07. Learning

Can You Optimize Your Brain's Capacity to Learn?

October 26, 2016

It’s no secret, children have a tremendous capacity to learn! In fact, from the age of 3 to 9, the brain uses more energy than at any other time in life. It’s for that specific reason that scientists are investigating ways to regain youthful neural plasticity in adults.

Neural Plasticity in Children

Scientists describe children’s brains as “plastic,” meaning they have the incredible ability to change and actually do so. This process physically alters and directs the development of connections between different parts of the brain. Technically, the same process happens in adults too, but to nowhere near the same degree.

So, in children, the connections that get used most often will expand and strengthen. At the same time, other physical changes occur that allow messages in the brain to be transmitted more quickly and efficiently. As a result, a child’s actions require less thought, and thought itself becomes more rapid.

It’s no wonder, therefore, that in early childhood kids can pick up two languages as easily as they can learn one. Or that during the same time period musical training makes it easier to acquire the skill known as perfect or absolute pitch. Musical pitch is considered a pretty effective way to evaluate how plastic a brain is.

Loss of Neural Connections

Unfortunately, as we age, we lose much of that plasticity. Neural connections that are not being used begin to die off. This process is known as pruning. While it may sound shocking, pruning is actually natural and necessary. The human brain starts out with far more connections than any child (or adult) needs. For instance, some of these connections are what gives children the ability to make the sounds for every language on the planet.

But, a cluttered brain can’t function well, so unused connections have to be discarded. Although, with the demand to learn new skills quickly in the modern world, it’s natural to feel jealous of children’s abilities to learn.

Research to Regain Plasticity

A study published in 2013 examined if adults might be able to gain back youthful neural plasticity. In the experiment, “musically naïve” young men were given an antidepressant named Valproate.

The drug was chosen because it suppresses a protein that seems to act as a brake during the critical period when kids best learn musical pitch. The antidepressant significantly boosted the young adult men’s ability to learn to identify specific musical pitches in comparison to the men given a placebo.

It should be mentioned, however, that at this stage, the research is far from conclusive. The size of the test group was small and only included men of a certain age group. In addition, it’s not too surprising that drugs may transform the ways our minds operate. Drugs that have an effect on the brain, from antidepressants to psychedelics, may cause powerful long-lasting changes. Many of which we’re just starting to learn about.

Additional Research Needed

As time progresses, scientists are learning more about the brain’s ability to change. For instance, scientists have learned about the brain’s ability to generate new neurons via exercise. It seems that reopening plasticity is still in its very early stage of development. So while it’s far from being used for practical applications, its potential definitely seems promising.

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