A small Swedish brain imaging study adds to the evidence for the cognitive benefits of learning a new language by investigating the brain changes in students undergoing a highly intensive language course.
The study involved an unusual group: conscripts in the Swedish Armed Forces Interpreter Academy. These young people, selected for their talent for languages, undergo an intensive course to allow them to learn a completely novel language (Egyptian Arabic, Russian or Dari) fluently within ten months. This requires them to acquire new vocabulary at a rate of 300-500 words every week.
Brain scans were taken of 14 right-handed volunteers from this group (6 women; 8 men), and 17 controls that were matched for age, years of education, intelligence, and emotional stability. The controls were medical and cognitive science students. The scans were taken before the start of the course/semester, and three months later.
The brain scans revealed that the language students showed significantly greater changes in several specific regions. These regions included three areas in the left hemisphere: the dorsal middle frontal gyrus, the inferior frontal gyrus, and the superior temporal gyrus. These regions all grew significantly. There was also some, more selective and smaller, growth in the middle frontal gyrus and inferior frontal gyrus in the right hemisphere. The hippocampus also grew significantly more for the interpreters compared to the controls, and this effect was greater in the right hippocampus.
Among the interpreters, language proficiency was related to increases in the right hippocampus and left superior temporal gyrus. Increases in the left middle frontal gyrus were related to teacher ratings of effort — those who put in the greatest effort (regardless of result) showed the greatest increase in this area.
In other words, both learning, and the effort put into learning, had different effects on brain development.
The main point, however, is that language learning in particular is having this effect. Bear in mind that the medical and cognitive science students are also presumably putting in similar levels of effort into their studies, and yet no such significant brain growth was observed.
Of course, there is no denying that the level of intensity with which the interpreters are acquiring a new language is extremely unusual, and it cannot be ruled out that it is this intensity, rather than the particular subject matter, that is crucial for this brain growth.
Neither can it be ruled out that the differences between the groups are rooted in the individuals selected for the interpreter group. The young people chosen for the intensive training at the interpreter academy were chosen on the basis of their talent for languages. Although brain scans showed no differences between the groups at baseline, we cannot rule out the possibility that such intensive training only benefited them because they possessed this potential for growth.
A final caveat is that the soldiers all underwent basic military training before beginning the course — three months of intense physical exercise. Physical exercise is, of course, usually very beneficial for the brain.
Nevertheless, we must give due weight to the fact that the brain scans of the two groups were comparable at baseline, and the changes discussed occurred specifically during this three-month learning period. Moreover, there is growing evidence that learning a new language is indeed ‘special’, if only because it involves such a complex network of processes and brain regions.
Given that people vary in their ‘talent’ for foreign language learning, and that learning a new language does tend to become harder as we get older, it is worth noting the link between growth of the hippocampus and superior temporal gyrus and language proficiency. The STG is involved in acoustic-phonetic processes, while the hippocampus is presumably vital for the encoding of new words into long-term memory.
Interestingly, previous research with children has suggested that the ability to learn new words is greatly affected by working memory span — specifically, by how much information they can hold in that part of working memory called phonological short-term memory. While this is less important for adults learning another language, it remains important for one particular category of new words: words that have no ready association to known words. Given the languages being studied by these Swedish interpreters, it seems likely that much if not all of their new vocabulary would fall into this category.
I wonder if the link with STG is more significant in this study, because the languages are so different from the students’ native language? I also wonder if, and to what extent, you might be able to improve your phonological short-term memory with this sort of intensive practice.
In this regard, it’s worth noting that a previous study found that language proficiency correlated with growth in the left inferior frontal gyrus in a group of English-speaking exchange students learning German in Switzerland. Is this difference because the training was less intensive? because the students had prior knowledge of German? because German and English are closely related in vocabulary? (I’m picking the last.)
The researchers point out that hippocampal plasticity might also be a critical factor in determining an individual’s facility for learning a new language. Such plasticity does, of course, tend to erode with age — but this can be largely counteracted if you keep your hippocampus limber (as it were).
All these are interesting speculations, but the main point is clear: the findings add to the growing evidence that bilingualism and foreign language learning have particular benefits for the brain, and for protecting against cognitive decline.
 . Growth of language-related brain areas after foreign language learning. NeuroImage [Internet]. 2012 ;63(1):240 - 244. Available from: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053811912006581
My recent reports on brain training for older adults (see, e.g., Review of working memory training programs finds no broader benefit; Cognitive training shown to help healthy older adults; Video game training benefits cognition in some older adults) converge on the idea that cognitive training can indeed be beneficial for older adults’ cognition, but there’s little wider transfer beyond the skills being practiced. That in itself can be valuable, but it does reinforce the idea that the best cognitive training covers a number of different domains or skill-sets. A new study adds little to this evidence, but does perhaps emphasize the importance of persistence and regularity in training.
The study involved 59 older adults (average age 84), of whom 33 used a brain fitness program 5 days a week for 30 minutes a day for at least 8 weeks, while the other group of 26 were put on a waiting list for the program. After two months, both groups were given access to the program, and both were encouraged to use it as much or as little as they wanted. Cognitive testing occurred before the program started, at two months, and at six months.
The first group to use the program used the program on average for 80 sessions, compared to an average 44 sessions for the wait-list group.
The higher use group showed significantly higher cognitive scores (delayed memory test; Boston Naming test) at both two and six months, while the lower (and later) use group showed improvement at the end of the six month period, but not as much as the higher use group.
I’m afraid I don’t have any more details (some details of the training program would be nice) because it was a conference presentation, so I only have access to the press release and the abstract. Because we don’t know exactly what the training entailed, we don’t know the extent to which it practiced the same skills that were tested. But we may at least add it to the evidence that you can improve cognitive skills by regular training, and that the length/amount of training (and perhaps regularity, since the average number of sessions for the wait-list group implies an average engagement of some three times a week, while the high-use group seem to have maintained their five-times-a-week habit) matters.
Another interesting presentation at the conference was an investigation into mental stimulating activities and brain activity in older adults.
In this study, 151 older adults (average age 82) from the Rush Memory and Aging Project answered questions about present and past cognitive activities, before undergoing brain scans. The questions concerned how frequently they engaged in mentally stimulating activities (such as reading books, writing letters, visiting a library, playing games) and the availability of cognitive resources (such as books, dictionaries, encyclopedias) in their home, during their lifetime (specifically, at ages 6, 12, 18, 40, and now).
Higher levels of cognitive activity and cognitive resources were also associated with better cognitive performance. Moreover, after controlling for education and total brain size, it was found that frequent cognitive activity in late life was associated with greater functional connectivity between the posterior cingulate cortex and several other regions (right orbital and middle frontal gyrus, left inferior frontal gyrus, hippocampus, right cerebellum, left inferior parietal cortex). More cognitive resources throughout life was associated with greater functional connectivity between the posterior cingulate cortex and several other regions (left superior occipital gyrus, left precuneus, left cuneus, right anterior cingulate, right middle frontal gyrus, and left inferior frontal gyrus).
Previous research has implicated a decline in connectivity with the posterior cingulate cortex in mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease.
Cognitive activity earlier in life was not associated with differences in connectivity.
The findings provide further support for the idea “Use it or lose it!”, and suggests that mental activity protects against cognitive decline by maintaining functional connectivity in important neural networks.
Miller, K.J. et al. 2012. Memory Improves With Extended Use of Computerized Brain Fitness Program Among Older Adults. Presented August 3 at the 2012 convention of the American Psychological Association.
Han, S.D. et al. 2012. Cognitive Activity and Resources Are Associated With PCC Functional Connectivity in Older Adults. Presented August 3 at the 2012 convention of the American Psychological Association.
http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/08/120803193555.htm (first study only)
Older news items (pre-2010) brought over from the old website
First-time Internet users find boost in brain function after just 1 week
A study involving 24 older adults (55-78) who had minimal experience searching the internet, found that after conducting Internet searches for one hour a day for seven days (over a two-week period), they showed changes in brain activity — recruiting parts of the middle frontal gyrus and inferior frontal gyrus (areas important in working memory and decision-making). "The results suggest that searching online may be a simple form of brain exercise that might be employed to enhance cognition in older adults."
Moody, T.D., Gaddipati, H., Small, G.W. & Bookheimer, S.Y. 2009. Neural activation patterns in older adults following Internet training. Presented October 19 at the 2009 meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.
Alcoholics’ brains maintain language skills at a cost
Despite the damage done by alcoholism to the frontal lobes and cerebellum, areas involved in language processing, alcoholics' language skills appear to be relatively spared from alcohol's damaging effects. A new study of 12 alcoholic males and 12 healthy controls suggests that alcoholics develop compensatory mechanisms to maintain their language skills despite alcohol's damages. The comparable performance on an auditory language task between the two groups was underlain by different neural activity (specifically, the alcoholic group showed greater activity in the left middle frontal gyrus, the right superior frontal gyrus, and the cerebellar vermis). It seems likely that this wider activity comes at the expense of other tasks, thus reducing their ability to multitask.
Chanraud-Guillermo, S. et al. 2009. Imaging of Language-Related Brain Regions in Detoxified Alcoholics. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, Published Online 25 March
Autism's social struggles due to disrupted communication networks in brain
And a timely imaging study has now provided the clearest evidence to date that synchronization in what might be termed the Theory of Mind network is impaired in autistic people. The Theory of Mind network (which includes the medial frontal gyrus, the anterior paracingulate, and the right temporoparietal junction) is responsible for processing the intentions and thoughts of others. In the study 12 high-functioning autistic adults and 12 controls viewed animated interacting geometric figures, and then asked to select the word from several choices that best described the interaction. The control subjects were consistently better at inferring the intention from the action than the participants with autism were. Brain scans revealed that synchronization between the frontal and posterior regions in the network was reliably lower in the group with autism. The autistic participants' brains also showed much lower activation levels in the frontal regions, and an independent assessment of their Theory of Mind abilities found these reliably correlated with activation in the right temporoparietal junction. The findings point to the need to develop interventions that could target this problem, and also indicate a way to measure an intervention’s effectiveness.
Kana, R.K. et al. 2008. Atypical frontal-posterior synchronization of Theory of Mind regions in autism during mental state attribution. Social Neuroscience, Published online ahead of print 3 July
Chinese and English dyslexias stem from different brain abnormalities.
Dyslexia involves impairment in connecting the sight and sound of a word. In English, this is commonly seen in transpositions of letters, while in Chinese, the problem can affect how a person converts a symbol into both sound and meaning. Following an earlier study in which the brain areas involved in dyslexia were found to be different for English and Chinese readers, a new technique has confirmed and clarified the results. Chinese children with dyslexia had a significantly smaller left middle frontal gyrus than did Chinese children without the disorder, even though both groups had the same overall volume of gray matter. Intriguingly, this area is not associated with symbol recognition, but with working memory. Earlier research has found English-speaking dyslexics have less gray matter in the left parietal region. The findings also suggest that dyslexics in one language will probably not be dyslexic in the other.
Siok, W.T. et al. 2008. A structural–functional basis for dyslexia in the cortex of Chinese readers. PNAS, 105 (14), 5561-5566.
Having right timing 'connections' in brain is key to overcoming dyslexia
New research has found that key areas for language and working memory involved in reading are connected differently in dyslexics than in children who are good readers and spellers. But, after the children with dyslexia went through a three-week instructional program, their patterns of functional brain connectivity normalized and were similar to those of good readers. The study looked specifically at activity in the left and right inferior frontal gyrus. The left inferior frontal gyrus may control the communication between the different areas involved in language, especially spoken language, while the right is thought to be involved in controlling the processing of letters in written words. Prior to the treatment these two areas were overconnected in the dyslexics, and the left inferior frontal gyrus also was overconnected to the middle frontal gyrus, which is involved in working memory that requires temporal coordination. It is not yet known how long the improvement in connectivity is maintained.
Richards, T.L. & Berninger, V.W. 2007. Abnormal fMRI connectivity in children with dyslexia during a phoneme task: Before but not after treatment. Journal of Neurolinguistics, Available online 17 August 2007.
Exercise improves attention and decision-making among seniors
An imaging study involving adults ranging in age from 58 to 78 before and after a six-month program of aerobic exercise, found specific functional differences in the middle-frontal and superior parietal regions of the brain that changed with improved aerobic fitness. Consistent with the functions of these brain regions, those who participated in the aerobic-exercise intervention significantly improved their performance on a computer-based decision-making task. Those doing toning and stretching exercises did increase activation in some areas of the brain but not in those tied to better performance. Their performance on the task was not significantly different after the exercise program. The aerobic exercise used in the study involved gradually increasing periods of walking over three months. For the final three months of the intervention program, each subject walked briskly for 45 minutes in three sessions each week.
 . Cardiovascular fitness, cortical plasticity, and aging. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America [Internet]. 2004 ;101(9):3316 - 3321. Available from: http://www.pnas.org/content/101/9/3316.abstract
Training improves working memory capacity
Working memory capacity has traditionally been thought to be constant. Recent studies, however, suggest that working memory can be improved by training. In this recent imaging study, it was found that adults who practiced working memory tasks for 5 weeks showed increased brain activity in the middle frontal gyrus and superior and inferior parietal cortices. These changes could be evidence of training-induced plasticity in the neural systems that underlie working memory.
Olesen, P.J., Westerberg, H. & Klingberg, T. 2004. Increased prefrontal and parietal activity after training of working memory. Nature Neuroscience, 7(1), 75-9.