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
A study involving 159 older adults (average age 76) has confirmed that the amount of brain tissue in specific regions is a predictor of Alzheimer’s disease development. Of the 159 people, 19 were classified as at high risk on the basis of the smaller size of nine small regions previously shown to be vulnerable to Alzheimer's), and 24 as low risk. The regions, in order of importance, are the medial temporal, inferior temporal, temporal pole, angular gyrus, superior parietal, superior frontal, inferior frontal cortex, supramarginal gyrus, precuneus.
There was no difference between the three risk groups at the beginning of the study on global cognitive measures (MMSE; Alzheimer’s Disease Assessment Scale—cognitive subscale; Clinical Dementia Rating—sum of boxes), or in episodic memory. The high-risk group did perform significantly more slowly on the Trail-making test part B, with similar trends on the Digit Symbol and Verbal Fluency tests.
After three years, 125 participants were re-tested. Nine met the criteria for cognitive decline. Of these, 21% were from the small high-risk group (3/14) and 7% from the much larger average-risk group (6/90). None were from the low-risk group.
The results were even more marked when less stringent criteria were used. On the basis of an increase on the Clinical Dementia Rating, 28.5% of the high-risk group and 9.7% of the average-risk group showed decline. On the basis of declining at least one standard deviation on any one of the three neuropsychological tests, half the high-risk group, 35% of the average risk group, and 14% (3/21) of the low-risk group showed decline. (The composite criteria required both of these criteria.)
Analysis estimated that every standard deviation of cortical thinning (reduced brain tissue) was associated with a nearly tripled risk of cognitive decline.
The 84 individuals for whom amyloid-beta levels in the cerebrospinal fluid were available also revealed that 60% of the high-risk group had levels consistent with the presence of Alzheimer's pathology, compared to 36% of those at average risk and 19% of those at low risk.
The findings extend and confirm the evidence that brain atrophy in specific regions is a biomarker for developing Alzheimer’s.
 . MRI cortical thickness biomarker predicts AD-like CSF and cognitive decline in normal adults. Neurology [Internet]. 2012 ;78(2):84 - 90. Available from: http://www.neurology.org/content/78/2/84.abstract
Dickerson BC, Bakkour A, Salat DH, et al. 2009. The cortical signature of Alzheimer’s disease: regionally specific cortical thinning relates to symptom severity in very mild to mild AD dementia and is detectable in asymptomatic amyloidpositive individuals. Cereb Cortex;19:497–510.
Perhaps we should start thinking of language less as some specialized process and more as one approach to thought. A study involving native signers of American Sign Language (which has the helpful characteristic that subject-object relationships can be expressed in either of the two ways languages usually use: word order or inflection) has revealed that there are distinct regions of the brain that are used to process the two types of sentences: those in which word order determined the relationships between the sentence elements, and those in which inflection was providing the information. These brain regions are the ones designed to accomplish tasks that relate to the type of sentence they are trying to interpret. Word order sentences activated areas involved in working memory and lexical access, including the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the inferior frontal gyrus, the inferior parietal lobe, and the middle temporal gyrus. Inflectional sentences activated areas involved in building and analyzing combinatorial structure, including bilateral inferior frontal and anterior temporal regions as well as the basal ganglia and medial temporal/limbic areas. In other words, as an increasing body of evidence tells us, we process words in the same way as we do the concepts represented by the words; speaking (or reading) is, neutrally speaking, the same as doing.
 . Dissociating neural subsystems for grammar by contrasting word order and inflection. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [Internet]. 2010 ;107(16):7539 - 7544. Available from: http://www.pnas.org/content/107/16/7539.abstract
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.
Older adults less affected by sleep deprivation than younger adults
A study involving 33 older adults (59-82) and 27 younger adults (19-38) has found that while the younger adults all showed significance deterioration on three different cognitive tasks after 36 hours of sleep deprivation, the older adults did not. The finding may be due to only the healthiest older adults being chosen, suggesting that older adults who remain the healthiest late in life may be less vulnerable to a variety of stressors, not just sleep loss.
It’s worth noting that sleep deprivation affects some people more than others. A recent study has found that those with the short variant of the PERIOD3 (PER3) gene compensate for sleep loss by "recruiting" extra brain structures to help with cognitive tasks. Those with the long variant however, showed reduced activity in brain structures normally activated by the task. These participants also showed reduced brain activity in the right posterior inferior frontal gyrus after a normal waking day, a finding consistent with previous research suggesting that people with the long gene variant perform better on executive tasks earlier, but not later, in the day (see http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2009-06/sfn-gph062409.php).
Wang, R.L. et al. 2009. Older Adults are Less Vulnerable to Sleep Deprivation than Younger Adults during Cognitive Performance. Presented on June 10 at SLEEP 2009, the 23rd Annual Meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies; Abstract ID: 0420.
Neural substrate of congenital amusia
Research has shown that musicians have more gray matter in certain regions of the brain involved in language and auditory processing. Now a study of tone-deaf people reveals that congenital amusia, thought to be due to a severe deficit in the processing of pitch information, is also associated with differences in gray matter distribution. Tone-deaf individuals had a thicker cortex in the right inferior frontal gyrus and right auditory cortex. This may be due to abnormal neuronal migration or atypical cell pruning during development.
Hyde, K.L. et al. 2007. Cortical Thickness in Congenital Amusia: When Less Is Better Than More. The Journal of Neuroscience, 27(47), 13028-13032.
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.
Brain networks change according to cognitive task
Using a newly released method to analyze functional magnetic resonance imaging, researchers have demonstrated that the interconnections between different parts of the brain are dynamic and not static. Moreover, the brain region that performs the integration of information shifts depending on the task being performed. The study involved two language tasks, in which subjects were asked to read individual words and then make a spelling or rhyming judgment. Imaging showed that the lateral temporal cortex (LTC) was active for the rhyming task, while the intraparietal sulcus (IPS) was active for the spelling task. The inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) and the fusiform gyrus (FG) were engaged by both tasks. However, Dynamic Causal Modeling (the new method for analyzing imaging data) revealed that the network took different configurations depending on the goal of the task, with each task preferentially strengthening the influences converging on the task-specific regions (LTC for rhyming, IPS for spelling). This suggests that task specific regions serve as convergence zones that integrate information from other parts of the brain. Additionally, switching between tasks led to changes in the influence of the IFG on the task-specific regions, suggesting the IFG plays a pivotal role in making task-specific regions more or less sensitive. This is consistent with previous studies showing that the IFG is active in many different language tasks and plays a role in integrating brain regions.
Bitan, T., Booth, J.R., Choy, J., Burman, D.D., Gitelman, D.R. & Mesulam, M-M. 2005. Shifts of Effective Connectivity within a Language Network during Rhyming and Spelling. Journal of Neuroscience, 25, 5397-5403.