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Sunday, November 30, 2014

Older brains still learn, but maybe too much

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"If you ever noticed that you notice more as you get older, well, brain science may be on your side." according to Geoffrey Mohan, Los Angeles Times.

There's a catch, though: Lots of that visual information isn’t important, and it might be replacing more relevant stuff, like where you parked the car.

Seniors may be just as good as youngsters at processing visual information, but they may not be able to filter out what's irrelevant to the task, a new study suggests. Here, a recreation director in West Chester, Pa., works trivia questions on a tablet with seniors.
Photo: Los Angeles Times

A new study suggests that adults who are well into their 60s and 70s can learn visual information just as readily as the whippersnappers in the 19-to-30-year-old range, but the elders pick up much more irrelevant visual information than do their younger counterparts.

The findings could help clarify the nature of cognitive declines that come with age. At least for visual perceptual learning, older brains remain “plastic,” or changeable, but they may sacrifice stability — or long-term retention of information, the study suggests. And that’s because of a decline in the ability to suppress information that isn’t germane to the task at hand, according to the study.

“Our brain capacity is limited,” said Brown University neuroscientist Takeo Watanabe, coauthor of the study published online Wednesday in the journal Current Biology. “If you learn more unnecessary things, then there is a risk of replacing important, existing information in the brain with something trivial.”

That’s not a trivial matter. Watanabe and his fellow researchers from UC Riverside and National Yang-Ming University in Taiwan have been exploring how older people learn. A study they published this month showed that learning-related changes in one part of older people’s brains involved mainly white matter, while gray matter activity changed among the young.
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Additional resources 
White matter in the older brain is more plastic than in the younger brain. Published
Nature Communications 5, Article number: 5504 doi:10.1038/ncomms6504
Source: Los Angeles Times

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