• Question: I just read an article (https://goo.gl/JrK5yY) that says neurons do not grow past early adolescence. It does say that its perhaps connections that are more important anyway, but what is the understanding about learning as we get older? Is it inevitably more difficult and - if so - how can we compensate to work smarter?

    Asked by Abena to Sveta, Matt, Lucía, Lorna, Kathryn, Jacob, Iroise, Emma, Courtenay, Camilla on 27 Mar 2018.
    • Photo: Emma Meaburn

      Emma Meaburn answered on 27 Mar 2018:


      Hi there. Great question, and somewhat tricky for me to answer — I had to turn to Iroise Dumontheil (@Iroise) to help me fully answer your question! Neurons don’t grow past adolescence, but connections between them (synapses) get created and removed throughout development. There are critical periods of more activity though, with early infancy being a period of synapse creation (synaptogenesis), and adolescence being a period of synaptic removal (synaptic pruning). This is off-topic, but some disorders that typically emerge in early adulthood (such as Schizophrenia) are thought in part to be due to over active synaptic pruning during adolescence.

      In terms of learning, practise improves performance regardless of age.

    • Photo: Lucía Magis Weinberg

      Lucía Magis Weinberg answered on 30 Mar 2018:


      Hi! We have increasing evidence that networks of neurons, including both the structural connections between them, as well, as shared patterns of firing activity, are key for behaviour, including learning. As Emma Meaburn pointed out, one important structural change in adolescence is the strengthening of connections that already exist. Longer-range connections between brain regions get more and more myelinated (covered in a fatty substance that improves transmission of signals in the cells). A new area of research is now describing the architecture of these networks. It seems that during adolescence, the brain networks become increasingly segregated into more distinct modules. So to recap, there are many other mechanisms supporting learning and other processes beyond the need for new neurons.

      For some abilites, but not all, aging can make things a bit more difficult. There are certainly aspects in which older individuals will perform better than younger participants, as they have more experience to draw from. In general, we have strong evidence that physical health plays a key role in brain health: aerobic and anaerobic exercise is an important protective factor at all ages.

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