exam showed changes in regions known to be involved in memory retrieval and learning.
This growing evidence is demonstrating that the adult brain is more malleable than once assumed and also that it can regenerate itself throughout life. Decreased mental capacity is something that occurs through physical and functional changes in the brain. It can be avoided, forestalled, and even reversed through a variety of environmental enrichment activities, including physical and mental training exercises.
The secret is to continually challenge the brain to do novel and stimulating tasks that do not rely on the established ways of doing things. Take a different route to work or the store; try eating with your non-dominant hand; learn a new language; learn to play a musical instrument; enroll in a continuing education course at your local university or community college. And most importantly, start now.