Can old dogs learn new tricks? Why, sure they can, and so can we! The understanding among society has been that older people cannot learn as well as younger individuals. New findings contradict the notion that older generations have less flexibility in the brain. This flexibility (plasticity) is how the brain absorbs new information, thus forming knowledge. The assumption has been that older brains lack a great deal of this plasticity, and the vast majority of opinions state that learning is basically over. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
It seems that senior citizens can indeed learn new things, just as younger people. Researchers at Brown University found, during a study of mature brains, that plasticity did occur, which enabled the older generation to learn new things. The interesting discovery was that this plasticity occurred in completely different areas of the brain, as opposed to the areas used by the younger generation test subjects.
How it works
Learning can be contributed to something called white matter. White matter, for those of you who might not know, is the wiring system of the brain, or axons. These “wires” are covered in myelin, which makes transmission of information easier.
The younger generation, when learning now information, has plasticity of the white matter in the cortex. This is exactly where neuroscientists expected and the well-known learning center of the brain. Strange as it may seem, the older generation utilizes a completely different area of the brain when learning. When new information is introduced, the white matter of the brain is significantly changed, but this not your younger generation’s white matter learning center at all.
Takeo Watanabe, the Fred M. Seed professor from Brown University, suggested that older people have a limited amount of white matter in the cortex, due to aging. When new information is introduced, the white matter is then restructured elsewhere.
Only tests could conclusively prove these findings, and with 18 individuals aged 65 to 80 and 21 individuals aged 19 to 32, scientists were able to understand how learning occurred in these varied groups. During the studies, each participant was shown a picture with lines going in one direction. As the individuals observed the patterns, the lines would change, moving across the screen as a patch of noticeable difference. Findings show that older individuals were just as prone to catch the difference and learn how to spot other changes in the images texture. Scientists were not, however, just concerned about whether or not older people could learn as well as the younger ones. They had other objectives. Scientists also wanted to understand the reaction of white matter within the brain and how it changed from one age group to the other.
The second part of the test was conducted using the same basic technique, but focused on the reaction of the cortex. With each participant, the patch image was placed in the center of the visual field. This allowed only the cortex to focus on the image. Scientists were focusing on the gray and white matter of the brain. In this case, findings were different and very interesting.
Scientists discovered that younger learners had a drastic change in the cortex while older individuals had a very large difference only in the white matter of the brain. In both groups, changes occurred in this focused visual field of testing.
The strangest finding was that the older generation group become divided into two distinct parts: good learners and bad learners. It seems that those who learned well had a distinct white matter change and those who learned poorly had the same change. This portion of the test cannot be explained.
So, can old dogs really learn new tricks? Yes, but maybe it’s a little harder for some than others. It has been established, however, that the older generation as a whole can still learn new things, and seem to undergo a metamorphosis of sorts within the brain. Maybe the correlation between losing the pigment in hair and re-establishing white matter usage could be connected, who knows. One thing is for sure, we should never take for granted the wisdom and the continued intellect of our elders, and the ongoing discoveries of science!