Friday, January 06, 2012

Structural changes in adult brains caused by acquiring knowledge

A number of reports have appeared over the past 20 years suggesting that the hippocampus region of the brain involved in place memory is larger than normal in London Taxi drivers (who must pass a memory test of London streets to become licensed taxi drivers). Woollett and Maguire have now examined this more carefully. Their summaries:
-Trainee taxi drivers in London spend 3–4 years learning the city's layout
-We assessed the brain and memory of trainees before and after this long training
-Those who qualified experienced increased gray matter in posterior hippocampus
-Successful qualification was also associated with changes in memory profile

The last decade has seen a burgeoning of reports associating brain structure with specific skills and traits. Although these cross-sectional studies are informative, cause and effect are impossible to establish without longitudinal investigation of the same individuals before and after an intervention. Several longitudinal studies have been conducted; some involved children or young adults, potentially conflating brain development with learning, most were restricted to the motor domain, and all concerned relatively short timescales (weeks or months). Here, by contrast, we utilized a unique opportunity to study average-IQ adults operating in the real world as they learned, over four years, the complex layout of London's streets while training to become licensed taxi drivers. In those who qualified, acquisition of an internal spatial representation of London was associated with a selective increase in gray matter (GM) volume in their posterior hippocampi and concomitant changes to their memory profile. No structural brain changes were observed in trainees who failed to qualify or control participants. We conclude that specific, enduring, structural brain changes in adult humans can be induced by biologically relevant behaviors engaging higher cognitive functions such as spatial memory, with significance for the “nature versus nurture” debate.

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