Human brain learning age

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Like the saying, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks, " the aging human brain has a tough time learning from new experiences, suggests a study on rats showing tiny brain-cell structures needed for this process get quite rigid in their twilight years.

Rats are generally reliable models for human brain studies, so the results should hold for us, the researchers say.

The researchers looked at the prefrontal cortex, the brain region that controls various cognitive processes and plays a role in higher learning. They knew that brain cells in the prefrontal cortex of young animals are really flexible, or plastic. Life experiences, particularly those that involve learning, can profoundly alter the circuitry in this brain region. [10 Things You Didn't Know About the Brain]

For example, stress causes nerve cells to shrink and lose synapses, or the connections between nerve cells where communication occurs. Once the stressful experience ends, these brain cells recover — they are plastic, flexible — or at least they do in young animals.

Stressed brain

After stressing out the rats, the researchers looked at close-up images of structures on nerve cells called spines that form synapses and are critical for learning. These spines "are modified when you learn something, " said study researcher John Morrison, a professor of neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. "In a sense, that's where learning occurs."

In the young rats, the brain cells lost many of their spines, which grew back after a stress-free period. However, in middle-age and old rats, the spines didn't change at all. Another change seen due to stress was a shortening of branchlike projections on neurons called dendrites. And while these dendrites recovered in young rats, they didn't in the aging rodents.

"The way we interpret that is that with aging you lose a lot of the capacity to have experience-induced plasticity, " Morrison told LiveScience, adding that learning is the classic example of this type of plasticity. "So we think this gives us a really good working model for why with age you have these cognitive declines and impaired learning."

They suspect the problem occurs when a rat, or person, loses these spines as they age; the ones that go are the spry spines with lots of plasticity, leaving the more rigid ones behind. These spines can't effectively respond to stress or learning, he said.

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Q&A

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At what age does the human brain stop growing and learning?

i believe it is at the age of 15
I believe the neuronal connections between the emotional (limbic) system of the brain, and the prefrontal cortex do not finish forming until a person is in their late twenties. It has been stated that teenagers cannot easily distinguish between facial expressions, in regards to the emotions being displayed. An example of this is the difference between a picture of a person displaying shock, and another of the person displaying rage. Quite often teens, if I'm not mistaken, mix up the images, along with others. This development is part of the cortical grow…

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