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J Cogn Neurosci. 2012 Aug;24(8):1664-70. doi: 10.1162/jocn_a_00240. Epub 2012 May 9.

White matter structure changes as adults learn a second language.

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  • 1Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH 03755, USA.

Abstract

Traditional models hold that the plastic reorganization of brain structures occurs mainly during childhood and adolescence, leaving adults with limited means to learn new knowledge and skills. Research within the last decade has begun to overturn this belief, documenting changes in the brain's gray and white matter as healthy adults learn simple motor and cognitive skills [Lövdén, M., Bodammer, N. C., Kühn, S., Kaufmann, J., Schütze, H., Tempelmann, C., et al. Experience-dependent plasticity of white-matter microstructure extends into old age. Neuropsychologia, 48, 3878-3883, 2010; Taubert, M., Draganski, B., Anwander, A., Müller, K., Horstmann, A., Villringer, A., et al. Dynamic properties of human brain structure: Learning-related changes in cortical areas and associated fiber connections. The Journal of Neuroscience, 30, 11670-11677, 2010; Scholz, J., Klein, M. C., Behrens, T. E. J., & Johansen-Berg, H. Training induces changes in white-matter architecture. Nature Neuroscience, 12, 1370-1371, 2009; Draganski, B., Gaser, C., Busch, V., Schuirer, G., Bogdahn, U., & May, A. Changes in grey matter induced by training. Nature, 427, 311-312, 2004]. Although the significance of these changes is not fully understood, they reveal a brain that remains plastic well beyond early developmental periods. Here we investigate the role of adult structural plasticity in the complex, long-term learning process of foreign language acquisition. We collected monthly diffusion tensor imaging scans of 11 English speakers who took a 9-month intensive course in written and spoken Modern Standard Chinese as well as from 16 control participants who did not study a language. We show that white matter reorganizes progressively across multiple sites as adults study a new language. Language learners exhibited progressive changes in white matter tracts associated with traditional left hemisphere language areas and their right hemisphere analogs. Surprisingly, the most significant changes occurred in frontal lobe tracts crossing the genu of the corpus callosum-a region not generally included in current neural models of language processing. These results indicate that plasticity of white matter plays an important role in adult language learning and additionally demonstrate the potential of longitudinal diffusion tensor imaging as a new tool to yield insights into cognitive processes.

PMID:
22571459
[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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