A new study has shown that the connections in the brain continue to change well into adulthood—and provides promising evidence that brain function doesn’t necessarily need to decline as we age.
The brain’s ‘white matter’ is the original information superhighway. Every brain cell has a long, thin cylindrical region called an axon, which it uses to send information to other brain cells, and the white matter is composed of billions of axons connecting all the distinct areas and functions within the brain. Brain cells are only rarely created or killed off, but the connections between them—the white matter—change constantly to incorporate new information as we learn and grow.
Researchers from Zucker Hillside Hospital and the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in New York overcame those limitations by studying white matter changes in nine regions across the brain in 296 people ranging in age from 8 to 68. They used a technology called diffusion tensor imaging, a type of MRI scan that creates detailed maps of the white matter, to observe how brain connections changed, and also subjected each study volunteer to a battery of tests to assess memory, attention and other cognitive functions.
They found that specific circuits in the white matter were associated with different functions, and that they developed at different rates consistent with the ages at which we learn new skills. For example, circuits associated with learning, memory and planning were refined throughout adolescence and into adulthood, showing that our brains continue to mature long after our bodies have stopped.
In older people, cognitive performance wasn’t related to white matter connectivity—in other words, just because construction on the superhighway had stopped, traffic hadn’t necessarily slowed down. Furthermore, brains are able to continue forming new skills at any age. These findings highlight the importance of adopting a ‘use it or lose it’ approach to mental function—keeping your brain active and stimulated will help to maintain white matter connections well into your golden years.
(Source: Biological Psychiatry, 2014; 75: 248.)
Photos courtesy of Flickr/ Yandle