Bilingualism Protects Elder's Cognition

New research suggests learning a new language is a healthy mental challenge as brain networks are stimulated both structurally and functionally.

Pennsylvania State researchers believe the brain improves with the correct amount of stress in a similar manner by which muscles improve with training.

“Learning and practicing something, for instance a second language, strengthens the brain,” said Ping Li, professor of psychology, linguistics, and information sciences and technology.

Li and colleagues studied 39 native English speakers’ brains over a six-week period as half of the participants learned Chinese vocabulary.

They discovered those who were more successful in attaining the information showed a more connected brain network than both the less successful participants and those who did not learn the new vocabulary.

The researchers also found that the participants who were successful learners had a more connected network than the other participants even before learning took place. A better-integrated brain network is more flexible and efficient, making the task of learning a new language easier.

The results of the study are published in the Journal of Neurolinguistics.

Researchers defined brain network efficiency by the strength and direction of connections, or edges, between brain regions of interest, or nodes. The stronger the edges going from one node to the next, the faster the nodes can work together, and the more efficient the network.

Participants each underwent two fMRI scans — one before the experiment began and one after — in order for the researchers to track neural changes. At the end of the study period, the researchers found that the brains of the successful learners had undergone functional changes — the brain network was better integrated.

These changes suggested are consistent with anatomical changes that can occur in the brain as a result of learning a second language, no matter the age of the learner, says Li.

“A very interesting finding is that, contrary to previous studies, the brain is much more plastic than we thought,” said Li.

“We can still see anatomical changes in the brain [in the elderly], which is very encouraging news for aging. And learning a new language can help lead to more graceful aging.”

Source: Pennsylvania State University