Imagine reseachers finding out that you can teach an old dog new tricks, uncovering the aging brains ongoing ability to sense, encode and assimilate new information and redevelop previous connection between brain cells to maintain and consolidate knowledge. Well you don’t have imagine because that is what they have found. The Secret To Not Losing Your Marbles by Lianne George of Macleans.ca tells you how.
It used to be held as religion among neurology experts that the brain was plastic, or malleable, in our infancy; after that, its infrastructure was set. “Within the last five to 10 years, I used to teach — we all used to teach — that when you’re older, your brain is finished, kaputsky,” says Stuss. “[This idea] was actually the basis of a Nobel Prize that was awarded to two scientists from Harvard — David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel — and it was largely horses–t,” says Merzenich. “Their notion was that the brain developed into mature functionality by the end of this critical period and beyond that period, it was like a computer — every neuron knew what to do.” A person had a finite number of brain cells and once they were gone, they were gone. But if this were true, says Merzenich, how do you account for learning? “You can learn to play the piano if you’re 70 if you really want to, through driving your brain to master that ability. The brain is plastic through a lifetime.You never lose your ability to acquire ability.”
This lifelong ability to adapt, called brain plasticity, and the ability to generate new brain cells, called neurogenesis, are now heralded as the twin pillars of aging smart. Research conducted by Merzinich and others in the ’80s and ’90s was among the first to prove they work. In early studies, they observed the deterioration of aging rats. “They gradually lost their ability to control their paws,” says Merzenich. “They struggled to feed themselves by manipulating food and ultimately, they lost control of hind limbs, dragging them around.” Using brain imaging technologies, scientists found that part of the problem was the poor quality of sensory information the rats were receiving at this stage of life. When the rats were directed to perform certain activities in a particular manner and order, Merzenich and his colleagues found they could help them recuperate their motor skills and prolong their lives by 15 to 20 per cent. “The rats didn’t lose their mobility for an extra three months,” says Merzenich. “And when you looked inside the brain of the rat, you had actually restored substantially the quality of information that was coming from the paw. The point is, these kind of experiments demonstrated that you could take these very old brains — rats, not humans of course — and you could drive them to learn things and acquire new skills.”
As a 34 year old, I’m grateful that this research has come out now while I’m still young enough to do something about it, but the finds are very encouraging for the older generation too, in fact, even more encouraging. I’m active, healthy and still learning, this is one of the most enlighening periods of my life so I’m feeling pretty confident about the present state of my cognitive functioning. The future is bright with technological discoveries so there’s a good chance they’ll come up with something that will help my ailing brain when the time comes. But for older people who have been burned with the “can’t teach an old dog new tricks” stigma, the findings are great news, provided they are willing to invest in getting their brain functioning back. Like most changes, it is going to require effort but while your brain isn’t the sponge it used to be but it will still absorb whatever you immerse it in.