#CAN13 Can a second language slow down brain aging?

Poster: Lifelong Bilingualism Is Associated With Larger Grey And White Matter Volumes In The Temporal Lobe. RK Olsen et al. Rotman Reserach Institute Baycrest.


A second language is always useful

Here’s another reason to learn a second language: bilingualism staves off “senile moments” well into your 70s.

With aging, our cognition inevitably declines – some faster than others. One brake that slows this process is the ability to fluently speak two or more languages. Researchers have long known that bilinguals’ brains are more resilient to age-related damage than monolinguals. In elderly bilinguals, even when cellular signs of aging are present, their minds stay sharp.

Why do bilinguals have this “cognitive reserve” to buffer aging? Researchers recruited 14 lifelong monolinguals and bilinguals to participate in a brain-imaging study. To qualify, the bilinguals had to have mastered both languages before 11 years old, and remained proficient at the time of testing. Researchers used two imaging techniques (MRI and Diffusion Tensor Imaging, for those interested) to look at brain volume and wiring between the two hemispheres.


Super simplified, but pretty accurate. Source: http://healthpages.org/

Compared to monolinguals, bilinguals had greater brain volume in both frontal and temporal lobes, areas important for reasoning and language, respectively (and much, much more, of course!). On closer inspection, the amount of neuronal bodies (“grey matter”) wasn’t different between the two groups. What was different was the amount of “white matter”, or number of neuronal projections and glial cells, in both lobes. This was associated with greater white matter integrity in the left frontal lobe, and those between the two brain hemispheres.

Researchers think that greater white matter volume and integrity in bilinguals may explain their resistance to brain aging and cognitive decline. At the moment this is purely correlational. It’s possible that bilinguals also like to be cognitive challenged in other ways, leading to similar changes. But I’ll take it. Many questions remain. Can a second language learned later in life have the same effect? What about sign language? What other changes are going on in the brain with language learning and use? Can learning a second language in youth stop or slow neurodegeneration later in life?


PS. In other neuro-news:

High visceral fat is associated with low cognitive (executive) function in female but not male adolescents. Total body fat didn’t seem to matter. The study included 983 kids aged 12-18. (Visceral Fat Is Associated With Lower Executive Functioning In Adolescents. Deborah H Schwartz, Rotman Research Institute, Toronto)

A high fat diet lowers long-term potentiation, a process associated with learning and memory, in female rats. But we don’t know why. (Diet-Induced Obesity Disrupts Hippocampal Synaptic Plasticity and May Alter NMDA Receptor Subunit Expression in Female Animals. Dimitri Pavlov. University of Waterloo)

A dietary supplement, CDP-choline, seems to improve attention in people who can’t pay attention. This was measured by both brain waves (P300, EEG) and performance. All it took was 1 dose of 500mg. CDP-choline seems to be acting through the alpha7 nicotinic receptor. On the other hand, the same dose impaired performance of naturally attentive people. Cognitive enhancer? Probably not. (The Use of CDP-Choline to Modulate Cognitive Processes and Brain State Arousal Implicated in Schizophrenia: A Pilot Study in Healthy Volunteers. Sara I De La Salle. Institute of Mental Health Research, University of Ottawa)


12 thoughts on “#CAN13 Can a second language slow down brain aging?

  1. Great, so with 4 languages i can be senile free till 90? I look forward to sitting in a chair in a retirement home tossing a ball around and still knowing the names of my cellmates. Pity they most likely won’t know mine though.

    • 4 languages!? Amazing.
      I asked about this buy the researchers aren’t sure if knowing more than 2 languages is even more beneficial than 2. It might be a on-off thing. Switching between languages really stressed the language and cognitive control parts of the brain, and like a muscle, the more you use it the stronger the fibers get (in a sense).
      Out of curiosity, what languages do you speak and when did you learn them?

      • Personally i found that at a young age you can switch languages on the run, as you get older they start to overlap. In grammar, style, words and at a certain point you don’t know which language you are speaking/writing confusing the heck out of many people you address.
        My wife i address in the last language i was using, but she only speaks french so that doesn’t work well 🙂

        I used to do 5 languages, but 1 got so rusty i can hardly use it. Hebrew. French/english/german i learned at school and kept it up by travelling/reading a lot. And ofcourse my native language.

      • I’ve noticed it as well. I’ve started mixing up Chinese and English in the last couple of years, while back as a teenager I could juggle those two with Japanese and some Flemish without blinking. Makes one wonder what’s going on in the brain!

      • Interesting stuff. Overlap i guess. With age the pathways from the specific language to the language center get evenly reinforced if sufficiently used so the first one out of the gate wins. I often write a mix of dutch and English, but speak French in Dutch grammar, although the 2 couldn’t be more different if you tried. Also Dutch grammar turns into English grammar probably because Dutch is the least spoken language. Which language do you think in?

      • Depends on who I’m with. When I go back to china I definitely think in Chinese, but here it’s mostly in English. I also dream in English (mixed occasionally with Japanese). I guess it’s an example of adapting to your surrounding environment.

  2. China: Unilingual Woes | Exploring: Finance, China, and Beyond

  3. Hi
    that sounds impressing.
    by the way can you kindly give me the reference for the paragraph on the difference in brain volume in frontal and temporal lobe?
    I am working in the same field and I am writing my thesis. I have to go through this study.
    many thanks in advance

    • Hi Ghazal! Unfortunately those results were presented as a conference poster – the actual paper isn’t out yet. The author is RK Olsen from Rotman Reserach Institute Baycrest if you want to keep an eye on it.

  4. Fat cells feel cold? – Neurorexia

  5. Mental exercise wards of dementia in old age – Neurorexia

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s