Brain plasticity does not decrease with age


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Every time you lose your keys or blank out someone’s name, you may feel like your brain, year after year, isn’t working as well as it used to.

New research, however, pushes back the belief that plasticity, the brain’s ability to respond to change, declines in the adult and aging brain, reports Caitlin Gilbert, a neuroscientist and science writer who recently joined the Well+Being team.

This week, Caitlin reported on a fascinating project by an international team of researchers to collect brain scan data representing 101,457 brains across all life stages. The analysis of the youngest in the study was from a 16-week fetus; the oldest was a centenarian.

The study allowed the researchers to create a sort of roadmap, explaining how brains age over the course of a lifetime. From infancy and childhood through adolescence and adulthood, the brain adapts to its circumstances.

Babies’ brains are like sponges, absorbing huge amounts of information. The brains of toddlers and children are equipped to process emotions, interact in social contexts and develop more complex communication skills. And as we age, brain development is influenced by experiences such as community engagement, lifestyle choices, or exposure to stress or toxins.

One of the most exciting findings from Caitlin’s reporting challenges the idea that older brains can’t learn new tricks.

A recent study looked at the brains of adult mice. It showed the presence of “silent synapses”, connections that are dormant until recruited to help form new memories. Many of these synapses, which are the connections between neurons, form early in life and help explain why babies’ brains can learn languages ​​and tons of other new things in a relatively short amount of time.

But while these synapses have long been associated with early development, the new research confirms their widespread presence in the adult human brain. This synaptic wiring “expands the learning abilities of the mature brain”, report the study authors.

The results have upended the way scientists look at the brain and suggest that your brain may change dynamically throughout adulthood.

“The good news,” Caitlin reports, is that “unlike other parts of the body, our brain is designed to change over the course of our lives, meeting the challenges posed by each stage of life.”

To learn more about the brain at every stage of life, read Caitlin’s first article for The Washington Post: How Does the Brain Age Across Life? New studies offer clues.

And don’t stop there. My colleagues in the Office of Health and Science, Pooh Shapiro and Mary-Ellen Deily, compiled this special report on the brain.

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