By peering into students’ brains, a recent study, published in the journal NeuroImage, found that learning languages can help bulk up the brain.The researchers, from Lund University, compared the brains of students from the Swedish Armed Forces Interpreter Academy, who become fluent in languages within 13 months, to science students at Umeå University, who also study hard.
They took MRI scans before and after a three-month period of studying for these two groups of students. The brains of the science students did not change or grow but the brains of the language students experienced growth in areas of their cerebral cortex, which is related to language, and in their hippocampus, which is involved in learning new things.
This brain bulk could be a good thing when it comes to staying sharp later in life. In another paper published online in May 2011, by the journal Cortex, researcher Tom Schweizer and his team at Saint Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, looked at how bilingualism impacted cognitive decline that comes with Alzheimer’s disease.
They studied the brains of probable Alzheimer’s patients using CT scans. They matched bilingual patients up with those who only knew one language, but who had a similar level of cognitive performance and education. The brains of the bilingual patients were more degraded than the brains of patients who only spoke one language, though both had the same cognitive performance.
This means that even though the language speakers had more advanced disease, the Alzheimer’s symptoms weren’t as bad as they should have been. This indicates that more of their brain needs to degrade before their cognitive performance goes down. The researchers don’t know if this delay means that further Alzheimer’s symptoms would appear quicker in bilingual patients, since their brains are more degraded.
Evidence like this is building that the brain is still plastic and capable of growing and changing long into old age, and that this plasticity is important to keeping the brain healthy. The National Institute of Health recommends staying mentally active to help stave off mental decline. Learning a new language may give the brain the exercise it needs to stay healthy.
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