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15.11.2017 | The Brain Auditions Different Cells

The brain’s gray matter increases and then decreases again during learning


For decades, neuroscientists have wondered how the brain can continue to learn new skills without needing to grow in size or volume over a person’s lifetime. Evidence suggests that the number of brain cells – such as neurons and glial cells – does initially increase as we’re learning, but many are eventually pruned away or assigned to other roles. Researchers from Germany and Sweden present this theory in the review journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

“Brain matter volume increases in the initial stages of learning, and then renormalizes partially or completely,” says first author Elisabeth Wenger, a neuroscientist at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin. “This seems to be an effective way for the brain to first explore the possibilities, call in different structures and cell types, select the best ones, and get rid of the ones that are no longer needed.”

Metaphorically, she describes brain cells as actors auditioning for a movie for which the brain is the director: The brain calls in the candidates by forming new cells, and this causes it to grow macroscopically in volume. The brain then tries out different functions for them—seeing which can store or carry the information best; and these are kept. The other candidates are then dismissed or assigned to different roles.

As evidence, the researchers present a study in which right-handed people learned to write and draw with their left hands. After a month, their brain volume had increased, but three weeks later it was nearly back to normal. Researchers made similar observations in other studies, in which monkeys learned to use a rake to retrieve food or rats learned to differentiate between sounds.

Wenger and her co-authors Claudio Brozzoli, Ulman Lindenberger, and Martin Lövdén were surprised by how often the phenomenon of brain expansion and renormalization has already been noted in animal studies, and predict that it also applies to human brains. “We are definitely not the first to suggest or introduce the expansion–renormalization model,” says Wenger. “I think we are just the ones who are now promoting it in the field of grey matter volume changes in humans.”

The researchers believe that this theory should influence how researchers design studies of the brain. “It has now become clear that the typical design with two measurement occasions is just insufficient to capture the full scope of changes that happen,” Wenger says. “This theory calls for study designs with more measurement time points to properly display changes in brain volume.”

This work was supported by the Max Planck Society, the European Research Council, the Swedish Research Council, the European University Institute in Florence, and the Agence Nationale de la Recherche.

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Further information: 

Wenger, E., Brozzoli, C., Lindenberger, U., & Lövdén, M. (2017). Expansion and renormalization of human brain structure during skill acquisition. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 21(12), 930-939. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2017.09.008

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