a gyrus in the middle part of the frontal lobe.
A new study adds to the growing evidence for the cognitive benefits of learning a new language, and hints at why some people might be better at this than others.
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.
 Mårtensson, J., Eriksson J., Bodammer N C., Lindgren M., Johansson M., Nyberg L., et al.
(2012). Growth of language-related brain areas after foreign language learning.
NeuroImage. 63(1), 240 - 244.
Two recent conference presentations add to the evidence for the benefits of ‘brain training’, and of mental stimulation, for holding back age-related cognitive decline.
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)
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